More than 360 cancelled flights. Close to 60,000 stranded passengers. This was shortly after the airport’s air traffic control screens went “dark” as local radio, radar, the internet signals, and overall communications failed on New Year’s Day.

“Philippine airspace down,” or at least, that’s what they called it. Sounds to me the sky just fell.

Chair of PLDT Inc., Manny Pangilinan, who was already three hours into his Manila flight from Tokyo, had to backpedal to Haneda for another three-hour flight. In his tweet, he said, “Only in the PH. Sigh.”

Other passengers bound for Manila either waited for their flight or got marooned in the aircraft for an untold number of hours. I feel sorry for the generally claustrophobic like me. That’s why I don’t travel as often as I should. I find confined spaces much too, well, confining. 

That all this happened on New Year’s Day reminds me of Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Why on New Year’s Day leaves a lot of room for speculation.

Apparently, later statements say that our air traffic control systems are outdated. Reports say an upgrade of the equipment, which is allegedly a decade behind Singapore’s, could cost more than P13 billion. 

However, if I’m not mistaken, an initial upgrade of air traffic control systems seems to have taken place sometime 2015, replacing a 1996 version based on the statement published by AIR, the Airport Industry Review: 

“The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) has successfully commissioned the upgraded air traffic management (ATM) system at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Replacing the ageing Eurocat system deployed in 1996, the $3.59m ATM upgrade is capable of managing arriving and departing air traffic from about 250 nautical miles, as well as prevent frequent outages resulting in flights being cancelled or diverted or delayed, mainly during the rainy season.”

The said “upgrade” seems to be anything but state-of-the-art. It appears that the required next-generation upgrade, which would cost P13 billion, was shelved prior to the administration of Benigno Aquino III. And so, I presume they had to settle with what was available and within our wallet’s reach.

The CAAP said, “The improvement is essential for CAAP because the P13-billion next-generation satellite-based communications, navigation, surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) project that was signed during the previous administration was delayed and would not be in place until the end of 2016.”

If my reading is correct, the said satellite-based CNS-ATM systems eventually got installed in late 2017, based on reports by the Philippine News Agency, and became “fully operational” in 2018. 

Former President Rodrigo Duterte even thanked Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for “financing the CNS/ATM Systems project that will enhance safety, reliability and efficiency of the air traffic service in the country.”

According to the report by PNA:

  • “The new radar facilities will provide 70 percent surveillance coverage of the Philippine airspace, using Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology in Manila.
  • “The new ATM system is based on the sophisticated four-dimensional trajectory calculation of the aircraft.
  • “It has capability of leading-edge Multi-Sensor Tracking System (MSTS) that processes information from different types of sensors.
  • “The new system also provides various computer-aided safety measures in air traffic control and enhances safety through reduction of controller/pilot workloads and human errors.

“According to the CAAP, the improved surveillance coverage is vital to air traffic safety and will greatly increase the Philippine airspace capacity.”

Duterte’s administration was so proud of the achievement that former Transportation secretary Arthur Tugade even said, “with the completion of the new CNS/ATM systems, diversion of flight to Clark Airport ‘is now the thing of the past.’”

And now they’re saying the system is outdated? What in Wright Brothers’ name happened? The latest upgrade was only four years ago, if we base it on statements published in the news. How many times should the system be modernized to be at par with world standards? Annually? Monthly? Weekly? 

While inconveniencing passengers is a serious problem in and by itself, still there seems to be something terribly out of whack here. We cannot risk having the sky fall on our heads at any time. Passenger safety should be paramount. And while I understand the strengths and weaknesses of technology, there ought to be some accountability here.

For one, a huge amount of money is spent on these systems. How and why the systems fail so miserably and at the most unholy hour – New Year’s Day, for cryin’ out loud – is a question we must insist on being answered. As truthfully as they can make it. Crisis management BS we don’t need.