Who was in charge?
That question arises in the wake of the dumbfounding news that, after a Xiamen Airlines aircraft had a botched landing last week that caused the closure of Ninoy Aquino International Airport runway and delayed about 200 international and domestic flights over the ensuing two days, various airlines apparently took advantage of the chaotic situation by mounting multiple uncoordinated recovery flights.
“Last 18 August and 19, we were able to document 61 flights na dumating na walang pasabi sa amin,” revealed Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) General Manager Ed Monreal. “Nalaman na lang po namin nung dumating na ’yung [mga] eroplano, which created a lot of congestion in terms of parking space.”
Xiamen Airlines, for instance, deployed four recovery flights at the height of the crisis without MIAA’s prior knowledge.
How could such an incredible breach in protocol happen? For that matter, how could one incident involving a damaged aircraft lead to the virtual shutdown of the country’s main international gateway for over 36 hours, causing untold misery to hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers and inflicting serious damage on the economy?
What is now becoming clear was the utter lack of coordination between the two frontline bodies in charge of airport operations: MIAA and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), both attached agencies under the Department of Transportation. The incident not only exposed dangerous weaknesses in the country’s air transport system, it also puts into question the capability of air transport officials to handle and respond to such emergencies.
The 61 flights that still transpired despite the gridlock in Naia, it turns out, were coordinated only with the CAAP, leaving the clueless MIAA to scramble to find slots at the parking base that was already saturated with planes idled by the runway’s closure. The bedlam was thus further exacerbated by the breakdown in communication between the two bodies tasked to impose order and organization on the nation’s aviation system.
The incompetence boggles the mind. How could flights not coordinated with MIAA, which has administrative supervision and control over the country’s international airports, be allowed to land? As Sen. Risa Hontiveros pointed out: “Sixty-one uncoordinated flights are 61 times aviation safety may have been compromised.”
Monreal insisted they had done their best under the circumstances, and has called the attention of the airlines to “follow the proper protocol” next time. That limp a statement over such a consequential matter.
Xiamen Airlines will be charged at least P15 million—the crane rental alone cost P4 million—for the removal of its stalled aircraft from the runway. There are also calls for it to renumerate other airlines for their losses. In response, Xiamen apologized for the incident—but threw shade at Naia. The airport “did not have enough resources to handle the surge in flights, leaving some flights unattended after landing and also resulting in repeated delay of flight departures,” it said.
Painful but true. And the human cost of the resulting airport anarchy was tremendous; many passengers were overseas Filipino workers who risked missing the validity of their exit visa or losing their jobs altogether. “Nhe Nhe,” one of the almost 40,000 affected passengers, posted on Xiamen Airlines’ Facebook page: “How about you pay for all the money we lost??! Hindi biro yung ginastos namin (We were forced to spend a lot)… Such a big hassle talaga. Muntik na mawalan ng work. (We nearly lost our work.) Tapos sorry lang??”
The Senate and the House of Representatives are set to conduct separate inquiries into the incident by next week. But even before that, shouldn’t heads roll, at the very least, following this fiasco? Where is the sense of accountability and shame among the officials concerned?
The Duterte administration is keen on building an alternative international airport to ease the congestion at Naia. A fine idea—but with the alarming ineptness displayed by aviation officials and agencies over the Xiamen Airlines incident, it’s clear the problem goes much deeper and way beyond a decrepit airport.
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