NAIA downplays flight cancellations; operations back to normal

A navigational equipment called the VOR is tested by airport technicians after it bogged down, resulting in the cancellation of flights at the NAIA over the weekend. Rudy Santos
By Rudy Santos – Airport managers yesterday downplayed the malfunction of navigational equipment that led to the cancellation of dozens of flights over the weekend at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), saying operations were slowly easing back to normal.

The Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Directional Radio Range (VOR) located beside the NAIA runway has been on the blink since Saturday morning, resulting in the cancellation of some domestic and international flights of Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.

Cebu Pacific cancelled 30 flights, Zest Air and SEAIR have a combined 15 cancelled flights, while five international flights were either diverted or cancelled due to heavy rains that overwhelmed the airport.

“The airport experienced a minor problem that should not be classified as a crisis,” Melvin Matibag, Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) general manager, said during a press briefing.

He insisted that operations remained normal and planes were still able to land and depart with only a few minutes delayed while technicians continued to fix the defective equipment.

“Manila airports continue to operate even after the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) and the VHF Omni Directional Range of the airport navigational facilities bogged down Saturday morning,” he said.

Joselito Casaul, technical assistant to Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) Director General Alfonso Cusi, said that in the absence of the VOR, the airport radar continues to function, providing traffic separation and landing assistance.

“The VOR is one of several navigational equipment that are in use at the NAIA,” he said, adding that pilots could either choose to be guided by radar controllers or switch to Visual Flight Rules when weather permits, that pilots have to use their eyes to see other aircraft and avoid collision or to land when the runway is in sight.

“We have discussed the landing and departure procedures and if they (pilots) comply then they can still land and depart at the Manila airports” any time, Cusi said.

Despite the assurance of the MIAA and CAAP authorities, the Notice-to-Airmen (Notam) continues to be in place because the VOR would remain out of service until this morning.

“The DMIA is ready to receive diverted flights, all staff personnel have been augmented, if still needed we can also tap the Mactan-Cebu International Airport,” Cusi said.

There are a total of 155 international and domestic flights coming in and out of Manila after 5 p.m. and until midnight.

Matibag admitted that the Instrument Landing System (ILS) has been out of commission for weeks and the replacement for the $2.4-million equipment has been delayed because the eruption of the Iceland volcano cancelled the flights to Europe, where the parts are to be acquired.

He said maintenance of the ILS and the VOR is the responsibility of the CAAP, but it was the MIAA that provided the funding during the contingency.

The ILS was scheduled to be in place last May 29 but this was postponed to July.

The equipment, which beams radio signals at the end of runway 24, provides accurate information telling the pilot whether his aircraft is within a narrow band of horizontal and vertical clearance that would eventually bring him to the end of the runway.

In the absence of the ILS, radar controllers bring the aircraft to the end of the runway near enough so that the runway is visible, and at night, when the runway lights are clearly in sight.

The repair of the VOR would cost P90 million.

Matibag said the cancellation by Cebu Pacific of dozens of its flights last Saturday night was a decision made by the airline management and could not be attributed to the failure of the VOR since several local and international flights were able to land and take off at the NAIA.

He said Cebu Pacific continued its operations yesterday despite the absence of the VOR and the ILS.

Calibration badly needed

However, there were reports that CAAP has yet to calibrate most of the navigational aids (navaids) and other equipment in all Philippine airports, including those at the NAIA and the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Clark, Pampanga.

Sources in CAAP said the agency’s officials failed to attend to the calibration despite the alarm sounded by the CAAP-Employees Union in December last year.

“The CAAP’s KingAir aircraft that is used for flight checks is also under repair so there has been no calibration for half a year,” one of the sources told The STAR.

The CAAP-EU, through its vice president Cesar Lucero, exposed the lack of calibration of the navaids and related equipment in all Philippine airports in an exclusive interview with The STAR last year, making these unreliable and posing aviation safety concerns.

Lucero said then that of the 191 navaid facilities and equipment in Philippine airports, 175 needed calibration as of last December, with several others needing it by March.

The navaid equipment and facilities, Lucero said, include the VOR stations, distance measuring equipment, precision approach path indicator systems, non-directional beacons, glide slope, and localizers.

Lucero also exposed the issuance of a significant safety concern rating on Philippine civil aviation systems by the International Civil Aviation Organization last Dec. 18, along with other Third World countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Angola, Congo, Rwanda and Zambia.

Cusi admitted that the agency’s KingAir flight check aircraft was still out of commission, with questions on its airworthiness and the status of its last repair being “administratively looked into” over questions on procurement procedures followed by previous CAAP management.

“We have to resolve certain issues on the repair done on the aircraft which is taking time… It’s not a question of (lack of) money. It’s a question of procedure,” he said.

Cusi said the CAAP is now looking into the hiring of a flight check aircraft of a foreign airline to do the calibration of the navaids of Philippine airports, similar to what was done with Air New Zealand last year.

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