MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - The Philippines suspended all inbound commercial flights in 9 of its airports beginning Sunday on the request of the government's task force spearheading the response to the COVID-19 crisis, officials said.
Eric Apolonio, spokesperson of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, said "only inbound flights" are covered by the week-long suspension, clarifying the agency's press statement issued earlier Sunday stating that, a Notice to Airmen was issued "suspending all domestic and international passenger/commercial flights to and from the Philippines for one week starting on 3 May at 8 a.m."
"International flights wishing to land or depart must request for an exemption with CAAP Operations Center (OPCEN) at least 36 hours before the scheduled departure from the airport of origin," the CAAP said.
The commercial flight suspensions will be imposed in the country's international airports in Manila (Ninoy Aquino International Airpor), Davao, Clark, Iloilo, Mactan-Cebu, Zamboanga, Kalibo, Laoag, and Puerto Princesa.
Cargo flights, sweeper flights, medical flights, utility flights, and maintenance flights are exempted.
The National Task Force on COVID-19, in a separate statement, said emergencies while enroute, weather mitigation flights, and the sweeper flights for foreign nationals being repatriated to their respective home countries are also among those exempted.
It also that domestic air arrivals and departures at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport remain suspended.
"This decision is meant to decongest our quarantine facilities to protect our people by preventing the further spread of COVID-19 and also ensure that our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are well taken cared of when they arrive from abroad," the task force said.
"As of today, there are already approximately 20,000 OFWs undergoing mandatory quarantine in Metro Manila," it added.
Secretary Carlito Galvez, chief implementer of the task force, conveyed the request on Saturday to Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade through a letter.
Galvez cited "the need to ramp up the capacity of our current systems to properly process the growing number of Filipino repatriates coming back to the Philippines on a daily basis."
He said the moratorium on flights will "allow the government’s frontline agencies and instrumentalities to upgrade their testing and screening protocols ,and expand existing quarantine and medical facilities to adequately deal with the growing number of repatriates and COVID-19 cases in the Philippines."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who chairs NTF-COVID-19, said the measure would be lifted after a week to allow the testing of some 6,000 repatriated Filipino migrant workers for the new strain of coronavirus.
"Ang timeline natin 7 days tapos na ito. After 7 days, ili-lift na natin iyong suspension sa airport," Lorenzana told DZMM.
Lorenzana said some 40,000 OFWs are still expected to be repatriated.
Philippine Coast Guard commandant Admiral Joel Garcia, whose agency is also involved in the quarantine of returning OFWs, including seafarers, hoped the 7-day flights suspension is enough to complete the screening and reduce the volume of those being served in quarantine facilities in Manila.
"Itong window of opportunity for 7 days ay sana tamang-tama lang po na mabigyan po tayo ng oportunidad na maswab test po ito," he said in a separate DZMM interview.
Garcia said there are currently 12 passenger ships off Manila with 4,179 seafarers who also need to be tested. The coast guard, he said, is coordinating with the Philippine Red Cross on this.
Lorenzana said officials will determine next week how many flights the country will allow to accept to avoid overwhelming the country's testing capacity.
"Pakiusap ko sa DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) at OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration), pigilin muna hangga't di tayo handa rito. Ang key rito, are we prepared to receive these OFWs? Pag hindi pa, tigilin muna natin sila doon," he said.
As of Saturday, the Philippines has allowed the mounting of 17,544 flights since March 14, a day before a lockdown was imposed on Metro Manila to address the contagion, according to the CAAP.
Of the figure, 4,918 were commercial flights, 2,613 were cargo, and 6,216 were military.
Flag-carrier Philippine Airlines, in a statement, said it has canceled its Manila-bound special passenger flights from the US from May 4 to 8.
"If you are previously booked on any of the canceled flights, we will endeavor to rebook you to another special flight operating after the airport closure period. All such flights are subject to government approvals," PAL said.
Tugade earlier urged airport authorities to "seriously consider" reopening airports in areas under general community quarantine (GCQ) in a bid to jumpstart domestic tourism amid the coronavirus crisis.
Tugade made the remark as the tourism department said domestic travel, starting with short-distance road trips, may revive the industry.
The Philippines has logged nearly 9,000 COVID-19 cases since it reported its first case on Jan. 30. Of the 8,928 cases recorded as of May 2, the patients who recovered number 1,124, while 603 others died.