Probers to send Cebu Pacific Airbus data box to Singapore
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) said Wednesday that aircraft accident investigators had retrieved the black box and flight data recorder of the Cebu Pacific Air Airbus A320-200 that skidded off the runway at Davao International Airport on Sunday.
CAAP Deputy Director General Rodante Joya said a team from the agency would take the black box and flight data recorder to Singapore for data analysis.
Data from the black box and the flight recorder will be helpful in learning whether an emergency situation had been declared on the ground before the plane landed or whether the pilots had reported problems as they made the final approach to the airport.
Joya said the pilots of Flight 5J-971, Capt. Antonio Roel Oropesa and First Officer Edwin Perello, had been grounded and might be summoned for questioning.
Flight 5J-971 landed at Davao International Airport in heavy rain at 7:10 p.m. Sunday, skidded off the centerline, and fell in a ditch.
No one among the 165 passengers was hurt, but the cabin crew reportedly failed to immediately attend to them and performed poorly when they finally did 15 minutes after the incident.
The plane was removed from the runway on Tuesday, allowing the airport to be reopened to traffic.
Malacañang on Wednesday promised an impartial investigation of the incident, which disrupted operations at the Davao airport for two days.
President Aquino’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, told reporters that the CAAP should be trusted to conduct a thorough investigation.
Lacierda had responded to a question about a CAAP member being a former official at Cebu Pacific Air.
John Cu Unjieng Andrews, who was appointed CAAP deputy director general in September 2012, was vice president for flight operations at Cebu Pacific from 1998 to 2003, according to his appointment papers posted on www.gov.ph.
Andrews was also airline captain and administration pilot at Philippine Airlines (PAL) from 1967 to 1983. He was a captain in the Philippine Air Force from 1959 to 1967.
Investigators were initially looking into human error as a possible cause of the accident at the Davao airport. They said the pilot might have failed to correct the airplane’s heading while landing with a crosswind.
Lacierda said the Palace would not comment, preferring to wait for the results of the investigation.
Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles on Wednesday said the House of Representatives should look into reports that the Cebu Pacific crew performed poorly during the emergency.
Nograles said the House should investigate allegations that the budget airline’s pilots and flight attendants were “overworked and not properly rested” to serve on additional flights mounted due to “overbooking.”
Cebu Pacific president Lance Gokongwei earlier apologized for the incident, saying on television: “In this situation, we may not have handled all issues perfectly, but we can learn from this experience.”
Nograles acknowledged the apology, but said the House investigation should proceed.
Passengers on Flight 5J-971 said that 15 minutes after the Airbus went off the runway, the pilot went out of the cockpit and told them that there was a problem with the plane’s wiper.
The pilot also told them that he lost visual contact of the runway lights, they said.
Jun Narciso, one of the passengers on Flight 5J-971, said that aside from the heavy rain, the runway lights were also down when the plane landed.
The runway was really dark during the landing, Narciso said.
Cleared for landing
But Joya said on Wednesday that investigators had found no indications that technical problems or bad weather caused the accident.
“Despite the downpour, the pilot reported seeing the runway and the plane was cleared for landing,” Joya said.
He said the CAAP had ordered Davao International Airport general manager Frederick San Felix to submit a report on the incident, following complaints by the Davao City government that its emergency teams were denied entry into the airport when they responded to an emergency call.
Andrews on Wednesday defended the CAAP against criticism that it had taken too long to remove the Airbus from the runway.
Speaking in a radio interview, Andrews said the CAAP lacked equipment to remove the plane quickly and had to wait for Cebu Pacific’s consent before it could move the $40 million, 60-ton aircraft.
“The CAAP has no legal right to touch the aircraft until there is consent from the owner. They said their insurance claims might be affected. We might be sued,” Andrews said.
“Never mind the suit, but we had no equipment,” he said, adding that only the CAAP units in Manila and Cebu had equipment to remove the aircraft.
Joya vowed there would be stringent penalties if it would find that there was improper maintenance of the aircraft or if the crew or pilots were guilty of misconduct.
“If they committed a big violation—for example, it’s proven that they had taken illegal substances or alcohol—then that’s punishable with the revocation of their license,” he said.
He said the investigation would also include the alleged inaction and other lapses of the crew that the passengers had complained about.
Andrews said the CAAP would fast-track the investigation and again mentioned the possibility of temporarily suspending Cebu Pacific flights.
“We will determine if the pilots committed lapses in the procedures because, more or less, it is almost certain that this was caused by human error, pilot error,” Andrews said.
“We are weighing that (temporary suspension) as one of the options,” said CAAP Director General William Hotchkiss III in an interview.
The incident took place while European Union (EU) air safety officials were visiting the country to evaluate the Philippines’ aviation industry and see if the country could already be removed from the regional bloc’s blacklist.
“I think the ban will be removed. What happened [in Davao] showed what we can do if there’s an incident like that,” Andrews replied when asked if the Davao incident would have a bearing on the evaluation.
He said the EU air safety officials’ focus was whether the CAAP as a regulatory body was doing its job well.
Cebu Pacific’s vice president for marketing and distribution also insisted on Wednesday that there was no emergency situation that would merit the immediate evacuation of the passengers.
In a television interview, Candice Iyog said the airline had to wait for experts from Singapore to determine how to remove the plane from the runway, saying portions of the plane had already sunk in the mud.
“It wasn’t an emergency landing. It was a normal landing. The plane got a clearance to land and landed on the runway safely. There was a heavy downpour and we don’t know if the wind was strong but it (the aircraft) veered off to the side of the runway. We will know what really happened during the investigation,” she said.
She said eyewitness accounts about the pilot visiting the comfort room several times and ordering coffee would have to be “validated.”
Iyog also defended the Cebu Pacific crew whom some passengers accused of neglect and inaction. She said the crew’s main priority was how to deplane the passengers safely.
“Our crew observed the standard procedures of this kind of incident. After the plane landed, they did not see anything outside because of the heavy rains. They looked if the engine was burning or if there were other emergency situations, but the pilot said everything was under control so what our crew did as instructed was a precautionary evacuation,” she said.
“It’s not an emergency evacuation wherein all slides will be deployed and everybody will jump out of the plane. We did it (precautionary evacuation) because we want to make sure no one gets hurt in the deplaning, since the plane was already tipped on its nose. People might get hurt if everyone would rush to the exit in panic,” Iyog said.
She said the smoke reported in the cabin by witnesses probably came from the aircraft’s rubber gears as the aircraft screeched on the runway.
“According to the pilot, there was no smoke when he looked into the cabin. It could be from the rubber on the pavement as the plane landed. But the smoke dissipated. And it was clear, you can see from the front to the back of the cabin. It’s not [the kind of] smoke wherein there’s no visibility,” Iyog said.
Iyog said the actions of the crew and pilots would be reviewed and the airline would introduce new guidelines for improvements.
Back to normal
At the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia), flights to and from Davao were back to normal on Wednesday. A total of 27 flights and return trips were scheduled Wednesday, although several flights departed or arrived late.
The Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA), state operator of the Naia, said a total of 86 flights were canceled because of the Davao incident.
The MIAA sent a three-man team from its fire and rescue division to help in the removal of the disable aircraft.—With reports from TJ A. Burgonio and Christian V. Esguerra in Manila; and Karlos Manlupig, Inquirer Mindanao