Aviation Rating linked to inadequate Air Traffic Controllers

RP air traffic controllers’ woes
Overworked, underpaid

By Tarra Quismundo

MANILA, Philippines—Working 16-hour days has become routine for air traffic controller Marlene Singson, as ordinary as squeezing in up to 54 takeoffs and departures in an hour at the crowded Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

“That means we break some rules every now and then, but we make sure that we comply with the minimum safety requirement,” Singson said.

The Manila Control Tower’s overworked cast of air traffic controllers continues to cope with the daunting task of operating below safety margins, grappling with a busy airspace despite unpaid overtime, understaffing and old equipment.

Tasked to guide planes for safe landings and takeoffs, air traffic controllers at the country’s main international hub say they have yet to see changes promised by the creation of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).

Established to supplant the outdated ways of the Air Transportation Office (ATO), the CAAP has been touted as the country’s hope to redeem its standing in the eyes of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which flunked the Philippines in January for substandard air safety practices.

But reality has not changed for the air traffic controllers despite the new authority, and an average day still involves too few controllers handling too many flights.

“The CAAP without expert leaders is still a dismal failure,” said Nickson Morada, chair of the Philippine Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Heavier traffic looms

“It failed on meeting its underlying objective to sustain our air traffic controllers through competitive salaries. Safety is still at risk due to the same problem of equipment, procedures, training and lack of qualified personnel,” Morada told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

While international standards require seven controllers to handle the average 45 to 50 flights per hour, the Manila tower is still understaffed, with mostly six—at times even four—controllers manning a given shift, sources from the tower said. They asked not to be identified, saying they had no authority to talk of sensitive information.

It was one in a long list of findings the FAA released in January when it decided to rate the country below accepted safety standards in civil aviation. FAA inspectors visited the tower in 2007 as part of its audit at the then ATO.

“We need at least five more people to comply with the requirement ... Now, especially with the peak season approaching, we are bracing ourselves for heavier traffic,” said one of the air traffic controllers.

What should be a matter of clockwork efficiency has become a matter of talent and experience for the controllers, who have become accustomed to ways of cramming flights up to twice the number that should be cleared for landings or takeoffs under the safety rules.

The Manila airport’s single international runway should be handling at most a total of 30 flights per hour if the two-minute aircraft spacing rule is to be followed, the controllers said. But traffic reaches even up to 65 at holiday peak hours.

Unpaid overtime work

“We have all developed our own timing. We can even space planes by 15 seconds, around 1 kilometer apart in the runway, if we feel confident that we can do that safely,” said another air traffic controller.

Much of the air traffic controllers’ overtime work has yet to be paid and a promised salary increase has yet to be given, the controllers said. Low pay has been the chief reason for quick personnel turnover at the tower, and it has become almost seasonal for controllers to lose a colleague to better paying jobs.

CAAP Director General Ruben Ciron said the agency had been working to fully implement the law and allow benefits to trickle down to workers.

“We will increase their [technical personnel] pay so they won’t have to leave,” Ciron said, as he admitted the heavy task at hand.

A recent survey by the Department of Labor and Employment listed air traffic controllers as among the hardest to fill occupations in the country, along with highly technical jobs such as pilots and navigational engineers.

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