Europe’s top businessmen have urged two leading agencies of the government to adopt drastic measures to upgrade the country’s civil aviation, or face the consequence of being bypassed by the international business community.
In an April 19, 2012, letter to Secretary Manuel Roxas II of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and Secretary Ramon Jimenez of the Department of Tourism, the president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) said, “Our concern is shared by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)…” saying that the Philippine government should realize at the highest level of the potential disruption or serious decline in the air-navigation services and be urged to assure the safe operation of flights in Philippine airspace.”
Hubert d’Aboville added that the ICAO calls for “urgent actions” to replace the “vintage” air-traffic management system of the Philippines.
According to the ECCP president, their own research discovered that the existing Area Control Center (ACC) is 16 years old and no replacement parts for its radar are available anymore.
The ACC radar, acquired in 2005 and with an expected shelf life of 10 to 12 years, has since been bogging aviation down. Some of its parts were provided by Australia but a complete set is no longer available.
“We were told it [radar] could stop working altogether at any time with serious consequences for air safety, not to mention an economic impact across the country, “ d’Aboville said.
He mentioned supposedly unreported near-crashers close to the country’s premier Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) in the past year.
In one of these supposed incidents, according to d’Aboville, a foreign airline about to land almost collided with a domestic carrier and, minutes later, narrowly avoided a second mid-air crash with another airplane.
“If not for the quick reactions of the pilots, this would have been the worst air disaster in Philippine history,” he said.
The ECCP president added that many of these supposedly near-misses were not reported buy air-traffic controllers to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap) but were forwarded to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), “which keeps a long list of failures of the Philippine airspace-control system.”
“Air-traffic controllers told us of a ‘black hole’ in Philippine airspace with no one controlling the planes flying through it,” d’Aboville said.
The ECCP head added that the incident he had cited was reinforced in a January 12, 2012 article in the Business Mirror, which reported that an equipment display used to guide airplanes toward Naia broke down on more than two weeks.
“This happened during the airport’s busiest time of year- Christmas and New Year- with airplanes landing and taking off literally every minute,” d’Aboville said.
He added that solutions have been in the works for years, such as the P9.6 billion Communication Navigation Surveillance/ Air Traffic Management (CNS/ ATM) Project.
But Roxas, fearing that the project, which was signed during the early years of the Aquino administration, was tainted with corruption, stopped the project in July 2011. President Aquino started his six-year term in 2010.
The CNS/ATM project calls for installation of radars, satellite dishes and communications equipment all over the country. If Roxas relented and began the project today, it would not be ready until 2015, Caap sources said.
D’aboville said the Icao told the DOTC to immediately expedite implementation of a new generation of air navigation systems through the CNS/ATM project.
“This project, or part of it, need to be implemented without further delay. If disaster strikes, an air accident [for example], the repercussions would be incalculable for this country and [the Aquino] administration,” he added.
Among the other problems of the country’s aviation sector, d’Aboville said, are the Icao’s Significant Safety Concerns (SSCs) the downgrading to Category 2 by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European union ban on Philippine-registered-aircraft into EU airspace.
Five years ago, the Icao found 89 SSCs against the then- Air Transportation Office (ATO), prompting the FAA to downgrade the country to category 2 from Category 1. The EU followed a few years later, banning Philippine air carriers form flying in European skies.
All SSCs, except for the upgrading of personnel, have been addressed.
The newly appointed Caap director general, William K. Hotchkiss III, interviewed at the sidelines of the Philippine Air Traffic Controller Association’s 50th anniversary celebration, said, “The way I see it, it’s internal.”
D’aboville said it is the view of the ECCP that the government should address the Significant Safety Concerns of Icao and the EU ban first, since it could be done faster that achieving the FAA’s upgrade to Category 1.
On the upgrade, Hotchkiss said, “We only have one road map, and that is Icao.”
“So, if FAA has some advice for us, we will take it, the European civil aviation has some advice to us, we will take it [also]. But our road map is toward Icao, we [will] conform with Icao protocols by strengthening our own regulatory systems here and that is how we propose to go [where] category 1 is concerned, “the Caap chief added.
The ECCP believes that it would take at least two to three years for the Caap to satisfy all the requirements needed for the Category 1 upgrade and suggested that the Philippines follow the Indonesians by outsourcing certain Caap functions for the next three years.
Indonesia, Curacao, Mexico and few other countries were also downgraded by the FAA to Category 2 status. This meant that these countries could no longer expand their current operations in the US mainland or open new routes until they regained Category 1.
Detailed analysis of the Caap’s problems led the ECCP to conclude tha the aviation auithority’s current structure is ill-suited to keep up with the current explosive growth of the Asean airline industry, especially the low-cost carriers (LCC) that drive growth of air travel in the region.
According to the chamber, remuneration of Caap personnel and inspectors are 20 percent to 30 percent below industry standards, making it difficult to retain them.
“Air-traffic controllers are paid even less than the entry-level [salary] of call center agents,” the ECCP said.
The group suggested that Filipino businessmen owning private jets and running international operations “de-register” their aircraft from Philippine to US registry to go around the EU ban and be able to increase the number of flights to US.
Among the recommendations that the ECCP forwarded to the government was to reorganize the Caap into three units- Caap, Philippine Airports Authority (similar to the Philippine Ports Authority) and Philippine Air Traffic Control Navigation Authority.
- Create a special executive order to allow the hiring of foreign contractual, qualified, trained personnel to act as inspectors to help the Philippines emerge from black lists and the FAA down grade
- Amed Republic Act 497, the law creating the Caap, to allow the Philippines to transfer its State of registry responsibilities to the State of Operator and allow Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific and other local airlines to lease foreign-registered aircraft and fly new or more routes.
- Establish a more relatic timeline of 18-36 months for full compliance with all significant safety conerns. “Given the air safety situation, which enfangers the ambitious growth [projected by the DOT] and may force international businessmen to bypass Philippine airspace, we urge the secretaries of tourism and transportation to address these issues,” d’Aboville said.
Sources: Business Mirror; Front Page; 25 July 2012