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MANILA, Philippines – Criminal and administrative charges await airport personnel who allegedly stole cash from a Thai tourist while on duty at a security screening checkpoint in the Philippines’ main gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), on February 22, 2023.
“Aside from administrative case na i-fifile namin, we also wanted to pursue the criminal case dahil sa amin po, hindi lang po ito simpleng violation ng aming procedure and policies (because for us, this isn’t just a simple violation of procedure and policies). It’s already a criminal offense that we cannot tolerate,” said Mao Aplasca, administrator of the Office of Transportation Security (OTS) in an interview on ABS-CBN’s TeleRadyo program on Tuesday, February 28.
Aplasca also confirmed that the five personnel stationed that day have been placed under “preventive suspension” while they undergo investigation.
The incident was initially captured in two videos by another Thai national, Piyawat Gunlayaprasit. In the first video, one OTS staff member at the security screening checkpoint is seen inserting what looks to be bills in another OTS staff member’s pocket.
The second video shows OTS personnel returning ¥20,000 or P8,000 to Thai tourist Kitja Thabthim while pleading with him to “delete the video.”
“The fact na may perang naisauli, ibig sabihin merong kinuha (The fact that they had money to return means they did take something). Parang (It seems) it’s a very strong evidence already of what really happened,” Aplasca said.
He said this was the first time that these five security personnel have been accused of wrongdoing, adding that 14 of their personnel have already been dismissed “for various disciplinary infractions,” though not all were related to theft.
The incident raises concerns about manpower issues within the OTS. Senator Grace Poe earlier said that while committing such an illegal act was wrong, she believed that not paying sufficient compensation could encourage airport personnel to resort to breaking the law.
“Siguro dapat ’yung mga personnel natin sa airport, tama at maayos ang kompensasyon para ‘yung trabaho nila ay maayos din (Our airport personnel should probably also receive proper compensation so that they can do their work properly too),” Poe said in a media interview at the Senate on Monday, February 27. “I think it’s a deeper social issue.”
Aplasca admitted that the OTS pays low salaries to their screening officers, ranging from P15,586 to P19,744, or from salary grade 4 to salary grade 8. Most of their personnel are also either on a contractual or job order basis.
“Talagang totoo po, mababa naman po talaga (It’s true, it really is low),” Aplasca said. “Tapos kulang po kami ng regular plantilla position dahil all over the country, we are deploying 3,000 personnel, pero 500 lang po ang aming regular employees (And then we also lack regular plantilla positions because all over the country, we are deploying 3,000 personnel but we only have 500 regular employees). The rest are either contractual or job order personnel.”
According to Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) assistant general manager Bryan Co, it was “very clear” that at least two screening officers were involved in the alleged theft. Upon investigation, Co said that there may have been a third officer involved, who seemed to be asking Thai tourist Thabthim several questions to stall him.
Thabthim told Rappler that he was the only passenger who was asked several questions during that incident. Other passengers, it seemed, passed through the checkpoint quickly.
“I think the evidence I have is so strong. These people belong to the airport. Why are they still waiting?” Thabthim told Rappler, believing that the preventive suspension measure was not enough. “I don’t want to see more victims.”
Co said that OTS and MIAA have taken steps to investigate the incident and stop it from recurring.
“Sa atin po, dito sa MIAA, we want to get to the bottom of this because grabe po ang nasisirang reputasyon ng Pilipinas at ng NAIA at (For us at MIAA, we want to get to the bottom of this because this is destroying the reputation of the Philippines and NAIA and) we promote our country to tourists,” Co said in a Radyo5 interview also on Tuesday. “How do we promote it kung may nangyayaring ganito (if something like this is happening)?”
On the part of OTS, they added senior supervisors at the checkpoints, as well as permanent inspectors whose role is to check the work of screening officers across the different terminals of NAIA.
Meanwhile, Co said that they are considering whether MIAA personnel can man the security screening stations instead of having the OTS serve as both the regulator and operator of the checkpoints.
Co also said that MIAA added a fisheye camera directly above the screening area, along with additional cameras across NAIA and even in the immigration area “para po talagang macapture natin lahit ito (so we can capture all of this), especially in our fight against human trafficking.”
Last February, the Senate probed an alleged human smuggling incident at NAIA, where a Dubai-bound private plane carrying “unauthorized individuals” managed to take off.
During the Aquino administration, NAIA’s image was stained by incidents of airport security personnel planting bullets in the bags of some passengers so they can extort money from them. – with reports from Lorenz Pasion/Rappler.com