Numbers Don’t Lie

At four minutes to midnight of Aug. 16, Xiamen Airway’s Boeing 737 landed at NAIA and overshot the runway. Minutes later, the aircraft laid debilitated on a grassy patch adjacent to runway 24.
It was unfortunate that the aircraft was positioned some 80 meters from the center point of the runway, 70 meters short of the minimum distance required by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) safety guidelines for the continued use of the airstrip. MIAA authorities had no recourse but to close the runway until such time as the aircraft is moved. The runway’s closure caused the cancellation of some 280 flights. Meanwhile, flights scheduled to land at NAIA had to be rerouted to Clark and other nearby airports.
Mayhem spread throughout NAIA’s four terminals as waves upon waves of passengers were stranded. Tensions rose as more than 40,000 marooned passengers tried to make arrangements for alternative flights among just a handful of airline personal. Stress reached fever pitch as the airlines could not tell when normal flights would resume. Exacerbating the stress was the sardine-packed conditions of the airport and its shortage of waiting areas.
Photos of NAIA’s jampacked terminals and horror stories of passengers flooded the internet instantaneously. As expected, public outrage filled the air. Accusations were hurled against Manila International Airport Authority personnel, specifically towards its General Manager Ed V. Monreal.
Among the accusations thrown at MIAA were: 1. That it did not have the safety protocols nor the equipment to deal with emergency situations quickly; 2. That MIAA did not attend to the needs of the stranded passengers; 3. That 34 uncoordinated landings occurred under MIAA’s nose; 4. That MIAA gave false hopes to the passengers by saying that the runway was to be re-opened at 12 noon on the day after the incident, only to extend the re-opening five times.
The dust has finally settled and we can now revisit the incident with objective eyes.
Was NAIA Unprepared?
Let me narrate the succession of events and you, my readers, can judge for yourselves.
First of all, it should be known that ICAO is very specific about the chronological steps an airport authority must take during crash-landing situations. Four steps must be followed in specific order: The first step is to rescue passengers and control imminent fire and explosions. This should be followed by the investigation of the wreckage, the gathering of evidence and retrieval of the black-box.. Only then can the aircraft be moved from the crash site. Cleaning of debris, fragments and rubble follows before the runway can be reopened.
This is how the incident went down:
At 11:56 pm of Aug. 16, the Manila Control Tower lost contact with Xiamen Air flight 8667.
Two minutes later, MIAA’s Safety Patrol reported that the aircraft had landed but veered towards the grassy area of runway 24 with its belly on the ground. Its landing gear had collapsed and its left engine was detached.
Emergency Plan No. 1 was immediately put into effect. MIAA’s Rescue and Firefighting Division (MIAA-RFD) was alerted as was the office of the General Manager, Assistant GM and Action Duty Manager. Within seconds, the MIAA-RFD dispatched all available fire trucks to the crash site.
Twelve minutes later, the MIAA Airport Police arrived to secure the area. They were trailed by the MIAA’s medical team to attend to the injured.
At 12:25 a.m., buses were deployed to evacuate the passengers.
At 12:30 a.m., the Airport Crisis Control Management Group was activated and was temporarily headed by Action Manager on Duty, Manny Rodriguez. General Manager Ed Monreal arrived five minutes later and took over as on-scene commander. His first act was to organize the immediate evacuation of Xiamen Air’s 165 passengers. This was done successfully with all passengers safely transferred to a holding area in terminal 1.
At 2:10 a.m., the investigative team arrived, headed by CAAP Director-General Jim Sydiongco, together with representatives from the Aircraft Accident Investigation and Inquiry Board. A mobile command post was set up at the scene. Evidence were gathered and the black-box was retrieved. Initial reports point to pilot error being the cause of the crash. Cargo and luggage were also unloaded at this time. Meanwhile, Monreal and his team planned how to extract and transfer the aircraft to a nearby holding bay.
So as not to waste time, MIAA’s aircraft removal team arrived with their equipment even while the investigative team was at work. They were on standby, ready to be deployed as soon as clearance was given.
The investigative team took four hours to gather evidence. It was only at 6:10 a.m. that the aircraft removal operation could commence.
The plan was to jack up the aircraft using airbags, deploy its landing gear and tow the plane to a site where it did not pose a hazard to other aircrafts.
Upon lifting the aircraft one meter from the ground, however, it was found that the landing gear was jammed. The plane could not be rolled out. The only option was to lift it using a telescoping crane.
MIAA does not own a telescoping crane. ICAO rules do not mandate it to own one — having one immediately accessible is good enough. Royal Cargo, a company based in nearby Multinational Village, owns this $10-million equipment. It is from them that MIAA leased the crane.
The removal of the plane took 26 hours. This was due to the time it took to deliver the telescoping crane to the crash scene, install its balancing weights, secure the harnesses on the plane, etc. Making the process more challenging was the muddy terrain, strong rains and lightning alerts.
Save for the crane, MIAA had all the necessary equipment on hand including the air bags, forklifts metal sledges, trailers, turn tables, flood lights and the like. The recovery personnel acted with extreme dedication too, ignoring fatigue and braving the lighting despite having a fuselage filled with fuel. By the way, MIAA was recently graded a 9 out of 10 by ICAO in terms of completeness of rescue and recovery equipment.
It took MIAA some 36 hours to reopen the runway from the time of the crash. For context, a similar incident happened in Thailand and it took them four days to resume normal operations.
All factors considered, I reckon that MIAA acted with extreme professionalization, following ICAO guidelines to a tee. In hindsight, they should be commended for the speed in which they resolved the situation, not persecuted for it.
Did MIAA not attend to the needs of the stranded passengers?
ICAO rules specify that it is the airlines, not the airport administrator, that are responsible for providing complimentary food and lodging to their passengers in case of a cancelled flight. The airlines are also liable for whatever damages may arise.
Records show that the airlines indeed provided food, water and lodgings to some of their passengers. Problem was, not all were given this courtesy. This is where the complaints stem from.
For MIAA’s part, they provided bottled water and blankets to the passengers of the crashed flight despite it being the responsibility of Xiamen Air.
Inside the airport terminal, MIAA set up a special lounge for people with disabilities, senior citizens and those with infants. Unfortunately, the sheer lack of space was the reason why proper waiting areas could not be provided for all.
Thirty four uncoordinated landings occurred under the nose of MIAA.
It is important that we understand the context of this allegation.
The 34 landings were all recovery flights. For those unaware, recovery flights are flights that were re-routed to alternative airports, but now landing in NAIA, its final destination.
As a general rule, all flights need to secure CAB, CAAP and the airport operator’s approval. CAB is the approving party for aircrafts to fly in and across our airspace, CAAP clears them to use the runway and the airport operator allows them to use the airport’s gates, air bridges, baggage carousels, etc.
Records show that the 34 recover flights secured CAB and CAAP approval. However, MIAA did not give them clearance to land since all gates were occupied with parked aircrafts. It did not have the capacity to accommodate them. The recovery flights landed, nonetheless. This is the reason why most of them had to wait several hours on the tarmac before they could be assigned a gate to disembark.
The airlines whose flights landed without MIAA’s approval are in violation here. In which case, corresponding penalties are being contemplated.
Did MIAA give false hopes to the passengers?
A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) advising concerned personnel that the runway was unavailable for use was issued six times between 3:45 a.m. of Aug. 17 to 6:33 a.m. the day after.
Each NOTAM quoted a specific time in which the runway was to reopen, only to be superseded by another NOTAM that pushed back the reopening. Each time a NOTAM was handed down, airlines and passengers had to adjust their schedules, correspondingly. As one could imagine, this was frustrating for all.
Why did NAIA issue several NOTAMs and not just one that gave the real time in which the runway was to reopen? The reason was unforeseen circumstances.
As mentioned earlier, the first NOTAM was based on the plan to simply roll off the plane using its own landing gear. However, the situation proved more complicated than originally foreseen when it was discovered that the landing gear was jammed. The mobilization of the telescoping crane, counter-weights and stabilizers also took time. Further delaying the process was that the team had to work through rain and muddy terrain which caused the crane’s stabilizers to slip. This made it a challenge to lift the aircraft and position it on the flatbed truck.
MIAA worked with the intent to reopen the runway at the soonest time possible. It’s unfortunate that the process took longer than expected since it had to comply with ICAO’s protocols whilst working through unforeseen circumstances.
In the final analysis, MIAA did everything by the book. The fact that no one was seriously injured and that the aircraft was moved within a relatively short span of time is testament to their preparedness, professionalization and dedication.
The inconvenience caused to the thousands of stranded passengers could have been avoided if we had an airport with at least three runways and a terminal with more than sufficient capacity. The Xiamen Air crash proved, yet again, that we need a bigger national gateway, now!
San Miguel Holdings is waiting in the wings to build an airport in Bulacan with four runways and a terminal big enough to accommodate 100 million passengers a year (three times bigger than NAIA). The project has already merited NEDA approval and is now awaiting a Swiss challenge. Problem is, the Department of Finance is obstructing the project, saying it will compromise the viability of Clark. The DoF is being shortsighted in this instance. Truth is, the new terminal being built in Clark is only good for 8 million passengers. It will hardly make a difference in easing the congestion in NAIA. Worse, it will take many years before government can build a mega airport in the former US base. Meanwhile, we will be left to make do with the aging and stressed NAIA.
The Bulacan airport is another saga…. watch out as I tell its story in this corner in the weeks to come.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist