By Denise A. Valdez
THE UNITED STATES Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued a travel advisory for the Philippines, citing insufficient security at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).
In the Dec. 26 travel advisory posted on its website, the DHS said “aviation security at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which serves as a last-point-of-departure airport for flights to the United States, does not maintain and carry out effective security consistent with the security standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO),” adding that this determination was based on assessments by visiting security exports of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
ICAO is a specialized agency of the United Nations that sets standards for aviation practices among member states.
DHS directed airlines issuing tickets for travel between Manila and the United States “to notify passengers in writing of this determination” and for all US airports that provide regularly scheduled service to NAIA to display the advisory “prominently.”
In a brief statement sent to media on Thursday, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said US authorities have been “collaborating closely with the Philippines Department of Transportation and related agencies and have every confidence in their leadership and their commitment to improve aviation security.”
“Philippine authorities have worked diligently to improve security measures and we fully expect that they will soon meet ICAO security standards.”
The US embassy statement said the US State department has approved $5 million for NAIA security improvements to include training and technology improvements; while the TSA has provided aviation security advisers to the Philippines, assessed NAIA security operations and provided recommendations on technology use and maintenance, streamlining screening operations and modernization of NAIA’s overall security infrastructure.”
Philippine officials on Thursday said passengers should not worry about safety at NAIA, as safety and security are two different concerns.
Wala naman akong nakikita na magkakaroon ng implication (on passengers) kasi, unang una, wala tayong downgrading ng serbisyo. Ito ay security aspect. Huwag natin pagsamahin ang security at safety [I don’t see any implication on passengers because, first of all, we are not downgrading services. This is a security aspect. Let’s not mix up security and safety],” Ed V. Monreal, general manager of the Manila international Airport Authority (MIAA) which operates NAIA, said in a televised briefing on Thursday.
He also said TSA representatives visited the Philippines from September to December to assess security at NAIA, and MIAA had been informed in a Dec. 7 exit briefing about 16 recommendations to improve the airport.
“While the personnel from TSA were still here, katulong nila tayo sa pag-craft ng kasagutan sa kanilang observations [we worked with them in crafting solutions to their observations]. There were 16 recommendations. Out of the 16, pito kumpleto na natin [we have already resolved seven],” Mr. Monreal said.
He noted the 16 recommendations cover alarm systems, X-ray units and security doors, among others, which the TSA found to be malfunctioning at times or in need of an upgrade.
Wala naman silang sinasabi na bumagsak tayo. Meron lang silang rekomendasyon at nakita hindi sa lahat ng oras ay consistent [They didn’t say we failed ICAO standards. They just have recommendations because they found security safeguards were not working consistently],” Mr. Monreal said, adding, “admittedly there’s no such this as perfect implementation.”
The Department of Transportation said in a statement that aside from acquiring new equipment, the TSA also recommended new background check procedures for airport personnel and a change in “security culture” of existing staff.
It said it has since started re-training and implemented “manual interventions such as the hiring of additional MIAA-contracted guards 24/7”.
Tourism department data show that 774,657 visitors from USA were recorded as of September, 7.94% more than those who came in last year’s comparable nine months. The US was the second-biggest source of foreign visitors in the nine months to September, accounting for 14.45% of the total next to South Korea, which contributed 21.98%.
Sought for comment, Tourism Congress of the Philippines President Jose C. Clemente III said that “[a]ny type of security threat can happen anytime and anywhere around the globe…”
“In the short term, the effects may be a slight decrease in visitor arrivals but if the situation is addressed as soon as possible, then the long-term effects on visitor arrivals can be mitigated,” he told BusinessWorld in a mobile phone message.
“In the meantime, we assure visitors from the United States that the Philippines is a destination no less safe nor more dangerous than any other country in the world.”