20 years to launch

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

At least we are not alone; Ninoy Aquino International Airport, hindi ka nag-iisa.

Last Wednesday night (our time), news broke about a “power outage” that prompted the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ground nearly 10,000 flights in that country.

The problem, however, was fixed in just 90 minutes and flights, although delayed, gradually resumed.

Yesterday, the FAA identified the cause of the outage as a “damaged database file” that corrupted both the main system and its backup. The FAA ruled out a cyber attack.

An FAA official said an engineer had “replaced one file with another” in the NOTAM or Notice to Air Missions system – used to notify pilots and airport ground personnel of special alerts and hazards. The FAA described it as an “honest mistake that cost the country millions.”

In the case of the Jan. 1 breakdown of the Communications, Navigation and Surveillance system for Air Traffic Management at the NAIA, a defective cooling fan was pinpointed as the cause of the CNS / ATM’s uninterrupted power supply breaking down. Unfortunately, the back-up UPS also failed to kick in.

It took several days, and viral jokes about the foolishness of plugging a 220-volt line into the 380-volt commercial grid, which fried the CNS / ATM, before authorities pinned the blame not on human error but on a defective circuit breaker.

Finally taking a direct hand in the mess, President Marcos visited the NAIA, apologized to the public for the national embarrassment, commended the response of the officials concerned, and said emergency procurements were being made for UPS and circuit breakers.

The “technical issues” that shut down Philippine airspace on the first day of the year, however, keep branching out into other issues.

*      *      *

It looks like there’s more than just politically motivated chismis to the story that P13 billion supposed to be spent for the maintenance of the CNS / ATM instead went to “beautification” of the airport.

Even before the pandemic in 2019, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) had reportedly proposed a P139-million project to upgrade four to five CNS / ATM subsystems, to ensure that all data are backed up and protected from corruption.

When the new administration came in, CAAP reportedly proposed on Aug. 31 last year the installation of an independent backup for the CNS / ATM, to be placed in another location, at a cost of P13 billion.

There were also initial reports about CAAP personnel muttering under their breath that money for CNS / ATM maintenance went to the pandemic response (P3 billion for the “Bayanihan” fund in pandemic year 2020). According to some reports, CAAP has not yet fully paid for the system, even after the warranty for it has expired. The Turkish maker now reportedly wants full payment first and a fee to resume the regular maintenance work.

Transport Secretary Jaime Bautista said the CAAP conducts daily inspection of the system. He said the UPS has a battery with a four-year life, which was last changed in 2020.

*      *      *

There is another aspect of this story that should cause public dismay.

As Bautista told “The Chiefs” last week on Cignal TV’s One News, it took not just 10 but 20 years from its conception, and 18 years from project approval to get the CNS / ATM on stream.

Bautista told us that the idea of replacing the “near-manual” air traffic management operation at the NAIA with the CNS / ATM came up way back in 1998.

In 2000, the National Economic and Development Authority approved the program, with a projected cost of P2.5 billion, to be financed partly from a loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The loan agreement was signed with JICA in 2002.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration commissioned a consultant to prepare the terms of reference. The TOR was finished in 2005, but the contract was awarded only on Feb. 13, 2008.

It took another two years, in November 2010, before the government signed package 1 of a joint venture agreement with Japan’s Sumitomo and Thales Australia. Construction began the next month, following a down payment taken from the JICA loan. Contract package 2 was signed in April 2011.

A month later, however, the project was stopped by the Commission on Audit “because of corruption questions,” Bautista said. The down payment for package 1 was disallowed, and the COA probe went on for about two years. The COA lifted the disallowance only in May 2013, and the project finally resumed only in August of that year.

Work on the installation of the CNS / ATM system began in 2016. The project was finally finished in October 2017 and turned over to the CAAP. The ATM Center was inaugurated by Rodrigo Duterte in January 2018.

So the CNS / ATM technology is vintage 2010. Bautista clarified that the system “is not outdated because it is functioning… as what was agreed with the contractor.”

“We never said it is outdated. We said it is in its midlife,” he told us, so the airport management should be ready for an upgrade, replacement or back-up for “business continuity.”

Let’s hope the “emergency procurement” of the UPS, the back-up UPS and circuit breaker will not take another 20 years.

*      *      *

Similar problems hound many other worthy projects in our country. They are among the reasons why Philippine infrastructure development, once among the best in the region, now lags behind its neighbors.

Among the other contracts scrapped in 2011 during Noynoy Aquino’s administration, for example, were those for 66 of 72 modular roll on-roll off projects awarded to Eiffel-Matiere SAS. The French consortium strongly denied any anomalies in the contract and protested the cancellation. The government-owned Eiffel is a descendant of the company that built France’s Eiffel Tower.

The RO-RO project was partly financed with official development assistance from France, approved when its finance secretary was Christine Lagarde, who would later become the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

In 2019, the Duterte administration revived the RO-RO project.

BBM can use his immense political capital to push some of the necessary reforms to fast-track infrastructure projects.

As the NAIA fiasco is showing, however, dramatic changes are also needed in areas that enjoy considerable autonomy from the executive, notably the judiciary, the regulatory agencies and local government units.

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