Moving forward after New Year’s Day PH aviation system breakdown


Sonny Coloma

Nobody wanted it to happen, but it did.

There will be time for a comprehensive analysis of what went wrong and the factors that caused the breakdown, and for demanding accountability. But it is imperative that steps be taken to rebuild what is apparently a system that needs to be replaced and improved as soon as possible.

First, a backup system to the current Communication, Navigation and Surveillance for Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) system must be established. Second, corrective steps need to be taken by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to minimize the likelihood of repetition. Third, there must be heightened accountability to the airline passengers who are significantly affected by aviation system lapses.

According to Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista, there is need to install a backup system in an alternate location, to forestall a repetition of the massive failure that affected even airlines flying over Philippine airspace. While Senate finance committee chair Senator Sonny Angara said this will be prioritized in the 2024 budget, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. could direct his economic team to work with Congress to bring about an earlier response.

As determined by the CAAP, “a power outage hit the Air Traffic Management Center (ATMC) which downed the communications platform at both the power supply from Meralco and the backup generator (that also) failed.” Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the House committee on ways and means, said: “I mean, I can’t say this is force majeure. You can foresee power outages. You can foresee surges in air traffic.” I share his observation. Proactive management anticipates possible operational glitches and devises contingency plans for minimizing possible occurrence and mitigating adverse consequences.

This leads to the third imperative: accountability to passengers. Rep. Salceda cites the DOTC-DTI Joint Administrative Order (JAO) No. 1 s. 2012, as follows: “In case the air carrier cancels the flight because of force majeure, safety and/or security reasons, as certified by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, a passenger shall have the right to be reimbursed for the full value of the fare.”

It is unlikely that CAAP – or the national government – will be able to reimburse the more than 66,000 affected passengers given the huge amount involved – but the government must at least show its firm determination that this does not recur, and that affected passengers are assisted. For instance, the Department of Migrant Workers has already taken steps to mitigate the harmful consequences to affected Filipino workers by communicating with concerned foreign governments and employers.

Meantime, resolutions have been filed for the conduct of a Senate investigation, in aid of legislation, that could strengthen regulations and provide financial resources to upgrade the country’s aviation management facilities. Secretary Bautista has acknowledged that the current system, already in midlife when it became operational in 2018, needs to be upgraded.

Senators Francis Tolentino and Joel Villanueva have significant experience in the executive branch, as Metro Manila Development Chair and TESDA Director-General, respectively, in the cabinet of then President Benigno S. Aquino III. They could contribute significant inputs to the crafting of appropriate legislation.

Since the deregulation of the local aviation industry, air travel has emerged as the preferred mode of transportation in the country. With airlines able to offer affordable fare packages, most Filipinos who used to travel on inter-island shipping vessels have shifted to air travel.

The improvement of the country’s airport system has also been a contributory factor. When I first served in the DOTC in 1989, then Secretary Oscar Orbos deplored the lack of air navigation facilities. According to the CAAP’s statement issued the other day:

“With the new CNS/ATM system, the country now has 13 radars (NAIA 1, Clark, Tagaytay, Aparri, Laoag, Cebu-Mt. Majic, Quezon-Palawan, Zamboanga, NAIA 2, Mactan, Bacolod, Kalibo, and Davao) covering around 70 percent of Philippine air space. Additionally, with the introduction of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Contract (ADS-C) and the Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), the CNS/ATM is able to cover 100 percent of the remaining oceanic airspace, hence increasing air traffic safety and capacity in the oceanic region of the Manila Flight Information Region (FIR).”

This facility has enabled the growth of domestic tourism, as visitors from overseas could reach tourist attractions in Visayas and Mindanao more conveniently.

Yet, much more needs to be done. Apart from upgrading the air traffic control management system, there is the bigger issue on how to quickly expand the capacity of the country’s gateway international airport.

Anyone who has traveled recently would point out the difficulties experienced in taking off and landing at the NAIA. My family stayed at Terminal 3 for about eight hours only to be told that flights would be cancelled due to Typhoon Paeng’s onslaught last Oct. 29. This was at the peak of airline activity due to the All Saints Day observance.

But first things first. Government must quickly address the cause of the New Year’s Day breakdown – sooner, not later.