Aviation glitch probe: Caap castigated for lax security
Senators on Thursday castigated the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap) for alleged lax security as aviation authorities remain clueless about the root cause of the massive disruption of flights on New Year’s Day.
At the hearing called by the Senate committee on public services, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri was surprised that Caap had no security cameras to monitor the vital equipment of the country’s communication, navigation, surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) system.
The Senate began its inquiry into the Jan. 1 “glitch” that disrupted flights across and to and from the Philippines, which affected more than 65,000 passengers due to cancellations, diversions and delays of over 360 domestic and international flights.
Caap said it had traced the problem to a power outage in the CNS/ATM, the heart of the air traffic control system of the country’s airspace.
“I can’t seem to believe the fact that the system just conked out on its own,” Zubiri said. “It could be three possible scenarios: one was really incompetence of our personnel at that particular point in time; (second) maybe the outdated equipment, and probably third could be sabotage.”
He said that any negligence or sabotage could have been captured by closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras inside the equipment room.
“I cannot understand why there were no CCTV cameras in the vital locations of the Caap building because we will never know if there were already people there who are double agents, or someone who sabotaged the system, we will never know because we only have to believe them hook, line and sinker from the logs that they put in,” he added.
Caap Director General Manuel Antonio Tamayo said the Air Traffic Management Center had very tight security and parts of it were covered by CCTV.
Only authorized personnel are allowed to enter the building and have to log in when going into any section of the facility, which is close to Terminal 2 of Ninoy Aquino International Airport, but he admitted that the room housing the air navigation and electrical supply equipment had no cameras.
“There’s national security concerns here,” Zubiri said. “We, with Sen. Bato dela Rosa … we feel that we need to protect this system at all cost from any form of sabotage or incompetence.”
According to the Senate President, it was “unforgivable” that Caap operated the CNS/ATM system worth billions of pesos without considering the installation of CCTV cameras to monitor the security of its “very sensitive” equipment.
Zubiri lamented that the system’s failure caused a “big black eye” to the country’s reputation.
Submit the logs
In the absence of a CCTV footage, senators asked Caap to submit log records of the activities at the CNS/ATM in the hours leading to the glitch, including a “minute-to-minute report on what has transpired.”
“With the logs, hopefully, we can find out if it was really the equipment that was faulty or it was caused by a human error or a combination of both,” Zubiri said.
Thursday’s hearing focused on the lack of proper maintenance of the CNS/ATM equipment, which, the senators learned was mired in a legal dispute between the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and Sumitomo-Thales, a joint venture between Sumitomo Corp. of Japan and Thales Group of France.
DOTr Undersecretary Roberto Lim said that Sumitomo-Thales ceased the maintenance contract for the CNS/ATM because of DOTr’s supposed failure to settle up to P986 million in unpaid claims.
But the DOTr also has claims of up to P644 million from Sumitomo-Thales that were allegedly due to delays in the delivery of the air traffic control system, he said.
For the past three years, the CNS/ATM has been maintained by Caap technical personnel, who were trained by Sumitomo-Thales, according to Arnold Balucating, head of Caap’s air navigation service.
Balucating told senators that a failure of the electrical circuit breaker prompted air traffic control personnel to shut down the equipment as a precaution.
Tamayo admitted that they had not yet ascertained the root cause of the circuit breaker malfunction, saying they may need to subject it to a “forensic investigation.”
PH as laughingstock
Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate committee on public services, urged Caap to get a third-party maintenance provider for the CNS/ATM to avoid a repeat of the Jan. 1 glitch.
She expressed frustration over the embarrassment that the technical problem had created for the country.
“At some points during the hearing, we were laughing, but the truth of the matter is, we are the ones who are getting laughed at. So, we should not take this very lightly,” she said. “But the truth is that Caap, you really bungled this.”
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian also chided Caap for prematurely ruling out the possibility that the glitch was caused by a cyberattack without a formal investigation.
National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos also expressed concern over the lack of cooperation between the military and civil aviation, which could come to each other’s aid during a crisis.
“This issue has serious implications not only on our national security, commerce and trade but also on human lives. If we do not address these, we are in deep trouble,” she said.
Same breakdown in US
A similar large-scale air traffic problem that was due to a breakdown of the safety information system of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) affected thousands of flights, including those from the Philippines.
Philippine Airlines (PAL) spokesperson Cielo Villaluna said at least two PAL flights to the United States—PR 102 to Los Angeles and PR 104 to San Francisco both on Jan. 11—were delayed for several hours.
The Notice to Air Missions (Notam) system of the FAA failed on Tuesday night. Pilots and airline dispatchers check the Notam before taking off for notices related to flight safety, such as bad weather and runway closures.
The FAA, in a statement, said it had started an investigation and its preliminary finding was that the problem was traced to a damaged database file.
“At this time, there is no evidence of a cyberattack,” the FAA said.
Caap spokesperson Eric Apolonio told the Inquirer that system glitches like these were common across the world despite the availability of the best technology and support.
—WITH A REPORT FROM TYRONE JASPER C. PIAD
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