How safe are our skies? | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

How safe are our skies?

/ 11:13 PM December 19, 2011

The recent crash of a Beechcraft eight-seater plane into a slum area in Parañaque City that took 13 lives highlights an issue that few Filipinos worry about—until it hits them more directly. This is the issue of governance and management of civil aviation in this country, which has far-reaching implications on Filipinos’ jobs, livelihood and safety, well beyond what meets the eye.

Investigation of that crash revealed that the operator of the ill-fated plane had violated various rules governing flight operations. The aircraft flew with an unauthorized pilot and without a written lease agreement with the plane’s owners. The plane’s insurance had expired just a few days before, hence was not covered for damages inflicted on the crash victims. The plane also reportedly had no serial number, and thus shouldn’t have been registered and granted a license to operate. How a plane could manage to take off at all under such circumstances reflects on the weakness of the regulatory system on civil aviation in the country, headed by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), formerly the Air Transportation Office (ATO). The CAAP’s mandate is to issue and enforce aviation rules and regulations to assure safe, economic and efficient air travel.

Back in January 2008, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), after undertaking an International Aviation Safety Assessment on the Philippines, downgraded the country’s rating to Category 2 from Category 1. This means that the country does not comply with world safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) under the United Nations. The US Embassy subsequently issued a warning to US citizens in the Philippines “to refrain from using Philippine-based carriers due to ‘serious concerns’ about the ATO’s alleged mishandling of the aviation industry,” in effect blacklisting Philippine air carriers.


The ICAO later conducted its own audit in October 2009 that resulted in findings of a Significant Safety Concern (SSC), thereby reinforcing the FAA findings. It cited “open items” or unmet issues on the implementation of air safety oversight, and inadequate security systems. On March 30, 2010, the European Union, following the FAA’s lead, also blacklisted the Philippines and banned Philippine carriers from flying to Europe. Other countries such as Korea and Japan have also used the ICAO, FAA and EU findings as basis for not allowing Philippine carriers to expand services into their respective territories, beyond existing traffic rights previously granted. We have become, in effect, a pariah in the civil aviation community. If it’s any consolation, other countries that received a Category 2 downgrade included Israel, India, Nigeria, Greece, Mexico and Zimbabwe, but I am told they have acted much more quickly than us to win back Category 1 status.


Why should we worry?

Our ICAO non-compliance status is crucial at a time when we could use a massive boost in tourism to create jobs for nearly three million jobless Filipinos. Like agriculture, tourism is a sector that could readily employ millions of our unemployed, most of whom are young people who have not gone beyond high school. As minimal training and skills are required for much of the required human resources in tourism service industries, the sector could provide the needed growth boost that would have widespread benefits (a.k.a. “inclusive growth”). A basic rule of thumb is that one foreign tourist brings forth one Filipino job. This is based on the fact that the average foreign tourist spends $1,800, which is about equal to the current average annual income of a Filipino. The general manager of a hotel in Cebu told me recently that by his own tracking, one hotel guest in fact leads to employment for up to eight Filipinos. Tourism is indeed key to wider economic development and poverty reduction; our close neighbors have long proven it.

But a basic impediment lies in the way: lack of available airline seats into the country (compared to, say, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia) makes it both harder and costlier for foreign tourists to visit us. Our local carriers are constantly insisting on reciprocity in granting foreign airlines the right to fly passengers into our country, and resist an open-skies policy. But for as long as our weak aviation safety standards provide foreign governments a legitimate reason to close their skies to our own airlines, adherence to airline reciprocity will keep us from providing millions of potential new jobs through tourism. Fixing our civil aviation system thus has profound implications even for Filipinos who may never even step into an airplane in their lifetime.

What needs to be done? We must begin by taking civil aviation governance very, very seriously. The CAAP must not exercise both regulatory and operational functions (e.g., managing airports)—functions that must be kept separate in any context, to avoid conflicts of interest. Indeed, airport management needs to be decentralized and privatized as they are in other countries, so that service and safety standards could be upgraded, with CAAP ensuring this via regulation. The government must make the necessary investments in ample aviation facilities, including radar systems and other air navigation aids. It also needs to pay realistic compensation for the highly specialized skills needed to staff a world-class civil aviation management system. And the time to act was yesterday. We need to do the homework to get back to Category 1 fast. Every day that we spend as a Category 2 country costs the Filipino people dearly.

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TAGS: Air transport, Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, opinion, Safety

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