Learning from the crash
Sunday night’s accident involving Cebu Pacific flight 5J-971 raises important questions about the obligations of a carrier—a flag carrier, at that—to its passengers and the general public AFTER an airplane accident.
The Airbus 320-200 overshot the Davao International Airport runway and landed on its nose, under rainy conditions. This early, aviation officials are looking at pilot error as probable cause. “Evidence does not lie. We have now evidence that points to possible human factor—in other words, maybe a pilot error,” John Andrews, deputy director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, told reporters.
To be sure, the official investigation will need to be completed, and the data from the onboard flight recorder will need to be analyzed. But passenger testimonies about the crew’s total lack of preparation or care are already circulating, and they are hard to ignore. This is the real public-relations nightmare facing the Philippines’ premier budget airline.
The airplane’s crew waited 15 minutes after the accident before commencing emergency evacuation, Andrews said, citing passenger statements. “From reports of the passengers on board, it took [the crew] several minutes and they never declared an emergency evacuation,” he said. But “actual SOP (standard operating procedure) dictates after an emergency such as this accident, automatically, you have to evacuate the aircraft. Cabin attendants are trained to evacuate the aircraft within three minutes. First evacuation started, I believe, 15 minutes after the aircraft came to a complete stop.”
Other passengers, who must have conveyed the information to the president of Ateneo de Davao University, thought the crew waited almost twice as long before commencing emergency evacuation. In his angry letter informing the airline that his university was boycotting it, Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ, wrote: “It was only after 27 minutes in a smoked [sic] cabin that the passengers were allowed to leave the plane by coming down emergency slides. Twenty-seven minutes however without appropriate communications is entirely too long!” And nine times SOP.
(This lack of urgent concern for its passengers continued after the passengers were finally evacuated. Tabora lamented: “I am also told that once the passengers were finally in the airport, no one came to talk to them until after one and a half hours!” This is not to discount the accountability of the Davao International Airport authorities, who could have responded to the emergency with greater urgency.)
The airline has defended the crew’s on-board inaction as justified by the circumstances, because they (or the pilot in charge) sized up the situation and thought the passengers were already out of harm’s way. Andrews acknowledged the airline’s view (“You will hear from the airline that the decision was made because they felt there was no danger involved”), but argued that the view was mistaken. “Luckily, no one was hurt, no one was injured, and there were no casualties here. But there is nothing that would have prevented a fire from emanating from the engine during this time. There was no way for the captain to know that the aircraft was safe.”
So, whether justified by long experience, universal SOPs, or plain common sense, the evacuation should have started immediately. This is a matter that Cebu Pacific must explain to both the investigating authorities and the general public. The statement from its CEO, apologizing for its mistakes and vowing to learn the right lessons from the unfortunate experience, seems like a good start.
The airline compounded the problem by taking all of two days before removing its plane from the runway. In the meantime, several dozen flights in and out of Davao had to be cancelled, or rerouted. The economic toll on the city still needs to be calculated, but the total must be considerable. It is only fair that, regardless of the reasons that forced the airline to delay the plane’s retrieval, it must also be held accountable for, essentially, holding up traffic.
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