September 1, 2011
By Kathleen A. Martin
THE PHILIPPINES is preparing for a fresh audit this December to be conducted by a team of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the country’s commercial aviation safety systems, in hopes of regaining the "category 1" status it lost in 2008, the head of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) said on Friday last week.
The Philippines’ downgrade has been blamed for lower-than-expected visitor arrivals from the US, with the Philippine Travel Agencies Association saying last month that the tourism industry had foregone more than P66.3 billion since 2009 due to a lack of additional visitors from the US.
"[The] FAA technical review [is] scheduled [in] December," CAAP Director General Ramon S. Gutierrez said via text.
The FAA downgraded the Philippines’ civil aviation rating, citing policies and systems that were below standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of the United Nations, including a lack of qualified safety personnel.
"A Category 2 rating means a country either lacks laws or regulations necessary to oversee air carriers in accordance with minimum international standards, or that its civil aviation authority -- equivalent to the FAA -- is deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping or inspection procedures," FAA had explained in January 2008 in announcing its action on the Philippines.
Mr. Gutierrez added that "preparations are being made to address [FAA’s] findings and corrective actions are made to close open items [sic] until the scheduled visit."
He did not elaborate on measures.
FAA downgraded the Philippines to "category 2" from "category 1" in 2008 after a safety audit in November 2007. The Philippines had been in "category 1" since 2002 prior to the downgrade.
CAAP preparations since early this year have included training of safety inspectors which has been a key issue for the downgrade, Mr. Gutierrez told reporters last May.
PAL financed this training that was conducted by US-based aviation consultant Tim Neel & Associates, LLC, which CAAP had hired.
At present, only PAL flies to the US, connecting Manila to Las Vegas in Nevada, San Francisco and Los Angeles in California, and Honolulu in Hawaii.
Moreover, budget carrier Cebu Pacific, which is operated by listed Cebu Air, Inc., has financed CAAP’s joint initiative with Airbus to enhance airport navigation systems in local hubs like Iloilo, Puerto Princesa, Butuan, Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga.
In response to the FAA downgrade, the government enacted into law on March 4, 2008 Republic Act No. 9497, or the Civil Aviation Authority Act of 2008, replacing the deficient Air Transportation Office (ATO) with the CAAP.
Mr. Gutierrez had said in interviews last March and May that, after the FAA, his agency aims to invite teams from ICAO and the European Union (EU) in hopes of getting similar favorable action.
ICAO had designated the country as a "significant safety concern" in December 2009, while EU blacklisted the Philippines in April last year.
Last year, ICAO’s Coordinated Validation Mission scrapped its planned Dec. 7-10 audit, citing "operational concerns" -- in apparent reference to the change then in CAAP leadership.
Leaked diplomatic cables posted on the Internet last week by WikiLeaks recalled that an executive of Boeing Co., acting as an aviation consultant, told the US Embassy on March 19, 2008 that "in his opinion, regaining Category 1 would take at least one year after…three critical elements are in place."
The document identified these factors, as cited by the Boeing consultant, as appointing a head for the CAAP, hiring "qualified aviation inspectors" and putting in place a new computer system.
Three months later, the US Embassy said in a separate report that there had been "little progress" made by the country in addressing FAA’s concerns.
"Our meetings with Philippine government officials, airline owners and managers, and other involved persons suggest that little progress has been made on the return to Category 1," the cable read.
The cable also described the defunct ATO as a "corrupt organization," noting that funds meant to hire new inspectors were used to construct a new building inside the ATO complex instead.
But reforms needed to regain "Category 1" status were still not in place more than a year later, according to another cable dated July 1, 2009.
"The progress of the Philippine civil aviation regulator towards regaining…‘Category 1’ safety rating has been stymied by bureaucratic obstacles that block essential salary increases needed to attract and retain qualified personnel," the cable read.
"There is little chance of the Philippines regaining a Category 1 safety rating unless these issues are resolved," it added.
Despite informing the US Embassy a month later that it was working to address safety concerns, the Philippine civil aviation regulator was still found lacking qualified personnel, according to a cable, dated Aug. 20, 2009.