What a New Year’s Day! Passengers recount chaos during NAIA outage

Russell Ku

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What a New Year’s Day! Passengers recount chaos during NAIA outage

AIR TRAFFIC FIASCO. Passengers build up at the check out counters of the NAIA Terminal 3 in Pasay City on January 2, 2023, following the technical glitch the airport experienced on New Year's day which caused multiple cancellation of inbound and outbound flights in the country.


Imagine flying to Manila from Hong Kong, only for the plane to fly back when you are 15 minutes away

MANILA, Philippines – What was supposed to be a pleasant ride back home for many Filipinos turned into a nightmare after a power outage put flights to and from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) on hold on Sunday, January 1. 

Affected passengers told Rappler stories of confusion and frustration as they tried to reach their destinations as soon as possible. 

One of the passengers, 23-year-old college graduate Jala Toukan, was flying to Manila from Hong Kong on New Year’s Day. Suddenly, her Cebu Pacific flight had to fly back to Hong Kong  after NAIA’s Air Traffic Management Center – which oversees all flights in Philippine airspace – went down due to a power outage, resulting in the loss of communication, radio, radar, and internet. 

“We were 15 minutes [away] from Manila. The captain said [the flight crew] couldn’t contact the control tower, so we had to stay in the air for another 15 minutes for updates. They decided before the 15 minutes was up to go back as they needed to conserve fuel,” she said.

As soon as the Cebu Pacific plane arrived back in Hong Kong, Toukan said passengers had to wait for around one hour on the tarmac for the next steps. 

According to Toukan, the airline then gave free hotel accommodation, meals, and transportation to passengers on the flight. Cebu Pacific also took care of rebooking passengers’ flights. 

Another passenger from the same flight tweeted the experience:

As of writing, Toukan has boarded her rebooked flight on Monday, January 2, back to Manila. 

DINNER. Jala Toukan receives her free meal from Cebu Pacific after her flight was diverted back to Hong Kong on January 1, 2023. Photo from Jala Toukan

Meanwhile, 32-year-old Alvin Jorge Tambalo felt frustration after his 4 pm Cebu Pacific flight from Manila to Iloilo was cancelled. 

“I was only notified via email and it was around 2 pm already. I was at the airport already…[and] boarding time is [at] 3:45. I was early at the airport because I anticipated that there’s going to be a lot of people [in the airport] since it’s January 1,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino

He said that Cebu Pacific could have done better in informing passengers of their canceled flights ahead of time as he wasn’t notified of the email right away. 

Tambalo also had to rebook the flight all by himself. It took him four attempts before managing to book a flight for Monday, but he has to make a layover at Cebu. 

“From a direct flight, it became a layover flight. And I am not sure if it could possibly be canceled or not…. I stayed overnight at the airport…[as] I have 2 luggages to check in and they’re quite heavy. It’s very hassle if I leave the airport just to come back later on,” he added. 

Chaotic scenes

Following the cancellation of hundreds of flights on Sunday, chaotic scenes were seen across ticketing counters as passengers attempt to rebook to later trips. 

Communications student Matt Veslino said the situation at boarding gates was “stressful” following the cancellation of flights as frustration mounted among passengers. 

Similarly, municipal health officer Ralph Fonte tweeted his experience from the Philippine Airlines (PAL) counter at NAIA Terminal 2 in the early hours of Monday.

“There are no ticketing officers and apparently there are no supervisors. Wow, crisis mode, no one is handling [passenger inquiries]. There is also no one who is emergency troubleshooting…. And there are a lot of foreigners who don’t know what is happening because no one is explaining in a language that they can understand,” he said in the video. 

Fonte told Rappler that there was only one attempt on Sunday afternoon where personnel in a “broken” megaphone told frustrated passengers to process their canceled flights online, despite complaints of phone lines and online support being hard to reach. 

“The ticketing office would provide food every now and then to the gathered crowd, two biscuits and a water bottle at around 4 pm; some pork dish with rice at around 7 pm, but the distribution was disorganized. No hotel or transport compensation was offered,” he added.

He added that he has not received any updates on his flight as he left the airport at 3 am. 

“There were only three PAL employees at the counters of the ticketing office, and the customer turnover was stupendously slow. Perhaps one passenger every 30 to 40 minutes,” Fonte said.

The frustration was also felt among international passengers who had layover flights through foreign airlines. 

Law professor Diane Desierto said she was forced to wait eight hours to fly to Incheon airport in Seoul through Korean Air, only to encounter problems in her connecting Delta Air Lines flight to Washington, DC.

She told Rappler that she was assured by the flight crew for her Korean Air trip that there will be ticketing agents on standby in Seoul. But she was met with hostility by the airline’s staff at the airport.

“Korean Air had not offered or given compensation and kept telling us this was Manila’s fault or Delta was responsible for its own passengers…. Delta had to override them to get me booked on the earliest flight back,” Desierto said.

She said many passengers who had to stay in Seoul to rebook their flights couldn’t buy water or food and had to sleep on chairs or the floor as they wait for offices to open at 9 am the next day. 

“The message they all got was they had to fend for themselves when it came to their health, safety, and well-being,” the professor added.

Social media reaction

Filipinos online also had a lot to say about the air traffic system glitch at Manila’s main international airport. 

One said that the glitch is a “national security threat,” a thought echoed by Senator Grace Poe as she will call for an inquiry into the incident once NAIA restores normal flight operations. 

Former ABS-CBN journalist Lynda Jumilla-Abalos said airlines should have dedicated more staff to handle inquiries and rebookings following the cancellation of flights. 

Meanwhile, others were using the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo to ask for action from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. after he uploaded a vlog while passengers and airlines were dealing with the glitch.

One user even said that the issue shows that the transportation crisis that has loomed over the holiday season has reached the country’s airports. 

NAIA was recently rated as the third most stressful airport in Asia and Oceania according to travel blog Hawaiian Islands. It was also rated as the worst airport in the world for business class travel by luggage app Bounce. 

Following the incident, Transport Secretary Jaime Bautista said a “huge amount of money” would be needed to upgrade the country’s air traffic management system, which he estimated was 10 years behind its industry peers. – 

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Russell Ku

Russell Ku is a digital communications specialist at Rappler who believes in the power of stories to build an empathic society.