Senators hit Tugade's absence during NAIA runway mess

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Senators questioned Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade for not being physically present during the closure of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) runway, which led to flight delays and cancellations that left thousands of passengers stranded.

During the Senate public services committee hearing on the Xiamen Air mishap on Wednesday, August 29, Senator Nancy Binay asked Tugade where he was.

Tugade replied that he did not go to the airport, but remained "on top of the situation."

He said he was informed of the fiasco before 1 am on August 17, over an hour after Xiamen Air Flight MF8667 skidded off the NAIA runway.

"'Yung nangyari ho 'yan, tinawagan ako bago mag ala-una ng umaga. Wala na ho kaming tulugan niyan hanggang kuwan.... 'Di ho ako pumuntang airport kasi ayoko makibulahaw. 'Pag mapupunta ako do'n, baka mataranta mga tao," Tugade said.

(When it happened, they called me before 1 am. We stayed up all night.... I did not go to the airport because I did not want to cause confusion. If I went there, the people might have panicked.)

"But for the record, I was on top of the situation. From the time I was called by Ed Monreal," he added, referring to the general manager of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA).

Senate public services committee chairperson Grace Poe then asked Tugade when he went to the airport. He admitted that he never visited the site of the accident and instead chose to coordinate via phone.

"Hindi ko po binisita, but I was calling them (I did not visit, but I was calling them)," Tugade said.

Poe again clarified, "'Di pa ho kayo nagpupunta (You have not gone there yet)?"

Tugade replied that he eventually went to the airport, but not to the actual accident site, as he did not want his people to be "distracted."

"Nagpunta ho ako...after one day po ata, pero 'di ako pumunta sa site. Kami po nag-usap sa opisina kasi ayaw ko magkaroon ng distractions," the transportation chief said. (I went there maybe after one day, but I did not go to the site. We talked in the office because I didn't want to cause distractions.)

Asked why his men would be distracted by him, Tugade replied: "Baka magbigay utos na 'di naman tugma sa gustong mangyari ng crisis committee. Kaya kausap ko lang no'n ay si Monreal." (I might give orders that are not in sync with the crisis committee. That's why I was only talking to Monreal.)

Binay appeared baffled by Tugade's response.

"But technically, Secretary, you are the secretary of DOTr (Department of Transportation). You should have been on top of everything. 'Di ko makita [ang] scenario na 'di kayo bahagi ng crisis committee (I can't understand a scenario where you're not part of the crisis committee). You should have been on top [of it]," Binay said.

Tugade cut her and said, "Ma'am, I was on top of the situation...."

Binay went on to say that it was hard to believe that because he was not there during the crucial moments.

"But the mere hindi kayo nakita (you were not seen there), wala kayo sa (you were not at the) scene of the crime, you were never seen during the critical moments of the crisis. So 'di ba ho (isn't it that) being on top means being there physically?" Binay said.

Monreal takes the blame

At this point, Monreal spoke and claimed he's the one to blame.

"I'll take the cudgels, Ma'am.... In terms of running the show, yeah I understand andoon dapat si Secretary kung 'yun po naiisip 'nyo (the Secretary should have been there if that is your assessment). But we have two lieutenants: myself and DG (Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines Director-General Jim Sydiongco). We're all covered," Monreal said.

"The two of us probably have 80 years of experience combined in terms of airline business.... He (Tugade) was giving me instructions, we're discussing issues, how things are developing. We're giving him updates from time to time," the MIAA chief added.

DOTr Communications Director Goddes Libiran reiterated Tugade and Monreal's explanations in a separate statement on Wednesday, saying the transportation chief chose to give Monreal and Sydiongco "space" but was still overseeing matters.

"Kung nandoon siya, baka hindi nakadiskarte ang dalawa dahil nadi-distract sa kanya o kaya naman inaalala nilang i-please siya.... Sila ang mas nakakaalam ng mga protocols at procedures," Libiran said.

(If he were present there, the two officials might have been unable to strategize because they could get distracted by him or worry about pleasing him.... They're more knowledgeable about the protocols and procedures.)

But during the hearing, Binay further questioned why 61 uncoordinated flights were able to land, which worsened the condition at NAIA. Ironically, Monreal earlier said these "recovery" flights coordinated with the CAAP, but not with MIAA.

"How can you say 'on top of everything,' eh nalusutan nga kayo ng 61 flights (when 61 flights were able to sneak in)?" Binay asked.

Monreal denied that the flights slipped through them, saying, "'Di ho talagang nalusutan, 'di ho nagpaalam (They didn't really slip through us, they didn't ask permission)."

But Binay countered: "Hindi ho ba parehas lang yung 'di nagpaalam at nalusutan? It's the fact na may nag-landing na 61 flights, 'di 'nyo alam. Technically, bahay 'nyo 'yun eh, tapos may pumasok sa bahay 'nyo 'di 'nyo alam."

(Did not ask permission and slipped through your watch – aren't they the same? It's the fact that there were 61 flights that landed without your knowledge. Technically, it's like it was your house and somebody entered your house without you knowing it.)

In the end, Monreal said they have already coordinated with the airlines and "corresponding penalties" would be handed down.

The uncoordinated flights, he also said, could be due to the airlines' "eagerness" to help passengers.

Xiamen Air Flight MF8667 skidded off the NAIA runway on August 16, amid a heavy downpour. The recovery operation stretched for 36 hours, paralyzing operations at the country's main gateway and disrupting flights even after the plane had been removed. (LOOK: Thousands stranded due to NAIA runway closure) –

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email