RP scrambles to correct FAA downgrade

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE government yesterday scrambled to correct deficiencies in local aviation standards after US regulators downgraded Philippine airline operations due to safety concerns.

The downgrade Tuesday by the US Federal Aviation Administration hurt Philippine Airlines, the only local airline that flies to the United States, but might also lead to huge losses for the trade and tourism industries as it would create a negative impression of the country, officials said.

Among the FAA’s concerns were outdated aviation regulations, poor training programs for safety inspectors, and sub-standard licensing for airframe and engine inspectors.

Senator Mar Roxas, chairman of the Senate committee on trade, filed a resolution calling for an inquiry into the FAA downgrade.

“It is not just enough to be compliant up to minimum [aviation] standards,” he said. “We have to be on par with the world’s best.”

Senator Joker Arroyo, chairman of the finance sub-committee, said aviation officials did not ask for additional funding to upgrade facilities or safety standards when they submitted their budget request for 2008.

The senator said the Aviation Transportation Office asked for only P7.37 million—or $180,000—under its 2007 budget for capital outlay and equipment. For this year, it asked for and received P21 million or $572,000 for the same purpose.

“What the ATO asked for, they got,” he said.

PAL said the FAA downgrade meant it would not be allowed to fly to new US cities or change the type of aircraft used on existing US destinations.

In a statement, Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza said he had ordered a review of the deficiencies identified by the FAA, and vowed to rectify the problems.

He said the Air Transportation Office, which is responsible for regulating air safety in the Philippines, was working with experts from the International Civil Aviation Organization to address the problems.

Mendoza promised Manila would “tap its available resources” to provide the solutions.

“In effect, the ATO has addressed and [is] continuously addressing the other deficiencies as per the FAA safety audit,” he said.

Robert Lim Joseph, president of the Network of Independent Travel Agencies, said tourists and potential investors might shun the Philippines because of the downgrade. He said “billions of dollars” in potential revenues could be lost.

This view was echoed by the Philippine Travel Agencies Association, which said the downgrade cast a negative image of the country “as an unsafe destination with untrustworthy facilities and infrastructure.”

Association president Jose Clemente III urged the government to quickly correct the problems that led to the FAA downgrade.

Mendoza said he would urge Congress to speed up passage of a bill that would create a Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines to replace the ATO.

The bill converts the ATO into a corporation, a move aimed at giving it more financial flexibility and improving its operating efficiency.

In the FAA audit, the Philippines passed only the first requirement, which is the existence of a law on civil aviation.

PAL said Tuesday that the Category 2 rating barred it from increasing its 33 flights a week to the United States and US territories, and from changing the type or increasing the number of aircraft on those routes.

PAL has been urging the ATO to “rectify the assessed deficiencies in its air safety oversight functions so the country can revert to Category 1.”

At the Palace, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye urged local carriers to bear with the delay in their expansion plans, saying the government would do all it could to secure an upgrade this year.