Nine months after the US Federal Aviation Administration rated the country’s air safety system below international standards, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP)—formerly the Air Transportation Office (ATO)—has yet to complete the FAA’s safety compliance checklist to qualify for an upgrade.
Under its International Aviation Safety Assessment program, the FAA downgraded the Philippines from a Category 1 to a Category 2 country in its rigid pass-fail scale because of air safety regulations, practices and personnel that fell below the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
The Philippines could only return to Category 1 by passing an FAA re-audit.
“It’s going to be a long and hard process,” CAAP director general Ruben Ciron told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in an interview last month.
“We still have many problems because we are in transition, but there are many organizations who are helping,” Ciron said.
“We are hoping that by July 2009, we [will] have been upgraded again to Category 1. The last time we were downgraded, it took two years for us to be upgraded again.”
Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza recently told Senate reporters that the country had already “substantially complied” with FAA recommendations and that an upgrade may be expected by early next year.
Asked how much of the requirements the CAAP had completed, Ciron said this week that the agency was still “recomputing” its compliance performance.
Not yet ready
Ciron said in the September interview that the CAAP had already “completed about 40 percent to 50 percent because we have already passed the law and we are already staffing the new CAAP.”
Philippine aviation was supposed to undergo a separate and more thorough audit by the ICAO in November, but Ciron asked for a reschedule.
The ICAO audit seeks to check the country’s compliance with global standards in safety, airport quality and navigational equipment, among others, according to Ciron.
“We said we are not yet ready because CAAP is still in transition, so the next ICAO audit will be in October 2009,” he said.
New aviation law
In January, the FAA reverted the Philippines to its 1995 air safety rating of Category 2, placing the country alongside Bangladesh, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Guyana, Indonesia, Nauru, Ukraine and Serbia and Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia).
The downgrade spurred stringent inspection of the US operations of locally licensed Philippine Airlines (PAL) and barred the flag carrier from expanding its operations in American states and territories.
The CAAP, now a fiscally independent agency that will govern the Philippine civil aviation industry, sprang from the new civil aviation law upgrading the ATO.
Long overlooked, the CAAP bill was signed into law in March following quick congressional action that started after the FAA downgrade.
The FAA had cited the country’s 1952 aviation law as the root of backward aviation practices, particularly regulations that cover crucial oversight functions, such as airworthiness, aircraft and pilot inspections.
The new law still has to be fully implemented and the CAAP has yet to fulfill technical requirements in areas where the FAA found it remiss, a source privy to the compliance process told the Inquirer.
Besides the creation of the CAAP, the aviation veteran said many of the FAA requirements were still on the to-do list.
“They are doing it little by little. We don’t understand anymore if they want an upgrade or they want to remain in Category 2 forever,” the source said in an irked tone.
Lack of manpower
He said the critical areas of compliance, such as practices and personnel qualification for pilot licensing, airworthiness certification and aircraft and pilot inspection had yet to be achieved. Still problematic are the CAAP’s record-keeping, particularly documentation of oversight processes and plane and pilot records.
In the source’s words, ICAO consultants working with the CAAP for months have become “very, very frustrated” with how the country’s officials have been handling the problem.
The source said CAAP people had been dismissive of ICAO recommendations and questioned the United Nations agency’s authority to propose ways on how the agency might overcome the downgrade.
In response, Ciron said in the September interview: “We consider their suggestions but it’s taking time because we have yet to finish manning CAAP. We are still short in people. We can’t rush this.”
Such exasperation was apparent in comments that James Hooker, former chief of the ICAO flight safety consultancy panel for the Philippines, wrote in a document dated April 8, 2008.
Referring to the CAAP’s inspectorate branch, the heart of the agency’s safety oversight system, Hooker said: “It makes no sense at all to this writer to have hiring standards lower than what would be required for one to be a qualified inspector ... This is an across-the-board statement that encompasses all of the flight operations inspectorate.”
Ciron said the agency was already recruiting qualified personnel, among them former airline pilots who would only need refreshers to get back in working condition.
He said the CAAP had been working closely with the FAA to satisfy conditions for an upgrade. Aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus have also pledged to give technical assistance to pull up the country’s air safety rating.
“In sum, foreign and local groups are assisting in [our bid for a] Category 1 upgrade. ICAO foreign technical consultants are with us now. FAA offered to train our team for a week in Washington ... With these we hope to attain upgrade in less than a year,” Ciron said.
On Sept. 13, the CAAP sent a five-man team to the FAA headquarters in Washington DC for an orientation on Category 1 standards, Ciron said. The team was tasked to guide their CAAP colleagues into complying with the FAA Category 1 checklist.
“When we are ready, we will request FAA to send a technical team to check our preparation. Then FAA will re-audit,” Ciron said.
By Tarra Quismundo
First Posted 03:32:00 10/22/2008