(STAR)  By Marvin Sy - President Arroyo has ordered the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to immediately find ways to bring the Philippines back to Category 1 status with the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).

Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano said that the President made it clear during last Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting in Palawan that the CAAP should resolve the FAA downgrade of the Philippines aviation safety rating immediately in order to maximize the opportunities coming from North America.

It has been more than two years since the FAA downgraded the Philippines from Category 1 to Category 2 because the country “either lacks laws or regulations necessary to oversee air carriers in accordance with minimum international standards, or that its civil aviation authority – equivalent to the FAA – is deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping or inspection procedures.”

In order to achieve Category 1 status, the civil aviation authority must comply with the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Durano noted that the ICAO has also classified the Philippines as having significant security risks.

Both issues have far reaches as far as the country’s tourism sector is concerned, particularly the opportunity losses from countries such as the US, South Korea and Japan.

In the case of the FAA downgrade, Durano noted that Philippine Airlines was one of the most affected because it has brought in two Boeing 777-300ER aircrafts and cannot use them for the North American routes.

As for the ICAO’s rating, Durano said that Japan and Korea have used this to deny Philippine carriers additional frequencies, which they have been requesting.

The rebound in the economies of the US, Japan and Korea from the global financial crisis is expected to result in more traveling by its residents to destinations such as the Philippines, which offers warm weather all year round.

Category 2 could permanently damage tourism TAKIN' CARE OF BUSINESS By Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) Updated February 25, 2010 12:00 AM

While we continue to struggle with our economy that has become largely dependent on remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers, the downgrading of the Philippines’ rating to Category 2 by the US Federal Aviation Administration more than two years ago could permanently damage the tourism industry. It can be recalled that in the November 2007 audit conducted by the FAA, the country’s civil aviation system was found to be seriously noncompliant with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Unfortunately, the Category 2 rating gave the public a false impression that Philippine carriers like PAL are not safe – when in fact, the deficiencies (operating regulations, technical guidance, licensing and certifications) were more procedural and technical in nature. FAA found that the then-Air Transportation Office did not have authority “under existing national regulations to conduct appropriate safety oversight functions.” ATO’s record-keeping and filing system was in disarray; it lacked necessary equipment, personnel and technical procedures to certify the airworthiness of carriers; employees conducting airman licensing tests do not have appropriate training and qualifications. Likewise, there was no training program for basic areas of inspector functions. Worse, the FAA could not identify who in the ATO was fully trained. In short, personnel were doing jobs which they were not qualified or trained for.

The government scrambled to restore the country’s Category 1 rating by scrapping the ATO and creating the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines in 2008. Unfortunately, ICAO’s recent issuance of a significant safety concern or SSC rating – putting the Philippines in the same category as 13 other countries like Angola, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Rwanda – again gave the wrong impression that Philippine carriers are not safe when in fact, all these failures have nothing to do with an airline’s operations or its safety record. In fact, PAL, the country’s flag carrier, adheres to international aviation standards and is the only Philippine carrier to pass the International Air Transport Association (IATA) operational safety audit.

I was told by the president of PAL, our good friend Jimmy Bautista, that CAAP inspectors must have the necessary qualifications and the length of experience to do their jobs competently. CAAP was created as an autonomous and centralized civil aviation authority, but a DOTC circular ruled that current inspectors – who presumably were holdovers from the defunct ATO and found unqualified under standards set by the ICAO – are protected by the Civil Service Commission.

The best solution is for CAAP to hire qualified consultants to expedite the lifting of the Category 2 rating and address ICAO’s SSC rating. This is what Indonesia did after it was given a Category 2 rating. This adversely affected its flag carrier, Garuda Indonesia, because it had to suspend flights to Los Angeles. Late last year, the US government invited the carrier to reopen direct flights to the US after the Indonesian aviation rating was upgraded to Category 1. CAAP should follow Indonesia’s example and help our airlines that are already suffering from the global financial crisis like PAL and even Cebu Pacific. What is strange however was the manner by which the FAA downgrade was implemented. The audit was done in July 2007, followed by a written warning to ATO in October indicating that the issuance of the Category 2 rating was imminent. At the time, Hawaiian Airlines was filing for a Foreign Air Carrier Permit with the Civil Aeronautics Board to operate to Manila from Honolulu. According to sources, the FAA officially issued the downgrade in January 2008 – after Hawaiian Airlines obtained a temporary operating permit from CAB. Worse, the FAA waited until after PAL pushed through with its purchase of the Boeing 777s which were specifically targeted for the long range US market.

As it is, PAL’s planned flight increase to Honolulu and other US destinations have been put on hold – making the airline a clear victim of the FAA downgrade. Sources say the cost to PAL alone is $100 million a year since 2007, so you can just imagine the damage not only on the flag carrier but on the tourism industry as a whole, especially with news that Australia and the European Union are planning to issue a similar downgrade to the Philippines’ aviation system. I really don’t understand why government has failed to act quickly in lifting the FAA downgrade and protect this country from unnecessary aggravation. This is no longer about politics but our own pride as a country and the protection of our interest as a nation, which is why government should strengthen the mandate of civil aviation authorities.

As a matter of fact, I myself have a first-hand experience regarding safety violations. Last weekend, we were flying by helicopter en route to Batangas and avoided – by just a few seconds – a collision with a seaplane piloted by some American named Mike O’Farrell, registered under Subic Seaplane Inc. with the devilish number RPC-666. There is no question the fixed-wing aircraft had no business flying on a helicopter route at that altitude. O’Farrell is 66 years old and is definitely beyond the age limit for flying a commercial aircraft. The irony is, he’s even claiming to be close to the US Embassy. So what?!? He can be close to Obama – who the hell cares! We’re talking about lives here, particularly that of the tourists he flies. There have allegedly been numerous complaints against this old pilot about culpable violations regarding air safety rules and regulations but surprisingly, he’s still allowed to fly. Ironically, we’re given a Category 2 rating by the US FAA but here’s an American violating our own air safety rules.

It is totally unacceptable for a foreigner to blatantly ignore and violate our air safety regulations. Civil aviation authorities must act on this matter immediately because the next time this over-aged pilot flies on the wrong altitude, he may kill 300 people on a 747. This is only one of the safety problems that aviation officials must address quickly – and not react when lives have already been lost.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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