Saturday, September 15, 2012

Philippines: Flight schools fight for their reputation

 CLARK, Pampanga - After the crash that claimed the life of DILG Secretary Robredo, the Philippine aviation sector is under scrutiny. Are local charter companies and flight schools safe? Carlos Santamaria reports
Kshitiz Chand (Student Pilot) killed in the crash of Piper PA-34-200T Seneca II, Aviatour Air, RP-C4431, Accident occurred August 18, 2012 off Masbate City, Philippines

CAPTAIN BEN HUR GOMEZ of Omni Aviation. 
Screen grab from video footage by Daniel Rudin

by Carlos Santamaria 
Posted on 09/15/2012 5:05 PM | Updated 09/15/2012 6:43 PM

MANILA, Philippines - After experiencing a boom 5 years ago, the Philippine flight school industry is struggling to survive, and the fact that a student pilot was on board the recent Masbate crash has not helped.

Nepali citizen Kshitiz Chand was inside the cockpit of the Piper Seneca aircraft owned by the Aviatour charter company and flight school that plunged into sea. The aircraft was supposed to take the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo to Naga City from Cebu.

That accident could have been avoided, according to Captain Ben Hur Gomez, director of the Omni Aviation flight school in Clark.

"It's a no-no. A training flight cannot be a commercial flight. A charter flight cannot have a student on board at the controls," he said during an interview with Rappler.

Captain Gomez explained there was actually more than one fatal error that may have led to the crash.

"It's a combination of no-nos. I don't have first hand information, but generically, you don't turn into the dead engine, and this time they said they turned into the dead engine."

 Captain Gomez, 80, was a Philippine Airlines pilot for over 40 years before he set up Omni Aviation in 1993.

Five years ago, his was practically the only flight school that refused to accept scores of Indian students that desperately needed to learn how to fly after most of the experienced pilots and instructors of the country were hired by new airlines such as Fly Emirates or Qatar Airways.

"There was an Indian bandwagon. [Some schools] were offering a $30,000-35,000 package deal for commercial pilot multi-engine license including room and board," he recalled.

But that's not enough, he stressed, and pointed out that it should take at least 2 years, or a bare minimum of 18 months if there is good weather.

"They told these Indian kids, the quickest way to get a pilot license is to come to the Philippines and literally buy it. But when the Philippine-trained Indians went back to India, they couldn't even pass a simulator check, so India blacklisted the Philippines for training and the market dried up."

Cheating students
Captain Gomez admitted most flight schools cost less for a commercial pilot license than the about P2 million he charges, but he can promise safety and honesty.

"Almost everybody charges less than us. The rest will give it to you for P1-M but half of their flying time is fictitious, padded."

Some local schools fill up, stamp and certify the logbooks of their students with less hours than their students have actually been up in the air, and that counts.

"A group of foreign students once came to me looking for more solo experience. They had 200 hours in their logbook but had actually only flown 80, and only 3 out of 100 logged solo hours."

That is when Omni Aviation stopped accepting transferees from other schools.

On top of that, sometimes even the airlines take part in the scam.

Captain Gomez revealed that at least two Philippine companies tell recent graduates that they will hire them as first officers if they complete an Airbus A380 course worth P1.3-M, but the certification is only good for one year and many end up getting the job and wasting all their money.

"The critical situation here is, we can turn out as many first officers as we want, but to be a successful and safe captain on a jet, you must have experience," he said.

Incompetent regulator
Captain Gomez said that the problem with the Philippine aviation sector is not in the flight schools or the airlines but the regulator itself, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).

After the US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded the Philippines safety standards to category 2 and the European Union barred Philippine-registered aircraft from entering its airspace, the CAAP has not done much to improve the situation, he claimed.

"We really have a bad reputation… but more than a string of accidents, it's the lack of qualifications [in the regulatory body]," Captain Gomez explained.

"Somebody from up there must put his foot down and say, let's clean up our act, and mean it, instead of appointing people that are not qualified. It's a case of the blind trying to lead those who can see."

Captain Gomez suggested that instead of retired Air Force generals with little civilian know-how, the CAAP should be headed by "someone with a long track record in civil aviation, maybe a retired senior airline executive with a rare commodity in the Philippines--integrity."

"Until we do that nothing will change," he said. -



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