By now most everyone has heard the disappointing news that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will not be lifting the Philippines’ embarrassing Category 2 safety rating, meaning that the country’s air carriers will continue to be prevented from adding new flights to the US for the foreseeable future.
Although the official report will likely not be issued by the American authorities until sometime next month at the earliest, what has been revealed by information leaked from inside the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) and unofficially confirmed by a US source connected to the FAA, as well as the noteworthy absence of the CAAP’s typical bravado that follows a visit by foreign aviation inspectors is rather damning: Despite assurances from the CAAP that progress was being made, the details of the FAA team’s latest assessment indicate that virtually nothing has changed since the end of 2010, when the CAAP’s former chief Alfonso Cusi was forced out by the Aquino administration.
Cusi, who had been the general manager of the Manila International Airport Authority prior to his appointment to the CAAP, offended the regime by being an Arroyo appointee as well as by openly questioning the administration’s bypassing the CAAP’s staffing procedures to find jobs for Aquino favorites—procedures that had been put in place specifically to address some of the negative assessments by US and international auditors. At the time, the inconsistent approach to human resources had actually caused an expected audit by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to be postponed over concerns that the CAAP was being politicized.
Cusi’s resignation, which was handled in the typically childish way President Benigno Aquino 3rd has treated every technocrat he inherited from the Arroyo era, ironically helped to solve the “politicization” problem. Among knowledgeable people involved in the ratings downgrade issue for most or all of its six-plus years (and counting), the consensus is that Cusi was not a miracle worker by any means but was making slow, steady progress until he was subjected to the Aquino “antagonize him until he quits” method of human resources management by way of the then-head of the Department of Transportation and Communications, Ping de Jesus. Ironically, Cusi’s departure actually helped the CAAP; the Aquino administration stopped making things difficult for the agency once Cusi was replaced (after a couple more rounds of management musical chairs) with the politically appropriate tandem of William Hotchkiss and John Andrews.
But the political cost of having put the people he wanted (whether or not they were the people he actually needed) in place at the CAAP for Aquino is that he now owns the ratings upgrade problem; the CAAP is directly responsible for blowing yet another opportunity to have the restrictions lifted, but he is responsible for putting the CAAP together the way it is now. Or was—Deputy Director Andrews was due to return from sick leave on Monday (February 17), but there were already indications last week that his boss, Hotchkiss, had made up his mind (or had been instructed) not to wait to see if Andrews would make good on his own version of the hypothetical resignation act that has become fashionable among members of the Aquino administration.
For that matter, Hotchkiss should probably follow his understudy out the door. Both men are among the most experienced pilots the Philippines has ever had—Hotchkiss was one of the country’s outstanding military pilots, while Andrews has about 24,000 flight-hours of experience flying the Boeing 747—and both have some relevant managerial experience, Hotchkiss as a former commander of the Air Force, and Andrews as an executive with Cebu Pacific. But good resumes and aspirations are not substitutes for actually doing real work. “The problem is, for at least the last two years the FAA has been hearing, ‘We’ve got the right people in place,’ from the CAAP, but they’re not actually doing anything,” our US-based source said, echoing the comments widely reported in the local media from the as-yet unknown CAAP source of the FAA’s assessment.
“If anything, the evaluation this time was even worse than the last one,” the US source added.
The specific areas where the CAAP failed the latest examination are alarming. The FAA team found that essentially none of the CAAP’s Airmen Examination Board personnel are properly qualified “to prepare, administer and evaluate written theoretical examination[s]” for pilots; that the CAAP Airworthiness Technical Guide “does not contain complete policies, procedures and standards”; that the country still lacks some important Primary Aviation Legislation (which to be fair is not exactly CAAP’s fault); and that the CAAP has not complied with a provision of international air traffic management standards relating to “approach ban provisions,” which are rules that govern when an aircraft can land safely.
This latter shortcoming, according to the US source, most likely contributed to the “off-runway excursion” accident of a Cebu Pacific flight in Davao last July, and possibly also the crash of a SkyJet Airlines flight which overran the runway at Balesin Island and ended up in the surf (fortunately without serious harm to the passengers) last October.
Clearly, the government is not taking seriously the costs the continuing downgraded status is imposing on the country. The aviation safety assessment status may not be well-known or understood by the public outside the Philippines, but it is certainly well-known and understood by agencies that matter: Insurers; other countries’ aviation regulators; air industry and infrastructure investors; and tourism facilitators. The problem should not have been allowed to continue as long as it has, and it certainly cannot be allowed to continue any longer.