CAAP Tightens Flight Safety After FAA Visit

Editorial: Tricky balance of interests

Jimbo Albano / BusinessMirror

THE decision of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to impose new runway rules at the Caticlan airport, effectively curbing flights to and from that gateway to the world-famous island haven of Boracay, reflects the tricky balance that policy-makers must maintain in order to ensure uncompromisable public safety while mitigating the economic impact of decisions on business interests—in this case, the country’s top Filipino carriers.

On Wednesday, after a series of meetings with representatives of key airlines—Philippine Airlines (PAL), Cebu Pacific and Southeast Asian Airlines (Seair)—CAAP officials announced that effective July 9, the length of runways 06 and 24 will be shortened as part of continuing efforts to ensure aviation safety, and affirmed its “one-way” rule whereby planes taking off from Caticlan must fly toward the sea and land in the opposite direction. This rule was imposed on the recommendation of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

As a result of the new runway rules, PAL and Cebu Pacific, which use big planes for the bread-and-butter route, had to scuttle altogether all their flights to and from Caticlan, diverting these instead to Kalibo. That arrangement spells extra cost for the two airlines—which will shoulder the 90-minute land trip from Kalibo to Caticlan—and inconvenience to their passengers.

From Caap chief Ruben Ciron’s explanation, the new runway rules were necessary to guarantee aviation safety, a point that was illustrated, said officials, by the June 25 incident when a Zest Air plane overshot the Caticlan runway.

Meanwhile, tourism officials are trying to appear unfazed by the impact of the new runway restrictions and the consequent decision of the airlines, with the exception of Seair, to scuttle all flights to and from Caticlan. They said they appreciated the paramount concern of public safety but, at the same time, expressed hope this arrangement would be temporary. Western Visayas tourism director Edwi Trompeta explained that as PAL and Cebu Pacific are “now using bigger aircraft and considering the length of the runway, and it being the habagat [southwest monsoon] season— where winds from the southwest are coming in—we’re a little bit concerned with the safety of the passengers.”

Meanwhile, the Caap is mired in problems of its own, some of them apparently growing out of impatience with reforms, unforeseen complications when the old Air Transportation Office was wrapped into the Caap, and some from the usual lack of resources to carry out vital reforms.

Mr. Ciron has been fending off not a few controversies himself, and it’s a fair assumption the next few months won’t see any quick resolution of many of these issues—the need for enough trained manpower, the inability to retain such skilled personnel owing to fund constraints and politicking, and the usual plague of the bureaucracy, alleged cronyism and favoritism.

Meanwhile, the Filipino airlines are racing against time while US federal aviation authorities keep holding their decision to reverse the downgrade of Philippine aviation facilities—a downgrade that is hurting the airlines’ expansion.

One hopes these issues can be resolved as quickly as possible, considering how badly the aviation sector is among those reeling from the impact of the global economic downturn.

Caticlan flights reduced on runway curbs

Written by Recto Mercene

EFFECTIVE today, Caticlan runways 06-24 will be shortened in accordance with recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao), the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap) said on Wednesday.

This, as the Caap’s enforcement of its “one runway for takeoff, one runway for landing” restriction continues to be disputed by air carriers, which are cutting flights to the airport, the quickest way to reach the world-famous resort island of Boracay.

From the original length of 950 meters, the runway length for runway 06 was reduced to 825 meters, while runway 24 was reduced to 875 meters.

These restrictions would be published in a notice to airmen (Notam), according to Caap Director General Ruben F. Ciron. At the same time, he said that proper runway markings would also be adopted to delineate the runway’s usable areas.

The restriction was adopted following an inspection by foreign consultants hired by the Caap to assess the Caticlan Aerodrome.

At the same time, Ciron said the “one runway takeoff, one runway landing” scheme on Caticlan Airport will continue to be observed while promising to speed up rehabilitation of the aerodrome for the benefit of the flying public.

Some air carriers would be allowed to land on runway 24 depending on aircraft capability, such as those qualified as “short takeoff and landing aircraft.”

The Caticlan Airport’s new scheme was announced Wednesday during a meeting attended by Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and SEAir.

The meeting was called to announce the new runway configuration and discuss the possibility of allowing these major carriers to land and take off on runway 06-24 of Caticlan Airport depending on aircraft capability and pilot’s assessment of the prevailing conditions.

The air carriers had said they might totally cancel flights to Caticlan, while others said they might reduce drastically their schedules if the runway restrictions are imposed.

Ciron, however, said the limitations to use one runway for takeoff and one runway for landing were published in the Aeronautical Information Publication since November 2008.

Ciron said the CAAP is not issuing a new limitation but simply reviving what was already published before.

The Caap reimposed the restrictions following two accidents involving Zest Air at Caticlan Airport, where the aircraft overshot the runway after landing on runway24.

On Wednesday, Ciron’s aerodrome adviser, John Slaughter, who studied Caticlan runway’s configurations, confirmed before the airline representatives that the current design of the Caticlan runway posed a real hazard to aircraft operations, if the restrictions are not put in place.

Ciron said the Caap will continue to gear its efforts toward finding long-term solutions to reduce the height of a hill at the approach end of runway 24, even offering to facilitate the approval papers and providing financial aid if needed.

Airlines, passengers hurt by Caticlan airport ruling

Written by Lenie Lectura & Recto Mercene w/ Ma. Stella Arnaldo

WHAT the economic crisis and swine flu had barely dented in terms of tourist arrivals to the world-famous resort island of Boracay, a quarrel over runway rules and aviation safety might just succeed.

This, as the two major domestic airlines confirmed on Thursday they had scuttled—not just reduced—all flights to Caticlan airport, the quickest way to get to Boracay, and diverted them all to Kalibo, which means passengers must take the 90-minute land trip from Kalibo to Caticlan to get to the resorts.

Both Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, which suspended all flights to and from Caticlan following changes to airport operating conditions declared by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap) on Wednesday, said they will shoulder the cost of land transfers for previously booked passengers.

That would leave only Southeast Asian Airlines (Seair), whose smaller planes can still comply with the new runway rules, flying directly to and from Caticlan.

ZestAir, one of whose planes overshot the runway on June 25—an incident that triggered the runway rule changes—has since diverted all flights to Kalibo.

Caap, formerly the Air Transport Office, has designated Caticlan as a one-way airport for all carriers, i.e. takeoff should be towards the sea and landing in the opposite direction, on the recommendation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao). A technical redefinition also in effect shortens the runway, despite its actual length, said Cebu Pacific in a statement on Thursday.

“We have therefore decided to divert all Caticlan flights to Kalibo instead and from there bus all our Boracay-bound passengers at no extra cost,” said Cebu Pacific president Lance Gokongwei. This took effect on July 9.

The airline has been operating direct flights to Caticlan since February 29, 2008 and has since then carried over 340,000 passengers. It has mounted as many as 15 roundtrip flights daily to Caticlan until June 25. More than 60,000 booked passengers will be affected by the cancellation.

Total tourism receipts from Boracay for the first semester reached P7.06 billion.

Western Visayas tourism chief Edwin Trompeta said Boracay tourism arrivals had remained “strong” despite the global economic crisis and the A (H1N1) global flu outbreak. Before the A (H1N1) outbreak, DOT projected tourist arrivals in the island to increase by 10 percent to 697,799 from the 2008 arrivals of 634,363. Last year, the island brought in tourism receipts of P11.66 billion.

With these stakes, the airlines hope the runway problems are temporary. Gokongwei said “We continue to work closely with our industry partner, the Caap, to find a speedy resolution, to these airport issues, to allow Cebu Pacific to reinstate flights to Caticlan.

Boracay, he said, “continues to be one of the country’s most important tourism destinations. Cebu Pacific’s low-fare service has been integral to the growth and development of the island’s tourism industry and has increased its accessibility to both local and foreign tourists.”

Also on Thursday, PAL pulled out its Caticlan flights and transferred them to Kalibo. In the meantime, PAL will shoulder the land-transfer expense of passengers who had booked Caticlan flights. But Francisco Yngente, PAL vice president for airport services said the cost of the transfer will already be tucked into the cost of the PAL ticket in future bookings.

Tourism execs unfazed

Tourism officials are putting on a brave face despite the developments. Edwin Trompeta, regional director of the Department of Tourism for Western Visayas, expressed confidence the pullout of the carriers from Caticlan will not affect tourist arrivals in Boracay. “There is no major impact because the number of flights to Kalibo of these airlines are the same number of flights before the Caap measures were imposed.”

He conceded that some passengers may be “inconvenienced” because the land trip from Kalibo to Caticlan takes an hour and half, besides the 15-minute pump boat ride from the Caticlan jetty port to Boracay. “Plus it could add up to the cost of the airfare and their tour package because of the transfers,” he said.

Trompeta said ultimately, the diversion of the flights to Kalibo by these major carriers, “will be good for our visitors because we’re concerned for their safety. These carriers are now using bigger aircraft and considering the length of the runway and it being the habagat (southwest monsoon) season— where winds from the southwest are coming in—we’re a little bit concerned with the safety of the passengers.”

He hopes the Caap measure “could be temporary” until the amihan season (northeast winds) starts in October. The amihan season usually lasts until May or June, allowing planes to use runway 06, which is the approach from the sea. “I think this is a temporary arrangement. But the final decision is with the Caap.” At present, all carriers have been using runway 24.

According to data from the Department of Tourism, tourist arrivals in Boracay in the first half of 2009, grew by 6 percent to 383,313 from the 362,228 registered in the same period in 2008.

Trompeta said the bulk of the tourists continue to be Filipinos, accounting for 71 percent or 271,498 of total arrivals, while foreigners numbered 96,102. Balikbayans or returning Filipinos totaled 16,213.

Of the foreigners, arrivals from Korea were the largest at 34,818 in the six-month period; followed by China at 11,584; Taiwan at 8,074; and Americans at 7,130.

Boracay tourism suffers as air carriers pull out of Caticlan

Written by Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo

STARTING Thursday, major carriers are expected to discontinue flights to Caticlan, the gateway to the resort island of Boracay, in anticipation of a government order aimed at implementing a long-ignored rule on a one-takeoff and one-landing procedure.

Sources who attended a hearing between airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) on Wednesday said the new order will virtually leave only one carrier, Southeast Asian Airlines, plying the route.

Francisco Yngente, vice president for airport services of Philippine Airlines (PAL), confirmed to the BusinessMirror that the carrier would be flying all Caticlan-bound passengers to Kalibo instead, the capital of Aklan.

“Yes, it’s true we’re no longer flying to Caticlan starting [today]. The CAAP shortened the useable runway, so we’re shifting all our flights to Caticlan to Kalibo until further notice.” PAL, in the meantime, will shoulder the land-transfer expense of passengers who had booked Caticlan flights. Sources said Cebu Pacific was reducing flights to Caticlan to only two daily. Since June 25, it has already rerouted 10 of its 12 daily flights to Kalibo, aside from its regular two to three Manila-Kalibo flights a day using Airbus A320s. The flights to Caticlan are via the 72-seater ATR turboprop 72-500.

As for Zest Air, all its Caticlan flights have been diverted to Kalibo since June 25 as well, according to a source in the airline.

Previously, PAL had been flying its newly acquired 50-seater Bombardier turboprops to Caticlan seven to eight times a day from Manila, plus one flight a day from Cebu. It also flies twice daily from Manila to Kalibo using a 150-seater Airbus A320s.

He added that “this is so sudden, we were caught off-guard. But our pilots had a meeting with CAAP [yesterday] and they were already formally advised of the ruling.”

Sources at the CAAP meeting told the BusinessMirror the government agency began meeting with air carriers after a Zest Airplane overshot the Caticlan runway on June 25, the second accident using its Chinese-made MA60 planes in six months. The first accident in January was an undershooting of the runway, and resulted in injuries to passengers.

“The problem is really the size of the planes that are being used,” said one source who requested anonymity. Most planes are too big to navigate the very short runway in Caticlan. Under the CAAP order, all planes can only take off and land from the sea. At present, most carriers land toward or take off from the mountainside.

Asked for a reaction, Avelino Zapanta, president of Seair, said the airline was not affected by the CAAP ruling. Given the size of its planes, pilots can fly or take off coming from the sea. “We will continue flying to Caticlan,” he said.

Asked whether they weren’t being unduly penalized because of the mishap that happened to Zest Air, Yngente said, “As long as it’s for the safety of the passengers, I suppose CAAP is correct in implementing the ruling.”

Other airline sources said CAAP presented its findings that despite “corrective measures” on the part of pilots navigating the short runway of Caticlan, and given the present layout of the land which includes a mountain, plus the tailwinds and headwinds factors, “the planes will be left with only about 250 meters on the runway, which is too short” for the larger planes.

One source explained that CAAP is cracking down on violators of the airline industry publication (AIP) due to “criticisms that it was not enforcing regulations, and that we are still under Category 2 by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration].” The Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the Air Transportation Office (ATO), forerunner of the CAAP, was downgraded by FAA from Category 1 status, denoting its safety for international airlines, to Category 2 two years ago due to the ATO’s lax regulatory measures and lack of adequate personnel.

Yngente said PAL doesn’t have plans at the moment to buy new or smaller planes to keep flying to Caticlan. “Our recommendation to CAAP is actually to level off the mountain at the end of the runway, and on the other end, extend the runway.” Plans to extend and expand the Caticlan runway had been proposed since 2000, but no funds have been raised by the government nor the private sector to undertake it.

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