With the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) having recently given the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) its endorsement and with regulators from the European Union and the US Federal Aviation Administration nearing critical decisions on whether or not to end restrictions against the Philippines’ air carriers—in other words, at a time when the CAAP ought to be on its best behavior—the agency has inexplicably decided to cap off a less-than-stellar month by picking a fight with Japanese civil aviation authorities, even recommending to President Aquino that the Philippines abrogate the air services agreement between the two countries. That step, should the President decide to take it, could very likely result in the immediate suspension of service between the two countries by the four carriers concerned, Philippine Airlines, Japan Air Lines, Cebu Pacific, and All Nippon Airways.
In interviews last week, CAAP Deputy Director General John Andrews revealed that agency chief William K. Hotchkiss wrote to Malacañang “a few weeks ago” after Japan’s Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) denied applications from Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific for more routes to Japan. In his statements to reporters—apparently echoing Hotchkiss’ sentiments in the letter to President Aquino—Andrews characterized Japan’s actions as “insulting” and “not treating the Philippines as a co-equal” in denying the applications, adding that the Japanese “are demanding things that are not within their purview to ask” as prerequisites to approving expanded service to Japan by Philippine carriers.
The presumed reason for Japan’s rejection is the fact that the Philippines, despite the recent positive assessment by the ICAO, is still under EU and US restrictions. While the ICAO’s judgment does carry a lot of weight, it is not legally binding; air regulators in every country do generally follow ICAO recommendations concerning foreign carriers, but are not obliged to do so.
When asked if the Philippines’ Category 2 status was in fact the reason for Japan’s decision, however, Andrews was evasive. He suggested instead that economic and competition concerns of Japan Air Lines were the real cause, telling ABS-CBN, “Well, they are not really stating that [the Philippines’ Category 2 status]for a fact. But look at it this way, as soon as our low-cost airlines start going to Japan, that is going to derail the . . . you know what I mean,” a decidedly less-than-categorical statement that didn’t stop the Business Mirror, the other major media outlet carrying the story last week, from reporting that the Japan CAB “gave as reason for its refusal to grant more flight frequencies to Philippine carriers the fact that the Philippines remained on Category 2.”
Thanks to the signing of a technical assistance agreement between the CAAP and the FAA earlier this month and a visit from a team of EU inspectors, the lifting of the Philippines’ restricted status would seem likely—the FAA Category 2 restriction could be lifted as soon as this month, with the removal of the Philippines from the EU blacklist following perhaps in November. Since this is presumably the end stage of the assessment process by the Americans and the Europeans, it is likely the CAAP is under close scrutiny as the foreign regulators take one final opportunity to review their decisions. This is not the time for the CAAP to be igniting controversy, or by doing anything at all to give anyone the impression they are not completely and thoughtfully in control of everything within their areas of responsibility.
The irony of accusing Japanese authorities of favoring the interests of their flag carrier while complaining about Japanese ‘intrusiveness’ into Philippine affairs obviously escapes Andrews, whose resume as a former operations manager for Cebu Pacific has already led to some skepticism about his objectivity. While he is by all accounts probably the most experienced and talented pilot this country has ever produced, he is turning out to be an appallingly bad spokesman for his agency, and apparently shares the large blind spot his boss Hotchkiss has for public relations and the image the CAAP is projecting. Rather than appearing as an agency in command, the CAAP has spent the entire month looking like a chaotic, reckless, over-politicized mess.
It began, of course, with the off-runway excursion of Cebu Pacific flight 5J-971 in Davao at the beginning of the month, in which the CAAP’s ham-fisted response to the accident—which included leaving one of the country’s major airport completely out of service for nearly 48 hours and not impounding the disabled aircraft, out of deference to the airline—was matched only by Andrew’s lack of discretion in his comments to the media. Barely three days after the accident, Andrews had already declared the crash was the result of “pilot error” in media interviews, short-circuiting the official investigation that had hardly begun at that point.
His statement drew stinging criticism from Cesar Jose Lucero, one of the CAAP’s own investigators (and who has also filed a case before the Ombudsman against Andrews, Hotchkiss and others in connection with the investigation into the crash that claimed the life of former Local Government secretary Jesse Robredo), who told Andrews to “stop lawyering for Cebu Pacific.” Philippine Star columnist (and a former director of the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority) Bobit Avila also sounded off on Andrews in a June 6 column that was, remarkably, reposted on the Civil Aeronautic Board’s website, accusing the CAAP and Andrews in particular of being “unprofessional” for stating in a TV interview that there “was clear proof” of pilot error, based on a photograph of skid marks from the downed Cebu Pacific plane’s tires on the Davao runway.
And now, the CAAP has decided to elevate a disagreement with the Japanese CAB to a public issue for reasons that are at best childish, complaints about “insults to national sovereignty” and veiled accusations of corruption against the Japanese authorities. There may be legitimate issues to protest, but the CAAP hasn’t given any. Like it or not, the Philippines’ downgraded status has not been changed yet, and if the issue is equitable access, that is not clearly out-of-balance in Japan’s favor: the Japanese carriers mount 41 weekly flights to two cities in the Philippines, while Philippine carriers currently fly 34 times weekly to five Japanese destinations. Regardless, the problem with Japan could certainly have waited until after the anticipated EU and US status upgrades.
Unless, of course, those upgrades—which the CAAP’s recent performance actually suggests might not be such a good idea after all—are not as imminent as the agency would like us to believe, and Andrews was simply projecting his own more immediate “business concerns” on the Japanese. After all, Cebu Pacific has just received its first long-haul Airbus A330, and the first new planes of PAL’s massive re-fleeting investment are due to arrive any day now. Those planes will have to fly somewhere, and soon. As Andrews himself said,“ . . . you know what I mean.” Yes, we may indeed.