Flight Plans

In the end it was a minor incident, something that perhaps could be put down to crossed signals or miscommunication but when it came to light Sunday that a commercial airliner running out of fuel had to be diverted from landing in Manila because President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s official Lear Jet was preparing to take her to a high society wedding, it spoke volumes about the Philippines.

Gulf Air Flight 154 was at the end of a nine-hour flight from Bahrain on 3 January, carrying 231 passengers aboard an Airbus A340 when it radioed the control tower at Ninoy Aquino International Airport asking for immediate clearance. It was low on fuel, according to Leoncio Nakpil, the airline’s Manila security chief.

Permission was denied because Arroyo and her entourage were in the Lear Jet, preparing to go to Davao City in Mindanao where she was due to stand as a wedding sponsor in the marriage of Karlo Nograles, the eldest son of House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles, to Margarita Montemayor, the daughter of another well connected political figure, Leon Montemayor, chairman of the Philippine Sports Commission.

The pilot made a decision to divert, Nakpil said, because of the fuel situation. The passengers on Flight 154, most of them returning overseas workers — the people Arroyo routinely calls “heroes” for sending their hard-earned cash home to keep a perpetually struggling economy afloat were delayed for about three hours, finally landing in Manila at around 4:30 in the afternoon. (For 2006, it is estimated overseas remittances from Filipino workers topped $13.4 billion, or about 16 percent of GDP, another record year.)

It was the airborne equivalent of a frequent scene on Manila’s chaotic streets. Everybody waits while a big shot of some description, usually a politician in an SUV with black-tinted windows, plows through traffic accompanied by a police escort and wailing sirens. As often as not, it could be a mayor going for lunch with his buddies or a congressman urgently needed on the golf course. Avoiding traffic is a much sought-after perk of power here.

That Arroyo was heading for a wedding that united two powerful political families, a wedding not unlike the union between her own clan and her husband’s powerful bloodline, seemed altogether fitting in a country that still seems to be run for the exclusive benefit of a handful of feudal landholding families who pass political power back and forth between them and divide the spoils of these islands through business deals, elections and cronyism.

In this case, according to Nakpil, who is fuming mad over the incident, the tower did not interpret Gulf Air’s fuel shortage as enough of an emergency to justify briefly delaying the presidential wedding party. Instead, Flight 154 landed 100 kilometers north of Manila at the former Clark Air Base, which also has an international airport (named, coincidentally, after Arroyo’s father, Diosdado Macapagal, who also was president of the country at one time.)

Nakpil and his crew in Manila were not even informed of the diversion by Manila authorities. They lost track of the flight for 27 minutes, Nakpil said. He worried it might have crashed before Gulf Air’s headquarters in Bahrain finally told him. “It was tantamount to endangering the lives of all the passengers and crew,” Nakpil told a Manila newspaper. “What if the plane lost fuel and crashed?”

“If a long-haul flight requests a landing due to low fuel,” Nakpil told Asia Sentinel, “then that should be given immediate priority. It is already considered an emergency.”

Nakpil explained that the airport is routinely closed for at least 30 minutes in the case of a “VIP movement.” This time, he said, there was no advance word given to the airlines of Arroyo’s wedding party plans. “There was no notice at all,” Nakpil complained.

Nakpil now has been told that Arroyo’s departure was considered a “quasi emergency” by the official Air Transportation Office. A letter of explanation is circulating from an ATO official, Nakpil said, stating that the pilot of Flight 154 failed to use the word “emergency” when he radioed the tower and therefore the situation was not deemed urgent.

“This is all very confusing,” said Nakpil, who also represents other airlines here as an official of the Airline Operators Council (AOC), a group that routinely complains about the dismal conditions prevailing at Manila’s crumbling international airport, the long queues at immigration counters and the defective baggage-handling equipment that often delays departures.

Gulf Air has begun an investigation into the incident. Nakpil said he expects those responsible to blame one another.

There was one last delicious bit of irony in all of this. On December 17, Arroyo herself had greeted that day’s Gulf Air Flight 154 and its cargo of returning Filipino workers. Bands played, photos were taken and the crowd applauded as the president and various dignitaries handed out a few prizes for Christmas, including a jeepney, insurance policies, a paid vacation and ice cream.

Arroyo “demonstrated to airport authorities the proper way of greeting returning overseas foreign workers,” enthused the Manila Standard newspaper in a front page story, “when she broke the protocol at her own event, stepping outside a cordoned-off area to allow arriving passengers to pass.”

She abandoned the VIP security perimeter, the newspaper said, because she did not want to inconvenience the returning workers. “Why must the passengers suffer?” she was quoted saying at the time. “That is not right.”