Philippine Probe Rules Out Sabotage in New Year’s ATC Power Outage

 - March 9, 2023, 6:34 PM
Scores of flights were suspended New Year's Day following a power outage at Manila’s air traffic management center, impacting some 60,000 passengers. (Photo: Patrick Roque/Wikipedia)

Philippine officials confirmed on Tuesday that there was no evidence of sabotage or a cybersecurity attack following a Senate probe into Manila’s January 1 air traffic control (ATC) power outage. The uninterruptible power supply (UPS) data logs are now being analyzed in Turkey before the Senate committee releases its final ruling.

The New Year’s Day system failure at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) led to the disruption of roughly 280 flights, impacting some 60,000 passengers. NAIA’s air traffic management center (ATMC) oversees inbound and outbound traffic, as well as overflights within national airspace.

In a government news statement, committee chair Senator Grace Poe said the ATC outage was due to a “confluence of factors and errors” and that much work was needed to improve the country’s ATCM. The Senate of the Philippines is now calling on the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to replace or upgrade critical ATC equipment and infrastructure and address human resource shortcomings. 

During Tuesday’s plenary session, Poe also reiterated calls for the creation of an independent government authority to investigate transport accidents while highlighting the conflicting roles among regulators, operators, and investigators.

Poe’s proposed Senate bill 1121, first introduced last August and filed for a second time this week, outlines the establishment of the Philippine Transportation Safety Board (PTSB) as an independent and non-regulatory investigation authority. The bill seeks to develop distinct PTSB bureaus to investigate aviation, rail, marine, and motor vehicle occurrences. 

“We need an independent agency that shall conduct independent, thorough, and truthful investigations, and provide for corresponding and critical recommendations,” Poe said in a Facebook post. 

In July, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. moved to veto House bill 9030 and Senate bill 1077—the legislation establishing the PTSB—citing concerns over duplication of functions of the Department of Transportation (DOTr), the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) lays out the international standards and recommended practices (SARPs) for aircraft accident and incident investigations under Annex 13 to the Chicago Convention.

To support the global harmonization of SARPs, ICAO encourages states to develop and implement investigation legislation and regulations, complimentary to Annex 13. This includes developing a separate and independent investigation authority, structured to withstand politics, interference, and pressure.

“The Philippines already has a history of non-compliance to ICAO, and I wish to reiterate that there are consequences. A downgrade from Category 1 to Category 2 means Philippine-registered aircraft and personnel would have to undergo heightened inspections abroad, which might cause flight delays...other countries may also impose restrictions [on Philippine-registered] commercial flights. This will translate to huge economic losses for the country,” Poe said.

To meet ICAO standards, the Senate is now urging the DOTr to immediately support the CAAP. The DOTr is also encouraged to ramp up feasibility studies on the proposed privatization of NAIA.

Beyond the creation of a separate investigation authority, the Senate has also recommended amendments to the CAAP Charter and Passengers’ Bill of Rights and the passage of house bill no. 7976 - the bill for the Philippine Airports Authority Act. The Act proposes the establishment of a corporate body under the purview of the DOTr to develop, implement, and oversee airport standards and upgrades while promoting aviation, trade, and tourism.

“To complement these [bills], sufficient engineering and training of accredited engineers should be rolled out. Another [communications, navigation, and surveillance systems for air traffic management] system in an independent location should also be supported,” Poe said.