Xiamen Air pilot, first officer barred from leaving PH
The pilot and first officer of the ill-fated Xiamen Air Flight MF8667 that slid off the runway at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) shortly before midnight on Thursday have been barred from leaving the country so they could appear in an investigation of the incident that threw airline schedules into chaos.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap), which will start the probe with the Chinese airline’s representatives on Monday, said the pilot held the key to what actually happened after he landed the aircraft in heavy rains.
Normal operations at Naia finally resumed at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, 36 hours after the Xiamen Air Boeing 737-800 aircraft got stuck in the rain-soaked grass, forcing the closure of the country’s main airport.
Cheers greeted the announcement at Naia that the main runway had been cleared. But chaos ensued as thousands of stranded passengers at Terminal 1 crowded airline counters and offices demanding bookings for the earliest flights possible.
Three minutes after the resumption of operations, Airswift Flight T6 333 departed Naia bound for El Nido, Palawan province.
Runway 06/24 was reopened for flight operations at 11:30 a.m., nine hours after a pair of cranes finally lifted the aircraft from the quagmire, said Connie Bungag, media affairs officer of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA).
Caap spokesperson Eric Apolonio did not identify the pilot and the flight officer. He said investigators would determine if the incident “was force majeure”—caused by inclement weather—or resulted from lapses of the cockpit crew.
Initial findings showed the aircraft failed on its first attempt to land due to poor visibility because of the downpour. It circled over Manila before landing on second attempt, immediately losing contact with the Naia tower.
The plane bounced on landing and veered off the runway, its nose wheel collapsing and left engine ripped off.
Investigators retrieved the aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade apologized for the passengers’ “regrettable experience,” saying this was “not of our own liking, nor of our making.”
“This incident served as eye-opener—a reminder for us to take a second look at the processes, procedures and protocols of concerned agencies, as well as airlines, so that we may all improve in the future,” he said.
Legarda slams ‘incompetence’
But Sen. Loren Legarda said the public expected better service from transport authorities and Naia officials as she castigated them for their “incompetence” and “inefficiency.”
“They were so inefficient. The whole airport erupted in chaos after just one plane veered off the runway,” she said.
Other lawmakers, as well as the trade body of the world’s airlines, on Saturday called on the Duterte administration to prevent a repeat of the chaotic airport scenes by either building a second runway at Naia, or developing another airport.
Naia ‘bursting at the seams’
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the government should decide on a course of action soon.
“We’ve had a wake-up call about this. I think the government should decide what to do with Naia,” Recto said in a radio interview on dwIZ.
Sen. Sonny Angara and Sen. Grace Poe said the massive number of canceled and delayed flights because of one accident showed how vulnerable Naia was.
Makati City Rep. Luis Campos Jr. and Bagong Henerasyon party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy said the government should pursue plans to modernize Clark International Airport so it could serve as “backup” for Naia.
Campos said Naia was “bursting at the seams in terms of aircraft and passenger traffic.”
42M passengers a year
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) urged swift action on both capacity constraints plaguing Naia and long-term solutions such as the construction of a new air gateway.
“Urgent steps are needed to address the capacity issues at Naia. At the same time, work should commence on a long-term solution that serves the aviation needs of the Metro Manila region,” said Vinoop Goel, regional director for airports and external relations of IATA.
Naia is already operating at 35.5 percent above its design capacity of 31 million passengers per year. In 2017, the airport served about 42 million passengers.
In the wake of the accident, more than 200 local and international flights were canceled, while 17 Manila-bound flights were diverted to airports in Clark and Cebu, and as far as Hong Kong, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
The Cavite provincial government and conglomerate San Miguel Corp. have each offered to build a new international airport in Sangley Point, Cavite and Bulacan, Bulacan, respectively. Upon completion, the facilities will each have up to four parallel runways and a capacity of over 100 million passengers per year.
Naia Consortium, led by seven tycoons, two of whom own flag-carrier Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, also proposed to modernize and operate Naia for a period of 15 years. —Dexter Cabalza, Miguel R. Camus, Leila B. Salaverria, Jerome Aning, Faye Orellana and AFP
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