Thursday, 8 April 2010

No-fly zone

Philippine Daily Inquirer

NO PHILIPPINE CARRIER HAS FLOWN DIRECT TO Europe since 1999, but it doesn’t matter. The ban imposed by the European Union on all airlines based in the Philippines, effective on April 1, is a body blow to Philippine investment and tourism prospects, as well as to the reputation of Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and other carriers.

A story carried in the Jakarta Globe, read in a country that only recently had a similar ban on its main carrier lifted, drew a vivid picture. “Philippines’ airlines whacked by European ban,” the headline read. (As that headline also proves, PAL has an additional image problem abroad, because of its generic name and flagship status.)

The ban, contained in a “legal notice” dated March 30, applies to “all air carriers certified by the authorities with responsibility for regulatory oversight of the Philippines.” It names 47 air carriers, including the industry leaders PAL and Cebu Pacific, as well as strictly corporate fleets, including Ayala Aviation Corp., Aerowurks Aerial Spraying Services and F. F. Cruz and Co. But as the scope of application makes clear, the real concern of the European Union is the quality of the certification process supervised by the country’s regulatory agency. The EU ambassador to the Philippines, Alistair MacDonald, explained it thus: “In view of the significant safety concern identified by ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organization] in relation to the supervisory authority and pending the implementation of adequate corrective actions, including those drawn up in response to our concerns in 2008 but not yet implemented, the [European] Commission considers that the supervisory authority is currently not able to implement and enforce the relevant safety standards, and decided therefore to ban from EU airspace all air carriers licensed in the Philippines until these deficiencies are corrected.”

The legal notice does include the advice that, “Where an airline . . . deems itself to be in conformity with the necessary technical elements and requirements prescribed by the applicable international safety standards, it may request the Commission to commence the procedure for its removal from the list.” MacDonald also said, “The Commission... is ready to examine any information demonstrating progress in the implementation of corrective actions and compliance with international safety standards.”

The government, together with carriers like PAL and Cebu Pacific, must insist on this examination, posthaste. It is possible that a carrier’s safety record will override the EU’s concerns about the regulatory agency, as happened with certain Indonesian airlines. Some two years after a ban on all Indonesian airlines, the country’s flagship Garuda and three other airlines were taken off the list.

EU officials blame lax compliance with international safety standards as the reason for the country’s inclusion in its blacklist. But there is also something amiss in the EU’s decision to limit its focus mainly to African and Asian air carriers. Indeed, the March 30 notice reconfirms the earlier ban on (very) many African carriers, but adds Sudan and the Philippines to the list. This is unfortunate, because airlines with a recent history of accidents, such as Qantas of Australia, or which have suffered an unpardonable security breach, such as Northwest Airlines, the carrier on which the so-called Christmas bomber flew from Amsterdam to Detroit, are not included in the list.

To be sure, the EU holds that “The fact that an airline is not included in the Community list does not, therefore, automatically mean that it meets the applicable safety standards.” Yes, but mere inclusion has already damaged the reputation of the likes of PAL and Cebu Pacific, which adhere to international safety standards.

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