THE Senate will look into the delays in upgrading the country’s air traffic management system and the possibility that it was targeted by a cyberattack when it launches its probe into the New Year’s Day glitch that shut down Philippine airspace for hours.
Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the public services committee, said the panel’s inquiry would seek to determine how to prevent a repeat of the problem and to find out who should be held responsible for it.
The inquiry begins on January 12.,
Poe believes the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines is almost entirely accountable for the problem that stalled hundreds of flights and caused more than 65,000 passengers to suffer.
“I think CAAP is almost 100 percent responsible for this because when it comes to the operations of commercial air traffic, the operations and giving of the permits, it’s CAAP and CAB [Civil Aeronautics Board],” Poe said in an interview over ANC’s Headstart.
But the CAB deals more with the economic aspects, she noted.
“CAAP is the operations. So definitely they’re responsible because those are their people that they assigned there to the air traffic control towers,” she said.
But she said she was not blaming the country’s air traffic operators, who are very skilled.
She also said it was not true that the CAAP had no budget for the upgrade of its system.
She said that from 2018 to 2020, CAAP was not given a budget because it was able to generate income from the services it provided. When the pandemic struck, it received funds from the national government. It got P1.5 billion in 2021, and P2.4 billion in 2022.
Besides, it is CAAP’s responsibility to inform Congress if there are safety programs that need urgent funding, she said.
“And in fact, it is the responsibility of the CAAP director as well as the [Department of Transportation] to tell Congress, ‘this is a safety issue, this is urgent, we need it.’ They cannot just sit back and to rely on us to make that judgment for them,” she said.
Nevertheless, the Senate would determine how Congress could help improve the country’s air traffic management system.
CAAP had said that the glitch that affected air control operations was due to power outage and a problem with the uninterruptible power supply.
The Senate has invited aviation and transportation officials, air traffic control system maintenance service providers Sumitomo Corp. and Thales Australia, and former Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade to the January 12 hearing.
Poe said Tugade was asked to appear because the problem “didn’t just happen overnight.”
“Obviously, it stems from many years of transactions and maintenance and upgrades. In fact, it’s not just singling out Secretary Tugade. This is also a chance for him to correct impressions that it was during his time that all these things may have been neglected,” she said.
She said the Senate panel was looking at the history of the upgrading of the air traffic control system, which went all the way back to 2001.
She said it was approved in 2009, but the officials at that time pitched for a different contractor or supplier, thereby delaying the project until 2013.
“It’s really a long history of why we weren’t able to upgrade immediately,” she said.
The Communications, Navigation and Surveillance/ Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) System that aviation personnel have been using was inaugurated in 2018 and started comprehensive operations in July 2019.
CAAP said the system was “already behind” when it was first used in 2019.
Poe said the system was not outdated, but needed regular upgrading.
She would ask the maintenance service providers when they last checked the system and whether they found anything to be concerned about.
She also said she has spoken with somebody connected with systems maintenance who advised her not to rule out the possibility that the fiasco was triggered by a cyberattack or sabotage.
The Senate would look into this.
“Because until now, there’s really no categorical answer what caused the power outage,” she said.
Banner photo credit: NAIA-MIAA