New Year’s Day air space shutdown a ‘blessing in disguise’?

air space emergency
Passengers cancel, reschedule or rebook flights on New Year's Day during the sudden airport shutdown. —PHOTO FROM

Sen. Miguel Zubiri was close to bursting into an incredulous laugh when he heard that very sensitive air navigation equipment worth billions of pesos wasn’t being monitored by even inexpensive closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras that he himself has all over his house in Cagayan de Oro City.

The Senate president was unpleasantly surprised by one of the details disclosed during the chamber’s Jan. 12 inquiry into the breakdown of the communications, navigation and surveillance system for air traffic management (CNS/ATM) that shut down Philippine air space for hours on New Year’s Day. He said the incident brought out national security concerns during the air traffic emergency.

“I just cannot believe that there is no CCTV footage in that highly sensitive area,” he said, holding back a guffaw fit for a comedy skit or a joke.

But it was not funny for over 65,000 passengers on more than 360 domestic and international flights that, from around 10 a.m. on Jan. 1 until the next day, had to be cancelled, rescheduled, or rebooked.

In the first hours of the emergency, air traffic controllers had to revert from satellite-based to radio-based communications on VHF frequency with airplanes already in the sky and ready to land, according to Manuel Tamayo, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap).

To prevent accidents, Caap implemented a “ground stop,” meaning no departures for all aircraft from and to the Philippines. Planes already airborne had to turn back or land elsewhere. Consequently, all New Year’s Day travelers to and from the country were stranded at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) in Manila and other airports worldwide.

Marlene Bautista, assistant director general in charge of air traffic service at Caap, said that because voice communications also broke down, officials had to use their personal mobile phones to call their nearest counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia to hold flights to Manila and to accommodate planes within their range.

By the end of the day, Caap reported, 39 planes had been able to land safely on Philippine soil, including eight at Mactan-Cebu International Airport and two at Davao City International Airport, and in Iloilo City, Bacolod City and Clark Field.

‘Just winging it’

“Thankfully, there were no deaths involved because of the skill of our air traffic control operators and some of our engineers,” said Sen. Grace Poe, who called the inquiry as chair of the Senate committee on public services.

“But the fact is you were just winging it. You were just hoping against hope that nothing will go wrong,” she told Tamayo and other Caap officials.

Repeating what he said at a hearing of the House of Representatives two days earlier, Tamayo said the blackout “is not something we are proud of.” He apologized and sought “understanding” from the senators and the public.

Tamayo said the breakdown began when the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) went on automatic standby after detecting a “flaw” in one of two primary circuit breakers that fed electricity into the CNS/ATM machines.

The flaw was determined to have been caused by an “overvoltage” in the circuit breaker’s output, when 380 volts, instead of 220 volts, were coming out of it. The higher voltage also damaged several equipment that prolonged the outage. As a result, the Philippines’ entire air space shut down and the radar screens of air traffic controllers blacked out.

When the Caap officials testified at the Senate hearing, they still could not explain how that overvoltage happened, and a “forensic” investigation of the cause was ongoing.

‘Very serious incident’

Engineer Florigo Varona, vice president for internal affairs of the Institute of Integrated Electrical Engineers of the Philippines (IIEE), told that his organization of more than 70,000 members wanted to help prevent a repeat of this “very serious incident.” 

Varona was called to a House hearing on Tuesday as a resource person on the air space blackout, and he asked congressmen for documents to help the IIEE find answers. 

“It was a matter of public safety and national security,” he said.

Varona also said there were questions that could be answered by Caap, which could determine the root cause of the problem, and not just the symptoms such as the reported overvoltage.

These questions are: Does Caap have records and data logs of “transient condition,” which is the occurrence of temporary, sometimes milliseconds-long, abnormal voltage? Did this transient condition come from outside the air navigation system facility or inside it? What was the situation, or what were the staff doing at the time the circuit breaker malfunctioned and the UPS went on standby?

Is there a short-circuit analysis that could also help trace the origin of the circuit breaker malfunction? What is the “interrupting capacity” of the circuit breaker, or the maximum electrical surge that it could handle? What is the load profile, or the power consumption, and the power quality—the variation in the electrical voltage—that flows into the air navigation system equipment throughout the day?

Varona said he was only offering a “technical opinion” because his group still did not have the complete documentation. 

“Like other people, I also want to know what happened,” he said.

The CNS/ATM system broke down barely four years after the P10-billion project funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) went in service on Jan. 16, 2018, including the two years when there was very little air traffic due to the pandemic.

This has caused consternation over the safety and security of air travel to and from the Philippines among lawmakers and the public.

“It could now be a blessing in disguise that this thing prompted us to focus on the deficiencies of Caap and your equipment,” Poe remarked.

3 possible causes

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Sen. Miguel Zubiri —PHOTO FROM

The security aspect, specifically sabotage, was one of three possible causes of the breakdown of the CNS/ATM system cited by Zubiri, along with the Caap staff’s negligence at the time and lack of equipment maintenance.

The monitoring of the Philippine air defense identification zone (Padiz) “when our system was down was definitely down” as far as Caap was concerned, Tamayo said in reply to a question from Sen. JV Ejercito.

Col. Robert Bitas of the Philippine Air Force said it had personnel assigned at Caap’s Air Traffic Management Center to monitor the Padiz for any intrusion into the country’s air space aided by its own radars. The Air Force radars could not cover the entire country, he said.

Caap reported that the breakdown of the CNS/ATM system was “unlikely” due to a cyberattack, but Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian questioned that statement saying there was no formal probe to confirm it.

Undersecretary Alexander Ramos, head of the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center, told the senators that his agency had not investigated the network side of the blackout. He said the report that a cyberattack was unlikely was “not conclusive.”

Ramos said a forensic investigation would be difficult due to a “lack of tools and equipment” following cuts to the budget of the Department of Information and Communication Technology.

National security implications

Clarita Carlos, then still serving as national security adviser to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., told the senators that safety and security were “indivisible.” She said this was why she and the National Security Council were “really quite concerned” about the blackout because it had “tremendous and very serious national security implications.”

Carlos quoted the Department of National Defense officer in charge, Jose Faustino Jr., as saying before he resigned that there was no memorandum of understanding or legal framework wherein military assistance could immediately “kick in” when civil aviation breaks down.

She said an air traffic shutdown scenario similar to what happened on Jan. 1 was already mentioned as a possibility in a 30-year “strategic planning” report she had helped prepare for former Caap chief William Hotchkiss 12 years ago.

The “variables” that should have been considered in air traffic management that were included in the report were people, bureaucracy and equipment, Carlos said. “If we do not address them, we are really in deep trouble,” she said. “This is very serious not only to our commerce and trade; this is very serious to human lives.”

She added that the Philippine air defense system should be also “crocheted” with the civilian air space management system.

Claims dispute

Also disclosed during the Senate hearing were the claims dispute between the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the joint venture of Japan’s Sumitomo Corp. and Thales Group of France.

Sumitomo was in charge of the building and civil works of the Jica-funded project, while Thales provided the hardware and the software maintenance service, which ended in 2020.

Transport Undersecretary for Aviation and Airports Robert Lim told the senators that the Sumitomo-Thales joint venture claimed damages for suspension and prolongation of work and price escalation amounting to P987.65 million.

The DOTr had a counterclaim of P644 million for delays in the project. These claims resulted from an order by the Commission on Audit to disallow the project in 2011, which it lifted in 2013.

Thales country representative Harry Nuske said the company was not willing to enter a maintenance service contract for the CNS/ATM until the outstanding claims were resolved.

Thales provides software support to air traffic monitoring, not for equipment such as the UPS, he said.

Lim said Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista had formed a claims committee to settle the dispute.

Tamayo said the country’s CNS/ATM was still “state of the art, and a gold standard as far as air traffic control is concerned,” but needed hardware and software upgrades.

He said Caap would conduct a feasibility study on another CNS/ATM system that would be independent of the current one and could serve as “backup” when another blackout occurs. It will have to spend P200 million for the study.

This proposed new system could cost about P10 billion, like the one now installed.

Moving forward

According to Bautista, the DOTr will try to persuade the joint venture to agree to a service contract with Caap, which is a fiscally autonomous agency that can enter into agreements on its own.

The administration will also fast-track the privatization of Naia to modernize it and make it more efficient, to be able to increase the number of flights it can handle from 40 to 55 per hour.

The DOTr will be open to unsolicited and solicited proposals, but favors the latter.

Bautista said the administration would also push for a law to separate the regulator and operator functions of Caap, and another law to exempt its employees from government salary standardization as highly skilled professionals, to prevent a brain drain.

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