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[OPINION] NAIA fiasco: Flying over the bigger picture

By Joel Pablo Salud Published Jan 03, 2023 2:55 pm

Imagine being stranded for hours when you’re supposed to be clocking in time for work abroad as an overseas Filipino worker after a much-needed holiday vacation. That’s a make-or-break situation given that most foreign employers will not give a dead rabbit’s foot about the conditions of our air traffic control systems.

Your failure to arrive on the scheduled time and day can likely mean not only getting fired on the spot. It could drag a whole industry into the jaws of a financial vortex the likes of which could impact the whole country’s economic status.

There are 1.83 million overseas Filipino workers dependent on the aviation industry. For hundreds of thousands of them, it would be catastrophic should our air traffic control systems fail at one point or the other.

Departing passengers fall asleep while waiting for news regarding their flights on Jan. 1.

Air traffic control systems, by simple definition, is the system that keeps aircraft from crashing into each other while in mid-flight. To give you an idea how important this system is: there are about 100,000 flights each day all over the globe, with an “average of 9,728 planes carrying 1,270,406 passengers in the sky at any given time.”

See, the beginning of September 2022 alone saw the infusion of roughly $3.15 billion in foreign remittance into the country, an increase from $3.03 billion a year ago. As we have been told, the more spending power we have, the better it is for the whole market.

No country dependent on a well-oiled economic machinery should risk throwing a monkey wrench in the engine. Thus, any “glitch” in the air traffic control system could put this apparent windfall at risk of going kaput.

Numerous flights were cancelled on Jan. 1 due to a technical glitch and the power outage at the Air Traffic Management Center (ATMC) of the NAIA resulting in loss of communication, radio, radar and internet.

The recent NAIA “blackout,” therefore, did not only inconvenience passengers. That is the least of all the other serious problems it spawned. It told the world that however much the country foists itself as “state-of-the-art” in matters of aviation, our words don’t square with reality.

Trolls, of course, are having the time of day, watering down the said fiasco. They argue that flight cancellation and delays are “normal” if you’ve ever flown for a considerable amount of time.

Thing was, what happened on New Year’s Day wasn’t “normal” by any standard. It was a system-wide failure which authorities claim to be “outdated”. However, even a cursory reading of available news items in the last decade will tell us that an upgrade was supposedly installed back in 2015, and the latest upgrade allegedly in 2018.

My question: Have we upgraded into what is called “next-generation” systems or are we burning money this past decade for B-movie equivalents? Worse, was there an actual upgrade? Or was all this mere public relations rhetoric? If so, was there money involved?

Having a working state-of-the-art air traffic control systems is not only necessary in this day and age, it should be the inviolable rule of thumb. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the recovery in air travel after the pandemic “continues to be strong.” In Sept. 2022 alone, international passenger traffic rose 122.2% as against Sept. 2021 levels. Good news is that Asia-Pacific is leading the pack.

To add, travel is the bloodline of most industries, including produce, electronics, the whole shebang. Stopping the flow at any time, even for one measly second, will be no different from suffering a cardiovascular accident.

Passengers crowd the departure lobby while others set up camp inside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3 in Pasay City on Jan. 1. 

Let’s look at it this way: If the Philippines loses P3.5 billion “in lost opportunities” due to vehicular traffic—just the everyday comedy bar we experience in Metro Manila’s streets—imagine what we are bound to lose when we neglect the systems needed for our air traffic controls.

Lastly, if they say that P13 billion is required to upgrade to the “next-generation” air traffic control system, then that is not as obscenely huge as the amount we lose to corruption each year: a whopping P700 billion to P1 trillion according to Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy (iLEAD), a policy think tank.

Thus, the real problem boils down to this, in my opinion: we tend to lose more from corruption than in the need to modernize our systems. If we can move to slash more than half of what we lose to corruption (better to rid ourselves of corruption altogether) and offer it to modify existing air traffic systems, talks of privatization aside, then the country’s chances to profit from modernization would be within reach.

Flying boasts of a 0.28% fatality rate per one million flights. That’s the equivalent of one fatal accident for every 4.2 million flights. It is, by far, the safest mode of transportation, according to figures I culled from IATA.

I strongly suggest we keep it that way.