(STAR) AP - A special Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight departed yesterday afternoon for Chiang Mai in Thailand to pick up 433 stranded Filipino passengers, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Claro Cristobal said.

The passengers started moving out of Bangkok at around 5 a.m. yesterday for a 10-hour travel to Chiang Mai International Airport where the PAL 747 was waiting to bring them back to Manila. They were expected to arrive in Manila at midnight.

Cebu Pacific was also scheduled to send a 179-seater Airbus last night to Thailand to help in the airlift of Filipino passengers stranded by the shutdown of two Bangkok airports seized by Thai protesters demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

“We have made all the arrangements and have just received our permit to land in Utapao, which is about one and a half hours from Bangkok,” said Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific’s vice president for marketing and distribution.

She said the rescue flight was to leave at 9 last night and be back at 5 a.m. today. Iyog said non-Cebu Pacific passengers would be accommodated if there were seats available on the flight. PAL is sending another aircraft to Chiang Mai today for the passengers who cannot be accommodated in earlier flights to Manila.

“PAL is dispatching another aircraft to Chiang Mai at 3 p.m. today to pick up stranded Filipinos. It will be sending an Airbus 320 for the ferry flight, which can accommodate 156 passengers,” PAL spokesman Rolando Estabillo said.

The PAL flight was scheduled to fly back to Manila at around 8 p.m. with the first batch of airlifted passengers. The Philippine Embassy assisted the stranded passengers from hotels to the Bitec Center to Utapao military base near Bangkok. DFA Undersecretary Esteban Conejos Jr. explained that priority was given to passengers with PAL tickets and the 89 overseas Filipino workers transiting from Kuwait but were stranded in Bangkok. Conejos said the 89 OFWs holding tickets from Thai Airways were endorsed to PAL because of arrangements between the two airline companies.

“All our stranded passengers are being taken care of since the closure of airports in Thailand. We are making arrangements for flights to bring them home as soon as possible,” Conejos said in a press conference.

He added that the PAL technical team that inspected the Utapao military airbase and Chiang Mai International Airport recommended to land in Chang Mai because it is technically feasible. “Because of the crisis we cannot wait so the DFA decided to advance the ticket cost subject to reimbursement from Thai Airways. We authorized the disbursement of US$30,000,” he said.

According to Conejos, the US$30,000 disbursed includes the US$2,000 emergency fund for the Philippine Embassy in Bangkok to help provide basic necessities to stranded Filipinos and the cost of transporting them to Chiang Mai and other airports where they will be picked up. “We will collect them from Thai Airways.

Non-PAL passengers will pay for their tickets. Most of them are tourists,” he said.

PHOTO AT LEFT - Thai soldiers erect razor wire at the back of Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Thailand as anti-government protesters reinforced their siege of Bangkok's two airports yesterday.]

Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Thailand’s premiere airport, has been closed since Tuesday after it was occupied by thousands of anti-government protestors forcing the cancellations of all flights in and out of Bangkok.

The takeover of the airport was carried out while the Prime Minister was attending the Asia-Pacific summit in Peru.

The embassy recommended on Wednesday the postponement of non-essential travel to Bangkok by Filipino travelers because of escalation of violence and the campaign to oust Somchai.

Jamby among stranded

Sen. Jamby Madrigal is among those stranded in Thailand after protesters took over major airports in Bangkok last week, according to

Philippine Ambassador to Thailand Antonio Rodriguez.

“[Madrigal] is also waiting for an opportunity to go back to the Philippines because she has to be there by Wednesday,” Rodriguez told ABS-CBN News Channel.

He said that aside from Madrigal, at least 31 local officials of Lanao del Norte were also stranded in Bangkok including Rep. Abdullah Dimaporo and former governor Imelda Dimaporo.

He said Dimaporo’s group went to Bangkok for a business trip.

Rodriguez said an estimated 300 Filipinos are awaiting repatriation to the Philippines. “I think some of them are still somewhere in Thailand, enjoying the place. That’s why it is very difficult for us to give an accurate number of Filipinos who are still in Bangkok. Thailand is such a big place and it’s so easy to go to so many places,” he said.

The ambassador accompanied the Filipinos to Chiang Mai to see them off and will be heading back to Bangkok on the same bus.

It can be recalled that the Thai government has provided 2,000 baht per day, per stranded passenger for their hotel accommodation and meals.

“So far I haven’t heard anybody complain about the insufficiency of the amount provided by the Thai government,” he said. – Pia Lee-Brago

More flights to pick up stranded Pinoys in Thailand By Rudy Santos Updated December 03, 2008 12:00 AM

(STAR) Passengers join the long lines at the immigration area of the Centennial Terminal after a special flight by Philippine Airlines ferried more than 400 Filipinos and other foreigners stranded in Thailand. RUDY SANTOS

Philippine Airlines (PAL) chairman Lucio Tan has sent another Airbus 330 plane to Chiang Mai in Thailand to pick up some 320 Filipinos who were stranded at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok by anti-government protests.

Around 580 Filipinos were airlifted late Monday night and early yesterday morning by PAL and Cebu Pacific.

According to PAL spokesman Rolando Estabillo, PAL flight PR 732 took off at 4:30 p.m. yesterday. Return flight PAL PR 733 is expected to arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) at 1:30 a.m. today.

Among those airlifted back to the country were 89 domestic helpers from Kuwait headed by Alma Solis. They were stalled in Suvarnabhumi airport when their plane landed but was not allowed to take off.

There were rumors that hostilities were deferred to give way to the King’s birthday on Friday.

“But it will definitely be chaotic after the King’s birthday,” said Ellen Batan, who was among those who arrived Monday.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis said that the stranded Filipinos came from different hotels in Bangkok and have to travel nine hours by bus to Chiang Mai airport. The special PAL flight to Chiang Mai brought home on Monday at 11:20 p.m. a total of 422 stranded Filipino passengers while Cebu Pacific flight flew in yesterday at 7:30 a.m. with 158 more.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Philippine Embassy in Bangkok believed that all Filipino strandees should have been brought safely home with the three aircraft that flew to Thailand since Monday. “Nonetheless, DFA has reserve arrangements with Cebu Pacific to undertake another flight mission, should that be necessary,” the DFA said.

Cebu Pacific, for its part, has announced that it will send a second flight tomorrow (Wednesday, Dec. 3) to pick up around 150 passengers stranded by the closure of two Bangkok airports last week.

Candice Iyog, CEB vice president for marketing and distribution, said tomorrow’s flight, like the first one dispatched last Monday (Dec. 1), will use a 179-seat Airbus A320. The flight will leave at 9 p.m., and will be back in Manila with the passengers around 5 a.m. (Thursday).

“The Philippine embassy will transport the passengers first to a Bangkok check-in area and then to the U-Tapao military base, approximately two hours away, where the flight will take off for Manila,” Iyog said in a statement sent to The STAR.

Iyog clarified that after the 2nd rescue flight, the airline will await further advice from the DFA on whether additional flights will be needed. In connection with the repatriation, the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) has deployed social workers and emergency personnel at the NAIA Terminal II to assist incoming Filipino passengers from Thailand.

Among those already given assistance by the PNRC teams were two grandfathers and a grandmother aged 72 to 80.

The passengers were tourists transiting from the Middle East when the militant groups seized the airport. One of them was identified as Trinidad Ventoza. According to Rica Sebastian, of PNRC’s emergency response unit, the elders were complaining of shortness of breath when they arrived at the airport.

“We provided them with wheelchairs and checked their blood pressures which were normal,” she reported.

Younger passengers who were mostly overseas workers aged 22 to 30 were complaining of tiredness from the long trip. Reports reaching the PNRC showed there were some 500 Filipinos stranded at Thailand airport.

Jamby, among others

Among them was Sen. Jamby Madrigal, who is reportedly now in Pattaya, waiting for her turn to go home. The senator has reportedly called some of her colleagues in Manila to inform them that she is okay. She was attending a conference when the airport was seized. Madrigal was said to be stranded with the Prince of Norway.

“She’s okay but she is still unable to fly back home,” a source said.

As this developed, a Filipino couple who was among those who were stranded in Bangkok appealed to President Arroyo and the Cebu Pacific management yesterday to help them get back to the Philippines, after being stranded for around five days.

Allan Capinde and wife, Larem, went to Bangkok for a business trip on Nov. 22 last week to get supplies for their motorcycle parts business in Marikina City. They were supposed to return on a Cebu Pacific flight last Nov. 26 but weren’t able to leave. Mr. Capinde lamented that the PAL flights in Chiang Mai are “commercial flights,” meaning they have to shell out about 7,000 baht for every passenger if they are non-PAL ticket holders. Capinde is questioning why the Cebu Pacific management has not taken care of them.

“What about those who were booked with Cebu Pacific and those who do not have enough cash to purchase tickets?” Capinde told The STAR in an interview.

“We hope the government and Cebu Pacific can understand our predicament and help Filipinos like us who were not able to go home,” Capinde said in an interview Monday.

A blow to Thai tourism

An estimated 350,000 passengers have been unable to fly out of Thailand since anti-government protesters shut down Bangkok’s two airports last week. The main Suvarnabhumi international airport has been shut since last Tuesday when protesters besieged it in their bid to topple the premier, and a day later they stormed the smaller Don Mueang domestic airport. “Around 350,000 passengers remain stranded in Thailand since the closing of the airports,” Sasithara Pichaichannarong, permanent secretary at the tourism ministry, said.

That figure includes Thais who were booked on flights out of the kingdom. Tourists are scrambling to leave Thailand via the small, Vietnam-era U-Tapao airport southeast of Bangkok, where queues snake round the basic terminal and thousands of passengers jostle to get their luggage through one scanner. Check-in facilities have also been opened at a hotel and a convention center in Bangkok to try to work through the backlog of frustrated holidaymakers. Some tourists are also flying out of provincial airports including Phuket and Chiang Mai. France, Spain and Australia have sent special flights to evacuate desperate citizens stuck in Thailand.

The government has warned that the week-long siege of the airports will be crushing for the tourism industry, with one minister saying that one million jobs could be lost next year and arrivals could drop by half. – Pia Lee-Brago, Shiela Crisostomo, Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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