MANILA -- Many people are wondering how a single plane caused many flights to be cancelled, diverted and delayed. Thousands of passengers struggled, got hungry and were puzzled how they can make it to their appointments. Those were not only the passengers who were at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), but also those bound for Manila last weekend.
Shortly before midnight of Aug. 16, Xiamen Air flight MF8667 skidded off at NAIA, apparently due to heavy rains. The incident caused the airport's international runway (runway 06/24) closure until before noon of Aug. 18.
All passengers and crew were safe and were deplaned using the aircraft's emergency chute. They were assisted by the airline and the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA).
As Philippine authorities were dealing with the incident, The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) had to issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) for five times, extending the runway closure.
CAAP spokesperson Eric Apolonio earlier told the Philippine News Agency (PNA) that the clearing operations team were having a hard time to extract the aircraft due to the soft ground on runway 06/24 area.
“They (clearing operations team) are having a hard time forcibly extracting the aircraft (from the runway)," Apolonio said Friday. .
As the soil is very soft, he said it would be very dangerous to forcibly extract the aircraft because it might damage the runway.
That was why authorities had kept on extending the runway closure. Apolonio said that announcing the extended runway closure would avoid air traffic congestion, since authorities are informing the airlines not to go here.
"If we will not tell the airlines that the runway will still be closed, they will go here by that time and all of them will be diverted," he said.
The final extension last Saturday was to give way for the demobilization of heavy equipment used to recover the stuck aircraft.
Did it have to take a day and a half to do the recovery operations? How much did MIAA spend for this? What would happen to thousands of passengers, especially the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who were affected? These are some of the questions the public is wondering.
Some also ask who is liable and if airport authorities have a contingency plan.
Here are some glimpse on what happened behind the Xiamen aircraft fiasco.
About the timeline
According to MIAA General Manager Ed Monreal, there is no manual that dictates a specific timeline, or how much time should be spent in case an aircraft skids off the runway. The operation, therefore, will depend on the situation.
In this case, the Xiamen aircraft was stuck at the runway, and one of its engines got detached, according to authorities.
"It's not like a bus that one can tow right away. We need to consider safety, especially for the recovery team," Monreal told reporters.
He noted that the aircraft contained four tons of fuel.
"One small wrong move might cause the aircraft to explode. The lives of my recovery team, composed of 30 people, are what's important to me," he said.
Monreal added that had the aircraft exploded, the operations would be more difficult and would take longer time.
The recovery team, he said, only stopped when there were red alert, strong winds or lightning.
He shared that in 2013, a Thai Airways skidded off at runway in Bangkok, and the recovery operations took longer.
Under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and based on the Airport Emergency Manual, the one accountable for aircraft extraction is the owner or the operator of the aircraft.
If the airline operator or owner fails to do it, the airport operator may take over and hire a third party to extract the aircraft.
Monreal clarified that MIAA took over the recovery operations because waiting for Xiamen Air's recovery team will take more time and will just result in more days of runway closure.
"We based (our decision) from the ICAO. If we would wait for Xiamen Air's recovery team to go here, that would take much more time, and the airport may have been closed for a week," he explained.
Xiamen Air will have to pay the damage cost, but MIAA will still have to compute this. Monreal said it has cost a lot, but computing this was not his priority since he wants to bring back the normal operations in NAIA as soon as possible.
Until last Monday (August 20), a number of domestic flights were cancelled, but Monreal said that not all of these were due to the runway closure.
Local carriers had to adjust flight schedules due to limited runway operations.
The domino effect from flight delays, cancellations, and diversions during runway closure was not the only culprit behind those cancelled flights.
There were 61 flights that did not advise MIAA about their arrival and departure, and did not ask for slots. These airlines sought permit from CAAP, but did not coordinate with MIAA.
However, MIAA could not just let the passengers of the 61 international flights to suffer.
Manila Control Tower head Marlene Singson explained that CAAP could not refuse entry of those airlines because the safety of passengers and crew were at stake.
"Those flights were long-haul flights, which means they travelled far. It would not be safe if we would just let them on air," she said.
She added that the fuel level in those long-haul flights might really be low by the time they reached the country. Thus, not letting them land would be dangerous, Singson said.
Philippine aviation authorities and representatives from Xiamen Air already met last August 20 to probe the incident. Investigation is still ongoing.
"Data gathering is ongoing. Investigators interviewed the crew. Then we will verify the data based on the flight data recorder, which would take about a week," CAAP Director General Jim Sydiongco said.
"After that, the investigation team will sit down and talk about the things that should be done," he added.
Aviation authorities bared that Xiamen Air's pilot and co-pilot tested negative for drugs. Alcohol test was also done, but the result may take some time.
Sydiongco noted that prior to the incident, CAAP did not receive any pilot's report from those who utilized runway 06/24 prior to Xiamen Air.
"A pilot's report is a report being submitted to us regarding visibility and other instances that pilots encounter. No one also reported 'standing water' (water on the runway) prior to Xiamen Air," said Singson.
Xiamen Air apologized for the incident through its social media account last August 20.
With regard to passengers, MIAA earlier summoned airlines to keep their customers informed about flight statuses and rebooking procedures.
CAAP, meanwhile, coordinated with authorities to provide the OFWs with a certification that says the delay was not their fault.
What can the public expect?
Monreal said there is no more space to be added in the runway. A rapid exit, will be opened soon.
The MIAA has been improving its facilities, and NAIA terminal 2's rehabilitation will start soon.
There were suggestions and plans that the government is considering, such as the development or improvement of provincial airports.
The situation in NAIA is continuously improving. As of Wednesday, there were no reported cancelled flights due to the incident. Flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL), for its part, also mounted some recovery flights Wednesday. (PNA)