aviation industry

Senators find no ‘proper maintenance’ of air traffic facilities

Lance Spencer Yu

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Senators find no ‘proper maintenance’ of air traffic facilities

INSPECTION. Senators conduct an ocular inspection of facilities at the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippiness.

Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines

'What did we realize? It's been more than two years since there was a proper maintenance,' says Senator Grace Poe after an ocular inspection

MANILA, Philippines – Vital parts of air traffic equipment have not received “proper maintenance” in more than two years, senators discovered after a walkthrough of facilities at the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).

Senators find no ‘proper maintenance’ of air traffic facilities

“What did we realize? It’s been more than two years since there was a proper maintenance that was done,” Senator Grace Poe said in a press briefing following the ocular inspection on Monday, February 6.

Only certain certified companies can conduct maintenance on the highly advanced air traffic management equipment, two of them being Thales and Sumitomo. Although they had originally been contracted to set up the country’s air traffic management system, more than two years have passed since either of the two companies have been tapped to maintain it.

Disputes and claims between the government and the Thales-Sumitomo joint venture have set back negotiations for maintenance deals. In the meantime, system upgrades have lagged behind, with Thales last upgrading the air traffic management software two years ago. 

CAAP Director General Manuel Tamayo previously came to his agency’s defense, saying that CAAP engineers and technicians “religiously followed” daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance checks and protocols. Tamayo also conceded, however, that having a third-party conduct maintenance would also be ideal, as the CAAP team is only authorized to conduct a certain level of maintenance. 

Senators also pointed out that an automatic voltage regulator (AVR) that broke in August 2022 has yet to be replaced.

“Believe it or not, the AVR is still not working up to this time. Since August of 2022, hindi na siya umaandar. Hanggang ngayon, hindi pa po siya umaandar. Meron daw mechanism ‘yung UPS na kung saan meron siyang sariling AVR to regulate the power (it hasn’t been working. Until now, it’s still not working. The UPS supposedly has its own AVR to regulate the power), but remember, part of the system ang (is the) AVR. So we have to look into this,” Senator Joel Villanueva said during the press briefing.

“I just wanted to point that out. Imagine, since August of 2022 until now, it’s not working,” he added.

Tamayo clarified that even if the AVR was not functioning, the system was not in immediate danger since the uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that feed electricity into the system have their own AVRs built in.

“Even if the AVR na backup is not working, we still have that functioning. I’m not saying we should not have the AVR. That is part of the design,” Tamayo said, adding that the broken AVR is scheduled for repair on February 9.

Tamayo has since asked the person responsible for overseeing the faulty equipment to go on leave.

Security concerns

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri also noted that CAAP lacked security features around their facilities. Following the Senate hearing on January 12, Tamayo and Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista had closed-circuit television (CCTV) installed in the building’s most sensitive areas.

Tamayo had previously admitted that the equipment room housing critical equipment for the air traffic management system had no CCTV coverage.

“One thing that we found out because of this January 1 incident is that we need to protect our key installations. This is a key installation. We need to protect it the best we can for national security purposes,” Zubiri emphasized.

The Senate President said CAAP was ramping up security to address physical, technical, and cyber threats.

“They’re going to put more security systems in place,” Zubiri said. “The President also instructed that the Armed Forces make sure that this facility is secure. I think they’re putting more CCTVs all over the compound, and putting of course firewalls for possible cyberattacks.”

While investigations regarding the possibility of a cyberattack are still ongoing, Senator Poe said that negligence seemed more likely to be the cause of the air traffic fiasco.

“Actually, hindi natin puwede pang sabihin sa ngayon kung sabotage, cyberattack, or negligence. Mukhang negligence sa ngayon, sa nakikita ko, pero siyempre hihintayin natin lahat ng mga submissions,” she said.

(We can’t say yet whether it was caused by sabotage, a cyberattack, or negligence. Right now, it’s looking like negligence was the cause, but of course, we’ll wait for all the submission.)

Zubiri added that sensitive parts of the air traffic management system – such as the AVR – were standalone pieces of equipment. This meant that they can’t be accessed through the internet.

“So we’re looking at other angles, but we’re not, of course, closing down any possibility. We’ll wait for the forensics report of the DOTr and the CAAP and the DICT,” he said.

Next steps

Poe, the chairperson of the Senate committee on public services, led the ocular inspection of the Air Traffic Management Center of CAAP on Monday. Joining her were senators Zubiri, Villanueva, Raffy Tulfo, JV Ejercito, and Risa Hontiveros, along with Transportation Secretary Bautista, CAAP Director General Tamayo, and Manila International Airport Authority General Manager Cesar Chiong.

The visit came after senators grilled CAAP officials over the New Years’ Day air traffic fiasco that disrupted the flights of more than 78,000 passengers. Flights were again disrupted on Lunar New Year when CAAP conducted maintenance on its UPS, holding nine departure flights at a NAIA taxiway and affecting 38 other flights.

In response, Bautista said that he has already assembled an investigating team involving the Department of Information and Communications Technology, National Bureau of Investigation, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, and Department of Transportation. They will be submitting their official findings to the Senate committee by February 15.

Poe expects that the Senate will release its committee report in the coming weeks, following the submission of the investigating team’s findings. The senator is also pushing for new legislation to investigate future transport accidents.

“What do we want to do in terms of legislation? We want to pass the National Transport Safety Board, an independent body that can look into transportation related accidents. Kasi ‘di ba ngayon, CAAP ‘yung iniimbestigahan, pero siyempre, wala namang magiimbestiga, mga CAAP din ang nagiimbestiga sa sarili nila (Because right now, CAAP is investigating, but of course, CAAP will just be investigating itself).”

The National Economic and Development Authority has already approved P2.12 billion in funding for the maintenance and upgrade of the country’s air traffic management system. – Rappler.com

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Lance Spencer Yu

Lance Spencer Yu is a multimedia reporter who covers the transportation, tourism, infrastructure, finance, agriculture, and corporate sectors, as well as macroeconomic issues.