MANILA, OCTOBER 30, 2003 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - Malacañang rejected yesterday the Senate’s insistence that it submit for ratification the "open skies" arrangement being renegotiated between the Philippines and the United States.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the Palace is standing pat on its position that the bilateral air pact is an executive agreement and not a treaty subject to the constitutional requirement for ratification by the Senate.

"The position of the Palace remains the same," he told reporters.

A confrontation has been brewing between Malacañang and the Senate over the open skies arrangement contained in the 1982 Air Transport Agreement between the US and the Philippines.

Senators Manuel Villar Jr., Joker Arroyo, Ralph Recto and Sergio Osmeña III earlier claimed that Malacañang has to submit the treaty, and any amendment to be negotiated, to the Senate for ratification.

Villar and Arroyo head the foreign relations committee and the public services committee in the Senate, respectively.

Bunye said the proposed air pact is still being renegotiated under the supervision of a three-man Cabinet team designated by President Arroyo to secure "the best terms" for the Philippines.

The members of the team in charge of the negotiations are Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon, and Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza.

Bunye said the three Cabinet officials were instructed by the President "to renegotiate the pact, renegotiate for better terms," but did not elaborate. He did not comment on the status of the negotiations on the controversial air pact.

For his part, Vice President Teofisto Guingona threw his support behind the Senate on the issue of the open skies agreement.

"I said it before in a letter to the President and I maintain my position that the agreement was a treaty that needed Senate concurrence," he said in a statement.

Guingona was Mrs. Arroyo’s first foreign affairs secretary.

In the letter, Guingona said he recommended that the Department of Foreign Affairs inform the US embassy in Manila that the air pact required Senate ratification.

"The agreement, owing to the lack of Senate concurrence, cannot yet enter into force on the side of the Philippines," the letter read. "Although concluded in 1980 as a treaty, the RP-US (Air Transport Agreement) has never been concurred in by the Senate and thus lacks a vital constitutional requirement. On this account, it cannot be legally binding on the side of the Philippines."

Guingona said he opposed the open skies agreement because the local aviation industry was not ready to compete with US carriers, given the US governments’ subsidy of its airline industry.

He said the policy will undermine the regulatory powers of the Civil Aeronautics Board, particularly in supervising traffic volume, regularity of services and type of aircraft used by the airline.

Villar said "we cannot allow the implementation of this lopsided agreement. It has to be submitted to the Senate for scrutiny as required by the Constitution."

Recto, for his part, said Malacañang should submit the air transport agreement for Senate ratification since it affects national interest.

"As far as I am concerned, this treaty prejudices local airlines, which cannot compete with the big US carriers, and the tens of thousands of workers and their families who are dependent on the local aviation industry," he said.

Osmeña said if the open skies policy is enforced, American airlines will "kill" local carriers — including flag carrier Philippine Airlines — because US airlines are heavily subsidized.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Franklin Ebdalin earlier said the adverse effects of the open skies agreement on the local aviation industry were limited.

He said local carriers should not be threatened by the agreement because US airlines have not maximized the 36 flights already allowed them every week.

Philippine Airlines has only 20 flights every week to the US while US flag carrier Northwest has 14 flights to Manila. The open skies agreement removes the cap on the number of flights per week. — With Sammy Santos

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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