RP aviation demotion: who is to blame?

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By Jarius Bondoc

In Nov. 2007 the US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded RP to Category-II in air safety and security. This barred RP airlines from setting up new or spreading old services to the US, among other sanctions. The rating came after four months of FAA review of its RP equivalent, the Air Transport Office. Applying international safety standards, FAA found the RP government wanting in basic infrastructures, logistics, and systems. Most telling, there was no skill upgrading for ATO personnel who check airline flight crew.

In response RP rushed creation in Mar. 2008 of a fiscally autonomous Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines. Like a corporation it has a seven-man board, six of them Cabinet secretaries: of transportation and communications (as chairman), justice, foreign affairs, finance, interior, and labor. The seventh is vice chairman and director general, retired Air Force general Ruben Ciron, appointed in July 2008. CAAP’s job is to upgrade civil aviation facilities and personnel.

Since then, however, the Category-II grade has not improved to I. Worse, the International Civil Aviation Organization has issued its own bad review. Clustering RP with such backward or failing states like Angola, Bangladesh, Congo, Djibouti, Kazakhstan, Rwanda and Zambia, the United Nations agency said CAAP has “significant safety concerns.”

What caused this? There are two versions.

Immediately upon Ciron’s entry, court and media fighting erupted between the old ATO and new CAAP leadership. The old timers accused the newcomers of amateurism. Allegedly Ciron’s team didn’t even know that the ICAO grade of 28.17 percent meant “compliance,” and took it to mean “findings”. Consequently, they missed the global average of 40.31 percent compliance; thus the unsavory ranking. Blamed on Ciron too was a radar breakdown in Sept. 2009, the first in RP aviation history, closing the country’s airspace for hours. Of 191 navigational facilities nationwide, only 16 are reliable and eight are due for recalibration by end-Feb. 2010. The rest allegedly are in disrepair, although 90 percent of CAAP revenues come from navigational charges on airlines.

Money is also at issue. Supposedly Ciron has hired 104 consultants as of Aug. 2009, mostly military retirees like him, costing P2 million a month and duplicating regular positions. The runway extension at the Boracay Airport allegedly was contracted for P32 million without public bidding. Even Ciron’s giveaway desk calendars last Christmas, costing half-a-million pesos, have been raked up.

CAAP managers counter that the law that created the agency forced them to absorb even the incompetents from the defunct ATO. Of the 104 consultants, 71 were hires of their accuser Daniel Dimagiba, the last ATO chief. These were the same ATO check pilots, cabin crew examiners, airworthiness inspectors, librarians, and medical workers whom the FAA had found inefficient. Ciron did hire 30 or so new consultants, they admit. But these are aviation professionals whose legal, technical and managerial expertise enabled CAAP to take over without hitches.

CAAP’s worst irony is with check pilots for Boeing 747s and Airbus 340s, managers say. It allegedly inherited from ATO men whose flight know-how is only with single engine planes, derided as tutubi (damselflies). A favorite joke among wide-body jet pilots is that their CAAP checker was late for the test because he got lost in the cockpit. The remedy is to lure back Filipino pilots working overseas for monthly pays equivalent to P300,000-P500,000. But the CAAP has yet to raise such money. So in the meantime it relies on Air Force retirees.

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