Like millions of Filipinos, development worker Tata Catarata went back to their home province of Cebu to spend the holiday season with their family. They booked a return flight to Manila on the first day of 2023. But like tens of thousands of other passengers, they were stranded at their airport of origin, belatedly informed that their flight had been cancelled because the country’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system is down.
“We arrived at the Mactan International Airport at past 2 pm. Upon entering the gate towards checking in, we were barred and simply told that flights are canceled. We asked why and they could not explain. Basta lang, it’s canceled,” Tata bewailed.
Early on the first day of the New Year, just when domestic and international travel is at its peak, the Philippines was hit by an air travel crisis. As the day wore on, the government said a reported 361 incoming and outgoing flights at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) had either been cancelled or diverted, many of which flew all the way back to their airports of origin. About 56,000 passengers were stranded all over the archipelago yesterday, including Tata’s family.
Without providing specifics, transportation secretary Jaime Bautista said “technical issues” brought about the suspension of NAIA operations. Speculations said the radar system was down, preventing airplanes from taking off or landing. Initial and unconfirmed reports said Manila’s radar sytem was brought down by an electricity outage that has since been disputed by power supply providers. In a subsequent statement, Bautista said NAIA’s ATM needs at least Php13 billion pesos for its much-needed upgrade.
But it is not only airport operations that made the problem worse for the affected passengers. Tata said local airlines were of no help to them either.
She said they decided to follow the advice of the government to have their flights rebooked. But the Philippine Airlines (PAL) ticketing office in Cebu was already jam-packed when they arrived and they were barred from entering the premises. An airline representative told them to rebook online but repeatedly failed. Tata said she had to brave the crowd and waited to be accommodated at the ticketing office. It took her eight hours to finally be rebooked, she added.
“I asked PAL if there is food and accommodation for us as secretary Bautista said. PAL said there’s none because the situation was not their fault. But, definitely, it’s also not the stranded passengers fault, is it? So who is accountable here?” Tata said.
Respect passenger rights
Bautista said the Department of Transportation (DOTr) has directed the airlines to provide food and refreshments, transportation lodging and accommodation for all affected passengers free of charge. But this failed to prevent thousands of passengers spending the first night of 2023 at NAIA’s various terminals, the airlines refusing to heed the government’s directive.
The affected passengers should automatically be taken care of and receive compensation for the inconvenience they suffer if only the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights passed, former Representative and Bayan Muna chairperson Neri Colmenares lamented.
Colmenares said his sponsored bill had passed the House of Representatives (HOR) in 2016 but failed to become law due to lack of support in the Senate.
Colmenares explained that in case of flight delay, airlines should offer free re-booking, flight refund or endorsement to another carrier.
“For terminal delay of at least three hours, passengers have the right to avail themselves of refreshments or meals, free phone calls, text or emails and first aid,” he added.
“But from the reports we received many passengers went hungry yesterday and others slept on airports. This should be addressed immediately and the incident should not be used to justify another sale of government asset and increase in airline rates,” Colmenares said.
Incompetence or pretext to privatization?
Another Makabayan bloc Representative said the timing of the reported technical ATM glitch is “fishy”, happening as it did very closely after the DOTr announced just last December that the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. government is pursuing NAIA’s privatization.
In a briefing last Wednesday, Bautista told reporters: “We have worked with the Asian Development Bank for the preparation of the terms of reference for the privatization of the Manila International Airport.”
“Todo naman yata ang pagtutulak na muli sa pribatisasyon ng mga key assets at services ng gobyerno na wala na namang konsultasyon sa mamamayan na papasan ng dagdag bayarin o singil dahil dito. Kahapon lang din ay tinanggal na ng DOTr ang libreng sakay sa EDSA bus carousel at plano din pagsasapribado nito,” said HOR Deputy Minority Leader and ACT Teachers Party Rep. France Castro said.
(It looks like the privatization of the government’s key assets and services are being pushed to the hilt even without consulting the people who will bear the brunt of added costs. Just yesterday, the DOTr also ended the free ride service on the EDSA bus carousel that is in line with proposal for its privatization.)
“Sa annoucement ng DOTr sa pribatisasyon ng NAIA noong Dec.30 at nangyaring ‘power outage’ kahapon ay di natin masisisi ang mamamayan na mag-isip na ito ay sinadya para mapabilis ang pagbebenta nito kahit di kinukonsulta ang mamamayan at ipaliwanag ang ireresulta nitong pagtaas pa ng singil sa pasahe sa eroplano,” Castro added.
(In DOTr’s December 30 announcement of NAIA’s privatization, we could not blame the people into thinking yesterday’s so-called power outage was staged to make the airport’s sale faster. This, even if the government has yet to consult the people and explain the impending increase in plane fares.) ###