TRAFFIC PATI SA ITAAS? | CAAP Explains Prolonged Hovering Above NAIA at the Height of Lando

MANILA – It was not air traffic congestion per se, but a combination of unscheduled landings and limited runway capacity, that forced dozens of planes to hover for several minutes over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport as typhoon Lando was pounding north Luzon Monday.

This was the explanation given by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), as it sought to dispel on Wednesday claims of air traffic congestion causing flight delays.

CAAP Deputy Director General for Operations Rodante Joya was referring to safety concerns raised when planes geared for landing were compelled Monday to hover for several minutes over NAIA.

The NAIA has a limitation of having only 40 runway events in an hour, he explained. “NAIA has only one runway that can accommodate jetliners. The secondary runway that was recently activated can only accommodate small aircraft.  There is really no way for air traffic to be congested except if there is unscheduled or emergency landing.” Such a scenario happened on Monday when flights to the north that were cancelled by Lando had to return to Manila, lengthening the queue that air traffic controllers processed.

The CAAP official stressed that the air traffic controllers, though severely undermanned and relatively low-paid (with salaries in other countries at twice to as much as nine times those of Filipinos), managed to help each flight land safely, something he attributed to their skills and experience. “That is proof of the ability of our air traffic controllers to maintain the safety of flights, helping them all land in Manila safely,” Joya said.

The NAIA has two active runways: the primary runway 06/24; and secondary runway 13/31.

While noting the NAIA runway limitations, the CAAP deputy chief nonetheless thanked Leyte Representative Ferdinand Martin Romualdez for giving the aviation authority the chance to dispel the “myth” of congestion in air traffic.

Romualdez earlier said the “horrible traffic congestion” forced the plane he was in to hover for an hour over the metropolis until the aircraft was given clearance to land on Monday night.

Joya explained that aircraft coming from the south, particularly from the Visayas and Mindanao, could not immediately land on Monday as other north-bound planes had to cancel and needed to return to NAIA.

“Those (aircraft) returning to Manila were unscheduled to arrive during that time.  So they eventually clustered. Therefore there is no choice for our air traffic controllers but to make them hover over Metro Manila so they can be lined up for landing,” Joya said. Priority landing or takeoff is given to commercial jetliners and other big aircraft, he added.

Brain drain of controllers

Joya, while praising the air traffic controllers for being able to ensure safe landings and takeoffs despite their long hours and lowe pay, said 14 employees in the air traffic service left CAAP this year for better economic packages in overseas jobs.

The 14 were offered the same job with higher pay in airports in the Middle East particularly in Doha, Qatar and various African nations.

As of October 2015, CAAP had only 450 regular ATC employees and 237 others listed under job orders.

“We are losing them,” Joya said, pointing out that Philippine air traffic and tower controllers are the lowest paid in the Southeast Asian region and that a brain drain is unavoidable.

Based on 2014 ASEAN salary comparison records, Philippine air traffic controllers are the lowest paid. The average monthly salaries of ATCs in various places – compared to the Philippines’ US$1,100 – are:

• Hong Kong, $10,000;
• Singapore $8,000;
• Macau $5,000;
• Taiwan $3,000;
• South Korea $2,000;
• Malaysia $2,500

“Our air traffic service workers are leaving for abroad where they expect the pay to be commensurate with their skills,” Joya said, pointing out that most of the air traffic controllers in Dubai are Filipinos.

The ground-based controllers direct aircraft on the ground and provide advisory services to aircraft in non-controlled airspace. They enforce traffic separation rules, which ensure each aircraft maintains a minimum amount of empty space around it at all times.

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