MANILA— It was not fireworks that made people look at the sky on the first day of 2023.
The skies were clear on the noon of January 1, 2023. There was no movement in the Philippine airspace on a day when tens and thousands of travelers were expected to fly in and out of the country.
Even the flights in and out of the Philippines were affected. Airborne planes were diverted to the nearest airport. Some were stuck in their airport of origin, whether their flights would push through.
Over 65,000 passengers were affected, according to the Department of Transportation. This aviation conundrum lasted for 10 hours.
The culprit? It was reportedly an electric motor of an uninterruptible power supply of the Philippines' air traffic management system.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) issued a press statement before noon of January 1, vaguely explaining that the air traffic management system encountered a "technical problem." It also stated that safety is of utmost concern and that they coordinate for the soonest resumption and normalization of operations.
The statement barely touched on the gravity of the situation that the passengers were experiencing at that time. Frustrated travelers took their ire to social media, even attracting foreign news outlets.
JP Ambon, a traveler from Singapore, shared that a Singaporean news channel asked him to talk about his experience of being stuck at Changi Airport after the Philippines' navigation system went down.
“Nagpost kasi ako sa Twitter. Nabasa nila. Napaisip ako kasi nakakahiya na ano ang sasabihin nila sa Pilipinas. Nakakahiya di ba,” Ambon said.
Rachel Ancheta was traveling with her 70-year-old grandmother from San Francisco to spend the New Year in the Philippines. They were supposed to stay for only a few hours in Taiwan and reach their home country by noon. They spent over a day at the layover airport in Taipei.
"It's scary being stranded in a place where you don't know anybody. Even if we were to go to a hotel, we are unsure if we have a place to rest to, sleep, and shower super important to go back to be with family and sleep in a bed. It's so sad to have the flaw of the Philippine government so exposed and affecting thousands of flights. It seems like a small tech difficulty, and we are at the ground level of seeing different types of people … cause unheard of. It is really embarrassing for a Filipino na for others to see this happening," Ancheta said.
The three major local airlines issued statements and were on press interviews for information dissemination.
Local carrier Philippine Airlines wasstraightforward with its customers and told them to expect delays and cancellations. It also presented options to travelers if their flight was canceled. They may rebook, refund, or put the unused ticket into a travel fund.
Cebu Pacific, meanwhile, assured its customers that it was coordinating with the authorities. Meanwhile, AirAsia Philippines notified its customers that flights were rescheduled and assured them they would assist those stuck at the terminals.
The incident falls under the Passenger Bill of Rights as "force majeure"—a Latin word that means "greater force." In transportation or business terms, this word describes those uncontrollable events such as war, labor stoppages, or extreme weather.
Under this circumstance, the airlines are not obligated to provide food or accommodation to the travelers because the flight disruption is not the airlines' fault.
THE LATE-NIGHT PRESS CONFERENCE
The CAAP's vague earlier statements lit the social media notifications. The social media chatter formed speculations around the massive suspension of flights.
There were talks of power outages and questions if a cyber security issue caused the navigation problem.
The Department of Transportation called the press on short notice for a quick conference past 8 in the evening via Zoom. Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista led the media forum.
He started by asking for an apology to those who were affected.
"We acknowledge and apologize for any inconvenience brought by the incident. We assure the public that DOTr, with CAAP, MIAA, and other airport stakeholders, are working tirelessly to safely bring all affected passengers to their respective destinations. We graciously appeal for everyone's patience and understanding. Again, our apologies for the inconvenience," Bautista said, seated at a u-shaped table far from the camera.
Bautista was seated beside the CAAP Director General Manuel Tamayo and Manila International Airport Authority Cesar Chiong. The three were familiar and comfortable with each other as they worked together for a local airline for years.
The transport secretary then read his opening statement to the press, summarizing what transpired that day.
"At around 9:49 a.m. (local time), the Air Traffic Management Center (ATMC) within the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines Complex went down due to an internal power outage, which resulted in loss of communication, radio, radar, and internet. The primary cause identified was a problem with the power supply and the degraded uninterrupted power supply, which had no link to the commercial power and had to be connected to the latter manually. The secondary problem was the power surge which resulted in the power outage affecting the equipment," he relayed.
"This brought about the suspension of flight operations in Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), Clark, Mactan, Davao, and other CAAP-operated airports. We want to assure the public that DOTr is on top of the situation, and the Department, along with CAAP has managed to resume partial operations by 4:00 p.m. Ninety percent of all radar surveillance has been restored by 7:45 p.m.," Bautista added.
The morning after the press conference, people were still asking questions.
CAAP's Captain Manuel Tamayo recalled he went straight to the Communications, Navigation, and Surveillance Systems for Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) Center right away after learning that there is a problem in the navigation system.
The building is inside the CAAP Complex in Pasay City and a few blocks from NAIA Terminal 2.
Initially, there was a problem with the electric motor or blower of one of the uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
“Nag-report 'yung ating maintenance doon, who is a technician who is always there to watch over the system, na nag-alarm 'yung isa sa UPS and then there was a sound na parang umuugong na sound which is coming from one of the two UPS, which ultimately we have to shut down because ibig sabihin may diperensya motor niyan. So we (shut it down) to cool the system. Itong dalawang UPS natin, it power shares. In short, kung ano ang load ng isa, ay pwede i-share ng isa or it could take care of the total load,” Tamayo said.
“Ang inital na nakitang diperensya, one of the blowers of UPS conked out. It gave out a warning tapos umugong tapos nag-conk out that occurred 9:49 in the morning,” Tamayo added.
However, one thing led to another. The other UPS also conked out.
When the technicians tried to bypass the system, it appeared to receive more voltage than it could or 380 volts instead of 220. This series of issues left the aviation official puzzled.
"Kahit ako nagtataka. Dapat walang problema UPS nga eh, but for one reason or another, the other UPS did not come online so troubleshooting had to be done," Tamayo said.
“When it was restored, ang nangyari dun, biglang nagkaroon ng warning. It was around lunch. Doon sa equipment center there was an indication of over voltage, instead of it getting 220 volts, ang pumapasok ay 330 volts. Immediately pinatay nila 'yung system to avoid damage further to other equipment. Unfortunately, may nasira may affected na system na nasira na nakita nila. Walang pumasok na commercial (source of power), tapos 'yung UPS natin, it had some issues so totally walang power. So there was investigation on our team to find out kung bakit nawalan ng kuryente considering na meron tayong standby generator, which was online as well as the Meralco,” Tamayo said.
Meralco was quick to issue a statement that they did not monitor any power outages in their distribution area.
The challenge continued for the technicians and Tamayo. While repairing the power supply, they saw damage to one of the critical parts of the navigation system - the disc.
“Ang pinakamabigat dito, what was affected, was the very small apperture terminal (VSAT). This is located outside the ATM. Ito 'yung nakikita nating disc sa labas. These are the receivers from the satellites for comms navigation and all necessary data that we require," Tamayo explained.
CAAP fully restored the navigation system almost 8 p.m. or 10 hours after the initial glitch detection. Tamayo explained that they have a redundant power supply.
STATE-OF-THE-ART BUT OUTDATED
The transportation official bared they have been discussing options on how to address the aging navigation technology of CAAP for months. The agency asked for P124 million from last year's budget to upgrade the system.
The CNS/ATM works by having aircraft transponders receive satellite signals and using transponder transmissions to determine the precise locations of aircraft in the sky.
Without it, the pilots and towers communicate manually. Previously there were only three radars, covering thirty percent of the Philippine airspace.
“Naabutan ko pa ito noong piloto ako na, we have to submit a flight plan sheet and i-approve nila through call,” Tamayo said.
The CNS/ATM technologies include a computer-based flight data processing system that will enable aircraft operators to meet their planned departure and arrival times and adhere to their preferred flight profiles with minimum constraints and without compromising agreed levels of safety.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has agreed to give signatories such as the Philippines until 2016 to adopt the satellite-based CNS/ATM. However, many countries worldwide have already been using it for the last few years.
The delay of the P10-billion CNS/ATM that was signed during the Arroyo administration was under review by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) under then Secretary Mar Roxas in 2012.
Roxas said that he subjected the contract to a fine-toothed comb to make sure it had not been tainted with an anomaly. But by the time the project was cleared and the notice to proceed issued, the price has jacked up the cost to P13 billion and instead of its planned installation in 2010, the project will be turned over to the government only by 2016.
The Duterte administration opened the project in December 2018. With the CNS/ATM, the country now has thirteen radars covering the entire Philippine airspace.
The Build-Build-Build website described the navigation system as "state of the art."
"As far as the tech is concerned, it is outdated. So as early as we took over, even no less than Sec. Bautista and DOTR Usec. Bobby Lim already recommended that we come up with a backup system to this system before it fails because it takes so long," Tamayo said.
Bautista also acknowledged that the system needs to upgrade as soon as possible, describing the navigation tech as being in its "mid-life."
However, the government would need a "huge amount of money," which could go as high as P13 billion - the existing CNS/ATM price in 2018.
"I was informed existing system caused us around P13 billion in 2018 and we borrowed money to finance it through JICA. Although it is a system that was introduced in 2010, inimplement natin ito ng 2018. So parang midlife na itong system na ito na kailangan natin i-improve or i-modernize. Siguro we could still use it, but we need to upgrade this to a better system," Bautista said.
If afforded a backup CNS/ATM, the transport officials said this should be in a location other than Metro Manila.
“Hindi dito sa malapit sa area na we have the existing system kasi ang back up system nasa ibang location ano," Bautista said.
The warranty of the CNS/ATM reportedly expired in 2019. While CAAP assured that the system is operated and maintained regularly, the agency says they could not promise that this incident might not happen again.
The CAAP said that its Aerodrome and Air Navigation Safety Oversight Office (AANSOO) will be tasked to investigate the incident. In a statement issued a day after the glitch, the agency said that the “main cause of the power supply problem is still being determined and is subject to investigation.”
The oversight committee will be composed of CAAP employees who are aerodrome engineers, communication and electrical engineers, air traffic controllers, pilots, and lawyers. The agency has not released a timeline for the results of the investigation.
The Senate said it will conduct an inquiry into the new year’s day travel mess. Senator Grace Poe said, chairperson of the Public Services Committee, said that once the airport authorities restore normal flight operations, they will begin the probe.
She called the incident a “national security concern”, saying aviation officials should be held accountable.
CAAP officials said they are willing to face the public inquiry.