Sunday, November 25, 2012

Opinion: Aviation agency incurably corrupt

By Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star)
Updated November 26, 2012 - 12:00am

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines is incorrigible, it seems. Not even the fatal plane crash of a Cabinet secretary has shaken the air travel regulator into cleaning and shaping up. Going by the suppressed report of a crash investigator, the CAAP appears to have fudged the probe to cover up festering rackets and ineptitude.

The nation so grieved the loss of unassuming Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo last August that state leaders hailed him as a modern-day hero. People studied and spread stories about his quiet but efficient and honest public service. So sad his life had to end abruptly at age 54, when the light plane he was riding one fine dusk plunged into the sea. Throughout the prolonged search for the ill-fated aircraft, the CAAP was expected to thoroughly investigate the cause. Two other lives were lost, the pilot’s and the co-pilot’s. No crash must happen again.

The official report three months later did seem complete. The five-man inquiry board concluded pilot error and poor aircraft maintenance as the causes of the crash. The lone survivor, Robredo’s aide, and coastal villagers narrated that the twin-engine Piper Seneca’s right propeller had conked out. The pilot swung right to avoid crashing into the dwellings below, but this caused the plane to go out of control and nosedive. The piloting plane owner, Capt. Jessup Bahinting, supposedly was a cool flyer, but lacked emergency knowhow. He should have turned back for home airport at the first sign of engine trouble, but attempted to crash land elsewhere. AviaTours Inc. that owns the aircraft apparently had failed to keep it in tiptop shape, per regulation. Not only was the engine faulty, but the location gear too had malfunctioned. In short, it was all the dead Bahinting and his firm’s fault.

Comes now CAAP special investigator Cesar Lucero with other conclusions. Supposedly the official findings are full of holes because agency bigwigs wanted to cover up their own faults. For one, the report did not cite the accounts of the rescue divers. Had it done so, one glaring fact would have surfaced, Lucero says. Bahinting’s body was found strapped to the right cockpit seat. Meaning, he was not the pilot in command at the time of the crash, but his Nepalese flying student, who was on the left main seat. By implication, the CAAP air traffic control had cleared the leased aircraft to be flown that day by a tyro, a no-no in the rulebook. Yet there was no mention in the official report of who was seated where.

Worse, Lucero points out, there was no review of the aircraft history. It is routine in land, sea or air disasters to check the background of the transport involved: maker, age, ownership changes, maintenance and repairs. Since it was not done with AviaTours’s Piper Seneca, the suspicion arises that its registration was renewed without proper examination for meeting aviation standards.

AviaTours’s other aircraft were also not mentioned. Two of its planes had crashed recently, in Baguio City and Camiguin Island, Lucero claims. The engines allegedly were imported as junk for a dollar each. Again the CAAP apparently goofed.

Lucero has undergone special training in air-crash investigation and counter-terrorism under the US-Federal Aviation Administration. If only for this, his allegations merit review.

Lucero is the vice president of the CAAP employees’ union that has been feuding with management for years. His relations with the CAAP bosses have long been strained, the reason for his supposed constant bellyaching. Weeks after the Robredo plane crash, Lucero was suspended for unauthorized disclosures to the press. In turn he charged them with corruption before the Ombudsman.

The agency is one of the dirtiest and inept. It has been criticized as the retirement home of air force old fogies. Aviation industry leaders cry that, because of the air force’s decrepit outdated planes, bases and equipment, the generals are the least knowledgeable in modern avionics. The employees, meanwhile, are under-skilled. Mere flyers of twin-engine planes are assigned to check the proficiency of jumbo jet pilots. Yet they resist the hiring of experienced outsiders for fear of losing their lucrative posts. Sleazy inspectors demand thousand-dollar bribes to renew pilot and aircraft licenses. All these have been reported to higher transport authorities, to no avail.

Put together, these are why the International Civil Aviation Organization, the US-FAA, and its European Union counterpart have blacklisted the country. Due to the CAAP’s bad regulatory record, it’s the domestic airlines that suffer, disallowed from opening new routes to the US and Europe or adding flight frequencies. Lucero’s revelations come in the wake of yet another ruling by the ICAO to keep the Philippines in the blacklist.


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