There are many reasons that have become painfully apparent in the aftermath of last Sunday’s botched landing of Cebu Pacific Flight 5J-971 in Davao, why the nation’s air industry regulators are not yet worthy of the full approval of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union (EU). But if we had to point to just one, it would have to be the desperate amount of attention the leaders at the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) have given to the question of how the Davao accident—which most inconveniently occurred just as an audit team from the EU was arriving in the Philippines—might affect the government’s five-year struggle to recover FAA Category 1 status and remove the country from the EU blacklist.
The restrictions, of course, prevent airlines from the Philippines from mounting new flights from the Philippines to the US or Europe. The FAA lowered the Philippines’ status from Category 1 to Category 2 in 2008, which has prevented expanding air connections beyond the couple Philippine Airline flights that were already allowed up to that time. In 2010, just as the CAAP was supposed to be making progress toward having the US restrictions lifted, the EU placed Philippine air carriers on its blacklist, banning any airline from the Philippines from flying to destinations in Europe. These restrictions have put an obvious crimp in the expansion plans of both Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, as well as being perceived as having a negative impact on tourism growth and the growth of the Philippines’ air transport sector in general.
After several years of effort, the CAAP had apparently reached a point where many of the regulatory concerns had been resolved, as indicated by a favorable assessment by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) earlier this year, and positive feedback from visiting FAA monitors at the beginning of May. The Davao mishap, which very fortunately did not result in any loss of life or serious injury, was certainly not something anyone would have wanted to happen, but nevertheless should have provided a perfect opportunity for the CAAP to demonstrate to the visiting EU inspectors—as well as the FAA and ICAO, who are undoubtedly closely monitoring news from the Philippines—its organizational competence in dealing with an incident and subsequent corrective measures.
Rather than seizing the opportunity, however, the CAAP has instead prioritized image management and in doing so may have erased five years of painfully slow progress toward certification. The important topic of discussion—to the extent that the CAAP should be discussing it at all, until a thorough investigation is completed—is the accident itself, because the immediate priority is guaranteeing the safety and reliability of air transportation in the Philippines. Until the flying public can be firmly reassured that the incident was not a symptom of much larger problems that increase the likelihood of another accident, any other issues are irrelevant. The issue of the status upgrades can wait, yet that is all CAAP Director General William Hotchkiss 3rd and his boss, Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Abaya, have been talking about in the media since the accident, claiming the upgrades are still “on track” and that if anything, the accident shows the CAAP “has the capability to enforce regulations and to demonstrate safety oversight in the subsequent investigation that would follow” (according to Hotchkiss, quoted in numerous reports last Tuesday). “Demonstrating safety oversight” apparently means being able to successfully arrange for having the disabled Airbus A-320 cleared from Davao’s only runway, after giving Cebu Pacific until Tuesday afternoon to try to do it themselves.
The concerned agencies’ manifest anxiety in trying to convince the public, the visiting EU delegation, and probably themselves that there is still a chance the upgrades could happen is pathetic and, not to put too fine a point on it, more than little dishonest. Details that have emerged after the accident in Davao describe failure upon failure, from the mishandled landing itself, to the crew’s apparent inability to respond promptly and effectively to an emergency, the slow response of airport emergency personnel, a lack of coordination between the airport and emergency response resources of the city of Davao, and a complete lack of effective care and management of the passengers after the incident by Cebu Pacific and the airport authorities. One or two of these failures would be adequately explained as a localized problem that could be corrected; all of them occurring at once in a single incident can only be explained by an entire system malfunctioning—a system which is the sole responsibility of the CAAP to oversee and regulate.
The importance to foreign aviation authorities that the Philippines’ air transport sector is overseen and regulated effectively is this: The regulatory body in any country is responsible for air safety within its borders, so it must be confident that foreign carriers it allows into its jurisdiction meet an internationally accepted set of safety and competence standards, and pose no greater risk than those carriers under its direct supervision. So, for example, if an airliner from the Philippines has a bad landing in Amsterdam, the Dutch and European authorities can be assured that the flight crew and cabin personnel are properly trained and prepared to respond swiftly and correctly to the emergency, allowing the local response resources to do their jobs most efficiently.
Having the standards and regulations on paper is one thing; actually seeing them carried out is quite another, and any foreign air regulators monitoring the chain of events and outcomes of the Davao accident have just learned that the divergence between rule and practice is particularly acute here in the Philippines. There was a hint, however, that the FAA might already realize that, and it was noted—though in the most evasive terms possible—by the CAAP’s Hotchkiss himself: in the course of his indulgent press comments earlier this week, Hotchkiss revealed that he has just signed (last Monday) an agreement for two years of “technical assistance” from the FAA “to make sure we will be on track for Category 1.” That is a far cry from reports last month suggesting that status might be achieved as early as the end of this month.
Air transportation is critically important to this island nation. It is well past time for those responsible for its regulation to be reminded that the real reason it is important is not to provide economic opportunities abroad for a couple of big airlines, but to provide safe and efficient travel for the citizens and visitors in the Philippines.