THAT’s the tack that President Marcos Jr.’s airport officials, particularly his Transport Secretary Jaime Bautista, are using to explain the unprecedented shutdown of the Philippines’ airspace on New Year’s Day, which resulted in the cancellation of flights to and from Manila, stranding 60,000 passengers.
They claimed that the country’s Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Systems for Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) system conked out because its two power supplies failed, that it was an old system.
What really happened was an unbelievable howler: airport technicians plugged the 220-volt system to a 380-volt power line, damaging it.
Yet Bautista’s explanation was preposterous; he claimed the CNS/ATM system that the previous Duterte administration bought and installed was outdated.
But the P11 billion system became fully operational only in 2019, which Duterte rushed after bureaucratic delays since 2010. The system was financed and supervised by the Japan International Cooperation Agreement (JICA). The contract for the purchase of the system also provided for regular updating of both its software and hardware, to put it at a state-of-the-art level.
Unlike the old traffic control system which used ground-based radars, the system works by sending satellite signals to aircraft transponders and by using transponder transmissions to determine the precise locations of aircraft in the sky.
Bautista therefore is claiming that the Duterte administration, especially his Transportation secretary, Arthur Tugade, who had very closely supervised the completion of the project and operations’ start in 2019, installed not just an updated system, but a flawed one.
Bautista is saying in so many words that Duterte and Tugade were so stupid as to buy for P11 billion a system that became useless in three years. That’s less than the four years average usability of the iMacs I’ve used.
I don’t think Bautista knows what a CNS/ATM system is. Instead of using expensive ground-based radar, the system works by sending satellite signals to aircraft transponders and by using transponder transmissions to determine the precise location of aircraft in the sky. As most software-based equipment are, it is upgraded regularly to extend its usability until an entirely new technology is invented.
Bautista is saying that the JICA which has financed and supervised similar projects — among them, in Shanghai, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — fooled the Duterte administration, getting it to borrow billions of pesos from it to buy a system that became obsolete even before the it started paying for the loan.
The reality is Bautista is lying to cover up a colossal bungling of the system by him and his staff in operating the system. Having been PAL president for a decade, he should also have called for extra precautions to ensure the system’s operation during the holidays especially on New Year’s even and day — which he didn’t.
He should either resign, or at least take a leave until some fact-finding, authoritative body, such as a Senate committee on public service determines what really happened on New Year’s Day.
Bautista himself inadvertently partly revealed the huge mistake by the staff operating the system that shut it down:
“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,” he said. “The secondary problem was the power surge which resulted in the power outage affecting the equipment,” he added. (Italics mine.)
Following is the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) Director General Manuel Tamayo’s verbatim detailed explanation of the boo-boo, as reported by the Manila Bulletin in its January 1 issue. Laugh or cry, I bet you will:
“Tamayo explained that power supply is not actually the main issue since they have two major sources of electricity to run the operations at NAIA — the commercial electricity from the Meralco and the standby generator which has the capability of operating the equipment 24/7.
The problem, he said, was that the power outage and the ensuing power surge affected the equipment being used by the NAIA for the CNS/ATM system.
‘The operation of the CNS/ATM primarily depends on the commercial power supply and is backed up by standby generators, which actually form part of the uninterrupted power supply (UPS) design supposedly to ensure that the entire operation would not fail.’
‘What happened is that when one of the power sources failed (as a result of the power outage), both the supply from the commercial and standby generator eventually did not power the system,’ said Tamayo.
Tamayo said that troubleshooting had to be done and the initial result revealed that one of the blowers of the UPS gave out a warning and eventually conked out. It happened at 9:49 a.m.
‘Supposedly, there should be no problem because it is supposed to be fail-safe due to two UPS systems. But for one reason or another, the other UPS did not come online so troubleshooting had to be done,’ said Tamayo.
He said CAAP personnel then bypassed the UPS that conked out to reconnect the supply from the standby generator. This resulted in the restoration of the system.
But at 12:18 p.m., Tamayo said, CAAP personnel monitored an indication of over-voltage: ‘So instead of getting 220 volts, what came in was 380 volts so immediately they shut down the system to avoid further damage to the equipment.’
‘Unfortunately, there was already damage in the affected system and the worst was that it affected our VSAT.’ (VSAT stands for ‘very small aperture’ terminal and is a two-way ground station that transmits and receives data from satellites. This is the disc that serves as a receiver for the satellite or communication navigation and all the necessary data that we require),’ said Tamayo.”
In short, what happened is what many of us stupidly did when decades ago it was popular to bring home from abroad American appliances. The most impatient in the family plugged these into Meralco’s 220-volt outlet, when these required only 110 volts. Appliance busted.
As Tamayo himself related, in this incident, the technicians in charge of the P11 billion CNS/ATM plugged Meralco’s 380-volt power line (which it uses in the so-called three-phase power for heavy electricity users, such as airports with their 24/7 massive air conditioners) to the CNS/ATM system that uses only 220 volts.
Bautista and Tamayo were using technical language to fool us. It wasn’t a power surge but a wrong power line that they plugged the system into.
Isn’t that unbelievable? PLDT top executive Manuel Pangilinan, whose flight from Tokyo to Manila was aborted because of the shutdown, was playing down what happened when he tweeted: “[Six] hours of useless flying but inconvenience to travelers and losses to tourism and business are horrendous. Only in the PH. Sigh.”
Tamayo though didn’t get to answer the questions that obviously should have been asked for him to clarify his statements:
- Didn’t the providers of the P11 billion navigation system emphasize — put a warning label as I do in my US-made gadgets — that it can only use 220 volts, and not 380 volts?
- If it was a Meralco line they used to get power, didn’t anybody know that Meralco lines use 380 volts for heavy electricity users, and that they should have used that P400 gadget my electrician for instance uses, to determine the voltage of any power outlet before an electric device is plugged into it?
- If it was a generator they used to restore power, didn’t they use a P800 voltage regulator and surge protector, the kind you can buy at Ace or True Value which I use to protect by P50,000 desktop from power fluctuations?
- How can an P11 billion system fail just because of its flawed power suppliers? At that price, shouldn’t they have installed an array of power generators, not just two?
I said you would laugh or cry over this airport disaster.
Yet for all this nearly hilarious boo-boo, what does Bautista propose to prevent another closing of our airspace? “We need P13 billion to upgrade the country’s air traffic management system.”
Amazing. Not a few of the 60,000 who suffered hell on New Year’s Day would have wished to see Bautista and Tamayo hung from the ceiling of the airport hall with electric cables.
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