Probers eye pilot error in Cebu Pacific Air mishap
It took at least 15 minutes before the crew of Cebu Pacific Air began to evacuate panicked passengers after its Airbus A320-200 overshot the runway at Davao International Airport on Sunday night in stormy weather and landed on its nose, aviation officials said Tuesday.
No injuries were reported among the 165 passengers of Cebu Pacific flight 5J-971, but officials of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) wondered Tuesday why the pilots and crew of the airline failed to deploy the emergency slides to get the passengers swiftly out of the aircraft, contrary to established procedure.
The officials also said that initial evidence pointed to human error as the possible cause of the accident, with the pilot likely to have failed to correct his heading while landing against the crosswind.
“What did the captain do after coming to a full stop? From reports of the passengers on board, it took them several minutes and they never declared an emergency evacuation. You will hear from the airline that the decision was made because they felt there was no danger involved,” CAAP Deputy Director General John Andrews said in a press conference.
“Actual SOP (standard operating procedure) dictates after an emergency such as this or accident, automatically, you have to evacuate the aircraft. Cabin attendants are trained to evacuate the aircraft within three minutes. First evacuation started I believe 15 minutes after the aircraft came to a complete stop,” Andrews said.
The airline withheld comment of the CAAP official’s statement, saying it would await the final report of the investigation.
“We are aware of the press conference with CAAP this afternoon but at this point it is too early to comment while the investigation is ongoing. We would have to wait for the final report of the investigation before we can comment,” Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific spokesperson, said.
The Cebu Pacific plane on a flight from Manila missed the runway upon touchdown around 7:10 p.m. on Sunday, landing “just about a meter from the edge of the grassy surface.”
While in full reverse thrust, the skidding plane crossed an intersecting taxiway and finally stopped nose down more than a kilometer before the end of the strip.
By Tuesday evening, the ill-fated aircraft was being towed away from the runway, finally allowing the use of the airport whose operations had been paralyzed since Sunday night. The obstruction had forced the diversion of flights to General Santos City, between three and four hours drive away.
Learning from experience
Lance Gokongwei, Cebu Pacific president, apologized but also defended the crew’s action.
“In this situation, we may not have handled all issues perfectly, but we can learn from this experience,” Gokongwei told ABS-CBN.
Both the A-320’s engines were “severely damaged” while the nose gear collapsed, Andrews said.
He doubted if the $40-million jet could still be repaired.
“These are made of light materials and I am sure the stress that it had endured during this passage out of the runway all this time had structural implications as far as the integrity of the plane is concerned. My personal belief is, it is no longer salvageable.”
Considering the aircraft’s condition after the hard landing, Andrews said no one could have said for sure that the aircraft was safe upon stopping.
“Luckily, no one was hurt, no one was injured, and there were no casualties here. But there is nothing that would have prevented a fire from emanating from the engine during this time. There was no way for the captain to know that the aircraft was safe,” Andrews said.
Possible pilot error
He also stood by his theory that pilot error may have caused the accident, saying those in command of the aircraft had failed to employ the proper procedure when landing against the crosswind.
“Evidence does not lie. We have now evidence that points to possible human factor—in other words, maybe a pilot error. These findings will be confirmed later on when the flight data recorder is analyzed. This will be sent to a facility in Singapore and I am definite that these findings will support statements that I have previously made,” Andrews said.
Such “nonconformity with established procedures” may result in the temporary suspension of operations, Andrews said, as CAAP had ordered other carriers involved in mishaps.
He quickly qualified, however, that such a decision should be weighed carefully considering Cebu Pacific’s scale of operations.
“We have to immediately find out the true causes to prevent a similar incident from happening and to take immediate action. The actions are open to the director general, even the temporary suspension of flights of the airline,” Andrews said.
“But again, the implications of such actions will have some big, big bearing as far as the country is concerned, because they are a major airline. But this is possible, with the results we have found out. This may justify a suspension,” he added.
Act on complaints
Malacañang urged Cebu Pacific to immediately address all consumer complaints against the budget airline run by the family of billionaire John Gokongwei, but it fell short of ordering any suspension or penalty for the massive disturbance caused by the botched landing.
“I think airlines should heed the concerns of their passengers,” said Secretary Ramon Carandang of the presidential communications office.
“You’re providing a service to the public and, if there are times when the public is not happy with it, then a well-managed company will listen to what’s being said and take action based on what they feel are legitimate concerns. And we think that Cebu Pacific will probably do the same thing,” Carandang said.
“We have not yet heard the side of Cebu Pacific as to what they have done or what they plan to do. So I don’t think it will be fair to make a judgment at this point.”—With a report from Gil C. Cabacungan and Miguel R. Camus
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