Lately, I've read an editorial article on the Philippine Star that mentioned a sad fact: for over five years, the Philippines continues to languish on the Federal Aviation Authority's (FAA) Category 2 status. It means that Filipino carriers, like Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, AirAsia Philippines, etc. cannot add more flights to the United States (including Guam and the Marianas), or switch aircraft to better suit passenger loads or airline needs, like PAL wanting to switch its North American flights from Boeing 747-400s to Boeing 777-300ERs which are fuel-efficient and can fly longer range. On top of that punitive move made in 2007, the European Union blacklisted our carriers in 2010, while the International Civil Aviation Organization placed the Philippines in its "Serious Safety Concerns" list in 2009. What is going on here?
In the article, Boo Chanco said that "What these agencies are saying is that our country’s aviation regulatory set-up is highly deficient or unsafe [...] so unsafe that the Europeans who come here as tourists and ride Philippine-registered aircrafts do so at their own risk." It is very sad to see our aviation industry take off on hollowed wings that while our domestic operations keep rising, international perspectives on our aviation safety remains grim.
I then wonder myself, why has the previous government let its aviation systems fail to miserable lows? Why is it that when other countries have seen us take off in the 1990s, we slide down into peril so quickly as how we took off initially? Why is it that Filipinos love to miss golden opportunities when other countries praise us for our own efforts?
I'll give you an example: when I left the Philippines in 2006 to move to San Francisco, I passed through NAIA Terminal 2 for the last time before settling in California. I saw long queues on the departure tax counters, as well as inconsistencies at the terminal itself (especially lack of decent amenities and features) that makes comparison to other more modern airports leave little to be desired. I mean, my family of three paid the P550 departure fee for each one of us, and I saw little, if no changes, made at the airport, let alone visit their toilets. It's ridiculous that I see that money heading instead to some politician who has a lion's share of the property rather than repair and rehabilitate the terminals, runways, and navigational aids.
I just wonder why Filipinos love to miss opportunities when given to them. I mean, right now, the FAA is firm on keeping the Category 2 rating on the country until the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) finally wakes up to the reality of the harrowing pains our carriers have endured to keep their services moving. Japan has taken the call of the FAA and prevented Filipino carriers to mount more flights to the country; however, South Korea--and now Canada--have been fortunate to us that we can expand our services to their airports to keep Filipino and foreign goods moving. Is it because that our identity as being "deprived" of something rather than "rich" with something that hinders us from making our goals? Is it because national agenda is being placed on the front burner nearly constantly without looking foresight into what a connected global market can bring the Philippines into? Is it because our "bahala na" habit constantly drags us to do things later without realizing the costs it brings us to our economy and security? I think it is stressful to think of just one concrete reason that puts our country on the spotlight for the wrong reasons, but I believe that with other countries putting us on the spotlight, for good or bad, the Philippines and the Filipino people should take each one of those spotlights as opportunities, in which many of them would not return should we miss them for even a day or an hour. Why? Time is precious, especially nowadays when economic competition has become fiercer and more fast-paced than ever before. People want more things done in a shorter amount of time. Companies want smart and innovative first impressions that would want them to make business with. And governments have the responsibility of keeping up with what other nations are doing to maintain peace and order while achieving economic success.
The Philippines has been on the spotlight lately, in good and bad publicity. Good because the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) has projected the country to become the 16th largest in the world by 2050, with sky-rocketing GDP on its trajectory. And Moody's, Standard and Poors (S&P), and Fitch are inching the country closer to Investment grade status that would put the country into a great economic power. However, with poor infrastructure, especially at our airports, compounded with economic and social inequalities, and a decreasing-yet-still-pervasive corruption in government, I think the Philippines is in a crossroads of economic prosperity and social healing. If the country chooses to succeed, then I believe it should seek help and guidance from other nations, including Singapore, Japan, the United States, and members of ASEAN and the EU, so that they can provide sustainable solutions and develop projects that can benefit not only the poor, but also the middle- and upper-classes.
My ideas to make the country get out of the dreaded Category 2 by the FAA and the EU Blacklist: go down to the basics first.
- Survey our country's airports for more services in the near-term.
- Add runway lights and taxiways where possible.
- Reconstruct aging airport terminals and modernize them to have a shopping mall feel while waiting for flights. Use what SM and Robinson's have done and put those concepts into our airports to improve passenger satisfaction.
- Improve safety by purchasing more emergency vehicles and constructing airport emergency stations on-site to deal with emergencies quicker.
- Take off all departure tax counters (even on the international terminals) and put the departure fee on all airline tickets to lessen the lines and cut bureaucratic red tape.
- Improve wages for airline traffic controllers, aircraft engineers, airline pilots, and other aviation-related industries so that they can be enticed to stay in the country and keep our airports safe.
- A most controversial solution: put the Department of Transportation and Communication responsible for airport safety and development by establishing the Airports Authority of the Philippines (or some derivative of it) that would be responsible for airports throughout the Philippines.
I just hate to see the Philippines miss golden opportunities when given to them. The current government has taken advantage of the abundance of opportunities given to them so far to good effect, but I think it should do more, and quickly, to make the effects more noticeable. And I think that the curtain that shadows our aviation industry should be considered as a golden opportunity for us to pressure the CAAP and keep its promise of reforming our Philippine aviation sector, no matter how long, controversial, or difficult it takes. And I also believe that such reforms should end up, not as a "ningas cogon" thing, but as a continual and sustainable process in which we will finally adhere to international standards so that our aviation industry will finally rise to the challenges of today's fast-paced world.