Philippine Airline Chaos

The crash landing Sunday of a Cebu Pacific domestic flight in Davao City in the Philippines exposed a long series of disasters after the flight veered off the runway and ended up nose-down in a ditch.

More than 160 passengers of Cebu Pacific Flight 5J 971 escaped unharmed after the plane came to a stop, although passengers charged that the evacuation procedure was such a mess that if the plane had caught fire, disaster would have ensued. All flights into and out of the Davao airport were cancelled.

That was only the start of the passengers' problems, with the travel chaos spilling over to the next day as they were bused 170 km to another airport where crowds waited for hours to be processed. The plane was still stranded yesterday, making Davao City's runway inaccessible to incoming and outgoing flights.

Cebu Pacific on Monday apologized for the mishap and offered to transport passengers from Davao to General Santos at no extra charge. The carrier, a subsidiary of JG Summit Holdings and headed by Lance Gokongwei, scion one of the Philippines' richest families, also waived rebooking fees and mounted 16 additional flights to "reaccommodate" passengers. Although none of the passengers was hurt, many of them complained that the crew offered them no help. "The cabin crew "apparently lacked crisis management training because they performed so poorly during the emergency," a passenger told local media. "A few of us passengers were the ones who tried to calm down the rest of the passengers."

CAAP Deputy Director General John Andrews told a news conference on Monday that the Cebu Pacific plane apparently overshot the runway because the pilot had failed to correct the aircraft's heading while landing against a crosswind.

The chaos underscores the mess that is Filipino aviation at a time when President Benigno S. Aquino III is struggling to upgrade his country's image. Following safety and security audits by the US Federal Aviation Administration and the EU Directorate General for Mobility, the US and EU have refused to allow Philippine airlines to expand their services to either region.

Navigation equipment at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, supposedly the showcase facility named for the president's assassinated father, is considered to be elderly and substandard. Other airports are worse. Overcrowding for domestic and international flights is endemic. As long ago as 2008, the FAA downgraded the Philippines from Category 1 to Category 2, meaning the country's aviation system does not comply with international and civilian aviation standards.

The crash landing for Cebu Pacific, the country's biggest budget carrier, occurred while Davao City was being battered by heavy rains. Although the airport's landing lights were barely visible in the downpour, the pilots elected to bring it in anyway, passengers said. After the Airbus A320 slid to a stop on its nose, the plane's cockpit and cabin crew reportedly didn't open the doors for 27 minutes because there were no rescue trucks. Even after they did open the doors, there were still no rescue vehicles despite the fact that the plane apparently briefly caught fire, according to Fr. Joel Tabora, president of Ateneo de Davao University, who was on the flight.

"After the irregular landing of flight 5J971 the plane caught visible fire before it came to a stop off the runway," Fr.Tabora wrote on Facebook "It was only after 27 minutes in a smoked cabin that the passengers were allowed leave the plane by coming down emergency slides… What if the engine had exploded?"

The university, the leading one in Davao City, is no longer purchasing tickets for Cebu Pacific flights, Fr. Tabora said, citing the airline's "ineptness and insensitivity" in handling the crisis situation.

That was only the start. As flights were redirected to General Santos City's Gensan Airport 170 km away, it emerged that Gensan's X-ray machines had been out of order for quite some time. The long queues of passengers lining up to have their baggage manually inspected caused chaos at the normally laid-back airport, which only handles eight flights on busy days, and that's three days a week.

Cebu Pacific alone added 16 more round trip flights to General Santos City and the Philippine Airlines (PAL) upgraded its 4 pm flight to a wide-bodied aircraft to accommodate more passengers as they were bused over from Davao because the airport remained closed.

Not even the US-designed airport, built to military specifications could anticipate such sudden flow of passenger traffic, and General Santos City airport is supposed to be Mindanao's second biggest airport. The mishap has brought to the fore the preparedness of domestic airport personnel and the ability of airlines to respond to emergency situations.

Air transport has become the primary means of traveling to and from Mindanao, with sea travel now virtually non-existent. But with airline crew and airport personnel struggling to handle emergency situations effectively, a disaster is waiting to happen.

As a case in point, two lucrative Asian markets - Japan and South Korea, reportedly have sent separate notices to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, detailing concerns over the country's regulations and operations and warning the carriers including the flagship Philippine Airlines that they will not be able to expand their flight services until several issues are resolved, including the qualifications of personnel, the modernization of its record management system and a clear methodology for investigating and resolving civil aviation accidents.

(With reporting by Edwin Espejo, who blogs for Asian Correspondent)