Megacrisis at airport? Let’s check the manual

Xiamen Airways accident opens bureaucratic fears

In Photo: A Xiamen Air Boeing 737-800 passenger plane is lifted from the grassy portion of the international runway of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, after it skidded off the runway while landing under heavy rains on August 18, 2018. All the 157 passengers and crew were safe but the incident forced the closure of the airport and stranded thousands of passengers.

To avoid being thrown the book, aviation officials went by the book to address the Xiamen Airways accident.

The book, Airport Services Manual, has a specific section—“Part 5, Removal of Disabled Aircraft”—that the Manila International Airport Authority (Miaa), the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and the Department of Transportation (DOTr) used after a Xiamen Air Boeing 737-800 airline stopped nearly 200 flights from taking off at the country’s premier gateway. The plane crashed after landing on August 17 at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia).

Ed Monreal, General Manager of the Manila International Airport Authority, gestures during a news conference on August 20, 2018, on the incident involving the Xiamen Air Boeing 737-800 passenger plane that skidded off the runway while landing in heavy rain at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. All the 157 passengers and crew were safe but the incident forced the closure of the runway for 36 hours and stranded more than 13,000 passengers on international flights. At left is Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines Director General Jim Sydiongco.

The revised manual by the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao) contains updated guidance on the removal of disabled aircraft. It is intended to be used by aircraft and airport operators “for planning the processes required to conduct safe and efficient aircraft recovery operations.”

The manual, available through the Icao publications department for $90, has been expanded to include specific emergency planning guidance, recommended operational procedures and guidance relating to specific aircraft recovery equipment and tooling.

“Heavy Aircraft Recovery” is when one or more landing gears are separated from the aircraft structure, or are so heavily damaged that the aircraft cannot be towed on its own landing gears.

This is what happened to Xiamen Airways: its left engine, nose gear and left landing gear were detached. The B737 collapsed on the ground, damaging the fuselage and other parts.


DURING a hearing, Sen. Richard J. Gordon proffered the idea of using a bulldozer to push the damaged airplane toward the runway perimeter fence.

That happened in 1983, when a China Airlines Boeing plane slammed on landing on Runway 24. The plane lost one of its engines, skidded straight ahead and bursts into flame. Many of the passengers and crew were photographed jumping off the front door of the plane.

The next day, a bulldozer pushed the plane’s wreckage toward the runway perimeter near Merville Subdivision, Parañaque City. Flight immediately resumed.

But Caap Director General Capt. Jim C. Sydiongco said the Icao manual stipulates there should be no obstruction 150 feet from the runway centerline toward where the airplane wreck is to be dumped. The dumping area, unfortunately, was not available in the case of Xiamen Air B737.

Since the aircraft is now difficult to tow away, the Icao manual prescribes several actions.

“There should be a plan for the removal of disabled aircraft and the movement area should be established for an aerodrome, and a coordinator designated to implement the plan, when necessary.”

Royal Cargo

THE Icao manual added that “the disabled aircraft removal plan should be based on the characteristics of the aircraft that may normally be expected to operate at the aerodrome.” The plan said this should include, among other things, a list of equipment and personnel on, or in the vicinity of the aerodrome, which would be available for such purpose. Arrangements for the rapid receipt of aircraft recovery kits available from other aerodromes should also be included.

For the equipment, the Miaa hired Royal Cargo Inc.

Alberto T. Nañez, Royal Cargo Inc. operations manager, told the BusinessMirror he suggested to Miaa officials the use of 500-tonner and 200-tonner telescopic cranes.

The B737 is only 66 tons fully loaded. After the passengers, cargo and fuel were evacuated, the plane weighed only 48 tons.

Nañez told the BusinessMirror “the larger cranes are wide enough to accommodate the B737, which now weighed much less but has a wingspan that prevents easy access of associated equipment to be deployed.”

He said moving the cranes from their headquarters to the crash site took time, not only because it was not built for speed, but because “we had to wait for clearance from the control tower before we could enter the runway.”

It took Royal Cargo 12 hours to move the cranes into position.

Special group

ACCORDING to Miaa General Manager Eddie V. Monreal, the Miaa has a specialized group that handles disabled aircraft recovery. The Miaa sent members of this group abroad two years ago for training.

In actual recovery operations, it is this group that makes the decision on how to speedily assemble the removal equipment and the decision when to call on outside help, which is relayed to the Naia manager who sits at a crisis committee room.

Since the big bosses are communicating with each other and are updated on the situation, there is no need for Transportation Secretary Arthur P. Tugade to be at the crash site, if the Icao manual is interpreted.

The estimated time for the deployment of equipment and disabled aircraft removal equipment to the site should be provided, the Icao manual said.

“In the case of reportable accident, the Director of Civil Aviation and Ministry of Transport must be notified,” the manual said. “The aircraft or wreckage must not be moved or interfered, except under the authority of the Director General.”

An established command structure and clear lines of communication between various parties is essential to the efficient removal of a disabled aircraft. While tabletop exercises can help to anticipate and prepare for various aircraft removal scenarios, a postmortem of an actual disabled aircraft removal event should be conducted to examine areas where improvements can be made.

Crisis committee

DURING a Senate hearing, Monreal admitted there was no prior prearranged recovery agreement with crane operators that has the capability to lift disabled aircraft.

He also admitted the absence of a crisis committee. This group is composed of the relevant officials of the DOTr, Caap, CAB, Miaa, Philippine Airlines (PAL), Cebu Pacific (CEB) and other airport stakeholders.

Former Caap Deputy Director General Willy Borja said the crisis committee could have identified moves to speedily remove the disabled plane “and to anticipate problems that might occur due to airport closure.”

He said one of these problems is the sudden arrival of stranded airplanes in the provinces and those from Xiamen Airways.

Borja said the Caap should have anticipated this and informed the Miaa that many airplanes in the provinces could no longer wait and has to return to Manila, “not only to bring the stranded passengers but to fly to other scheduled destinations.”

“You cannot provide a slotting formula as if the airport operation is on normal mode,” Borja told the BusinessMirror. “This is a crisis situation for everybody, especially for the airlines, that has other routes and flight schedules to serve. They also had to deal with more than 100,000 delayed passengers.”

COA matter

BORJA said the second obvious problem was the appeal by stranded passengers for food, water and shower facilities—three days after the incident.

Sen. Ralph G. Recto compelled Monreal to admit at the Senate hearing that the Naia has “cash on hand,” amounting to P15 billion. (Not million as the BusinessMirror earlier reported).

The chief of the Public Affairs Office (PAO) of the Miaa, Connie Bungag, has said feeding passengers “is the job of the airlines concerned and not the Naia.”

Bungag said the Miaa was worried releasing funds would get the airport administration in trouble with the Commission on Audit (COA).

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano was said to have used the department’s funds to give P5,000 for each stranded passenger. The money was made available at the airport counters or at the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Pasay City.

Former Caap Director General Ramon S. Gutierrez said he perfectly understands Bungag’s or the Naia’s stance, given the climate of suspicion hanging over every public spending.

“It is the threat of the COA, running after government employees with legal charges, even after they have retired, that kills any desire to think outside the box,” Gutierrez said in an interview.

He added that if the Naia wanted to spend some money to feed the passengers and avoid the COA legal hounds, “they have to convene the board members and get a unanimous decision.”

“In case the COA asks for justification for such expenditures later, the employees could always say it was a board decision,” Gutierrez added.

Image Credits: Miaa Media Affairs via AP, AP/Bullit Marquez

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Recto L. Mercene, graduate BS Journalism, Lyceum of the Philippines. First prize winner, News Photojournalism, by Confederation of Asean Journalists, Bangkok, Thailand; second prize winner, Art and Photojournalism Award; San Miguel Corporation. Former Air Traffic Controller and private pilot. Colombo scholarship grantee: Hurn College of Air Traffic Control, Bournemouth, United Kingdom.


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