‘Airlines lost over ₧100M from airspace shutdown’

Naia photo by Nonie Reyes

AIRLINES may have lost “over P100 million” due to the electrical trip that caused the shutdown of government’s air traffic control management system on New Year’s Day.

This was revealed by Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) Executive Director Carmelo Arcilla during Tuesday’s House of Representatives Transportation panel hearing on the cause of the recent airspace shutdown, which affected close to 300 flights and some 65,000 passengers.

“As to the losses of the passengers, it is more difficult to quantify that in terms of the huge inconvenience they suffered, like for some, it affected their employment,” he said in Filipino.

In the same hearing, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) revealed that air traffic controllers and other skilled personnel manning the air traffic management system are constantly being poached by other countries due to the low wages they receive in the country. CAAP operates the country’s Communications, Navigation, and Surveillance/Air Trafffic Management (CNS/ATM) system, which experienced an electronic trip in its circuit breaker, causing the airspace shutdown. An ongoing investigation continues on the cause of the trip.

Low salaries of air traffic controllers

CAAP General Manager Manuel Tamayo said the “entry level salary of an air traffic controller is only P45,000 per month compared to P300,000 per month in the Middle East.” He did not say how many CAAP personnel have been pirated so far, but he assured lawmakers that they still had enough personnel: “Many of them have been with us for many years, and I salute them for choosing to stay in the Philippines. They are now the ones training the new air traffic controllers.”

Marlene Singson of the CAAP’s Aerodome Control Division, also revealed that many of the new air traffic controllers are receiving training for one-and-a-half years, but their experience already exceed the two-year qualifications required for the same position in countries like Qatar. The entry-level salary for air traffic controllers in Qatar, for instance, is “P380,000 and they are given free housing and allowed to bring their spouse and minor children with them.”

The United Nations also asks for volunteers for their air traffic operations, said Singson, “and they are paid per diems amounting to millions of pesos.”

Among other issues of the air traffic controllers include not being given plantilla positions and the “collapsing of three positions in air traffic management into one,” affecting the parity of salaries among the employees.  She said the Governance Commission for Government-Owned and -Controlled Corporations has promised to look into this issue. While an attached agency of the Department of Transportation (DOTr), the CAAP is a GOCC.

Free rebooking on affected flights

For his part, DOTr Secretary Jaime J. Bautista said the agency had already proposed as early as September 2022 “either a backup system or a new” CNS/ATM system. The current air traffic management system is “at midlife” having been purchased in 2010, but operated only in 2018. The new CNS/ATM system is estimated to cost at least P13 billion, and is one of the priority projects for 2023.

Meanwhile, CAB’s Arcilla said free hotel accommodations were given to 2,940 passengers whose flights were diverted to another airport. In other cases though, such as those of passengers on flights coming from abroad, he said many choose not to leave the airport and wait it out until they are able to get on their flights.

Strictly speaking, however, in a force majeure situation, the CAB executive explained, carriers are not required to compensate or give free accommodations to affected passengers. During the New Year’s Day airspace shutdown where local carriers had to cancel many flights, he said passengers were offered free rebooking, refund, or travel fund. Most airlines, along with the Manila International Airport Authority, also served free meals to the affected passengers.

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