, JANUARY 8, 2007 (STAR) By Rainier Allan Ronda - The Air Transportation Office (ATO) said the Arab carrier Gulf Air should be blamed for the diversion of its Manila-bound flight from Dubai to the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Pampanga last Wednesday which the airline claimed had endangered the lives of more than 213 passengers.

Gulf Air officials complained that the airline was already low on fuel but was not allowed to land at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) because the runway was closed as part of security measures for the flight of the private jet of President Arroyo.

Assistant Secretary Nilo Jatico, ATO director, declared that ATO should instead file a complaint against Gulf Air for failing to comply with existing rules provided by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on the observance of fuel reserves on commercial flights.

In their investigation on the diversion of Gulf Air flight GF 154 bound for Manila last Wednesday and which had a scheduled time of arrival at the NAIA at 1:55 p.m., Jatico said that they found that the Gulf Air jet arrived at the NAIA airspace at exactly 1:41 p.m.

Jatico said the ATO had declared a quasi-emergency at the NAIA runway at 2:06 p.m. for the takeoff of a private jet bearing Mrs. Arroyo who was then bound for Davao City to attend the wedding of a son of Davao Rep. Prospero Nograles. The NAIA runway was closed for takeoffs and landing for 10 minutes.

"A quasi-emergency procedure is a standard operating procedure (SOP) adopted by the international flying community giving preference to presidential flights for security and safety reasons," Jatico explained.

The quasi-emergency, Jatico said, only took nine minutes since the NAIA was already declared open for regular operations immediately after the presidential jet took off at 2:06 p.m.

"From the time Gulf Air 154 arrived at the NAIA airspace at 1:41 p.m. up to the time that the airport was opened at 2:06 p.m., there was a difference of 25 minutes," Jatico said.

Jatico issued the statement in response to an exclusive STAR report regarding a plan of Gulf Air to make a formal complaint against air traffic controllers of the ATO for last Wednesday’s diversion of GF 154 to Clark, Pampanga.

Gulf Air said ATO’s air traffic controllers have gravely erred and seriously endangered the lives of the flight’s passengers when they failed to give GF 154 priority to land at NAIA at the end of the quasi-emergency declared for the passage of the private jet bearing the President, which had forced the pilot to divert to Pampanga due to the low level of its fuel.

Several passengers of the flight, many of whom were homecoming "balikbayans," had complained that the sudden diversion to Pampanga made them miss connecting flights to the provinces.

Jatico, however, said that the pilot had failed to declare an emergency over the low fuel which could have led air traffic controllers at the Manila air control tower to give the flight priority to land.

"At 2:13 p.m., while being directed by radar controllers to follow the air traffic ahead of him, the Gulf Air pilot said that he is low on fuel and requested to be diverted to Clark," Jatico said.

"If the pilot’s claim is true that he is low on fuel, it is also a standard operating procedure that the pilot should have declared an emergency, where air traffic controllers would automatically grant him priority to land over all the preceding air traffic," Jatico stressed.

Gulf Air Philippines is reportedly waiting for the pilot of GF 154 to submit his "voyage report" before making their formal complaint to the ATO.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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