It was scary when commercial aircraft could not contact Manila’s airport on New Year’s day. Some flights were forced to return from where they came from while others were diverted to other airports.

Nearly 300 flights and more than 65,000 international and domestic travelers were affected when the Philippine airspace shut down for the first time in the country’s civil aviation history.

The New Year’s day flight disruption has a direct impact on the country’s economy as well as its national security. It also tarnished the country’s reputation and image abroad.

The transportation department blamed the mess on an internal power outage when an uninterrupted power system (UPS) malfunctioned and the backup system did not kick in.

When the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) reconnected to a commercial power source, the electricity supplied by the Manila Electric Company (Meralco), it created a surge that fried navigational equipment installed only in 2018.

It resulted in the loss of radar and aircraft communications. The only way for commercial airlines to contact the airports in the Philippines was through direct radio communications through the local airports’ control towers.

It was a disastrous New Year’s day for civil aviation. Authorities could not fully explain why and how it happened. The initial explanation from the government was totally unacceptable.

The CAAP’s excuse that it was operating an outdated air traffic management system, which was only installed in 2018, was a lame alibi to escape accountability.

What happened to the redundancies in the system? A simple internal power outage could have been prevented by multiple backup systems.

Why did all the backup systems fail as well? Could machine failure be caused by human error?

Some lawmakers have raised doubts on the competence of people running the civil aviation operations. There were some who raised questions about the possibility of sabotage and demanded an inquiry. These are very speculative.

Transportation and civil aviation officials have to do a lot of explaining on what went wrong. It was easy to blame past administrations for the fiasco but there should be accountability also for the current administration.

There are many questions to be answered. For instance, how often does CAAP conduct emergency drills and preventive maintenance to check its equipment and flight navigation instruments? Why is the air traffic system centralized?

Is the military’s radar and aircraft communication system tied to the civilian aviation system? Should it be operated separately and independently?

The military already has problems stopping intrusions into the country’s air defense identification zone. Losing radar and communications could be disastrous.

It has yet to explain sightings of unidentified aircraft over Pangasinan and potential intrusions of Chinese air force planes in the north near Taiwan. Operating an air defense radar is the first step in guarding the country’s airspace; scrambling fighter jets to intercept aircraft entering the airspace illegally is another thing.

Having an independent and separate operating system for the military is not new. The defense and military establishments had their own independent and separate analogue communications backbone.

From the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo, civilian defense leaders and senior military commanders can reach remote outposts by telephone and field radio communications, like single side band equipment.

They all operate outside the commercial system run by PLDT and other private telecommunications companies.

Thus, it’s also practical that the Philippine Air Force operates a separate and independent air traffic system to monitor the country’s airspace to stop intrusions. Its radars and navigational systems could serve as another backup should the civilian systems fail like what happened on New Year’s day.

But it seemed the military’s air defense radar also conked out along with CAAP’s system. It was really scary when the country suddenly went blind for several hours, jeopardizing the country’s national security.

The New Year’s day air traffic mess is a wake call for the Philippine government. It has to rethink the entire air traffic management system. It does not only need modern equipment but train its personnel, and raising competencies and proficiencies.

It could also start decentralizing its operations, establishing two or more air traffic management hubs to complement each other’s systems, and separating civilian from military operations.

The Philippines has one of the worst airport terminals. It also has only two intersecting runways to handle the increasing number of civilian and military flights.

There is also a need to upgrade the country’s air traffic management systems and install redundancies to prevent similar catastrophic incidents in the future.

But before improving the air traffic management systems, the government must give a full explanation on what happened on New Year’s day and hold people accountable for the mess.