Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Saved by the ATO

Some years ago, Assistant Secretary Jake Ortega, then Air Transport Office (ATO) chief restored my faith in humanity and, to a certain extent, in the bureaucracy. For that reason, I was perplexed when the current ATO head seemed lost when he was heaped with insults and blame after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suddenly announced that the Philippines had been demoted from fourth to fifth in safety standards.

One fine Saturday, shortly after I was appointed Secretary of Tourism, I received an angry phone call from a tour operator based in Clark, Pampanga, accusing “The Government” (to use her words) of jeopardizing the tourism industry. Apparently, she and her foreign partner, a Mr. Cuerno, had a plane load of passengers, securely strapped to their seats, ready to fly to Hong Kong , but could not take off because they had no ATO permit .

Sometimes, we citizens make it difficult for “The Government” to do its duty. My Cabinet colleague, rhe Secretary of Transportation was out playing golf, but fortunately, his assistant secretary, Jake Ortega, was already at the helm . Confidently, he promised to look into the matter and after a few minutes he called back to say that the ATO cannot possibly allow Mr. Cuerno’s aircraft to fly because the latter had consistently refused to have it examined and tested by the ATO. Mr. Cuerno had leased an old Illusyn plane from Russia and under pretext that it had already been certified in its place of origin, he felt there was no need for the ATO to examine the aircraft. However, it was clear to me that the ATO was abiding by its mandate.

It must have been heroic to work at the ATO in those days. When an Air Philippines plane crashed somewhere in the wilds of Davao in 2000, the worst insults were hurled at Mr. Ortega but his explanations were concise and straightforward. The public was shocked to learn that among the eighty or so airports in the Philippines, only the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) had an “approach terminal radar” which covered only Luzon and Visayas and that the equipment was already seventeen years old. If memory serves, Mr. Ortega also said that the ATO was about to receive a grant from the Japanese government to remedy that pitiful and dangerious situation. I do not know if that ever materialized. Mr. Ortega and I would see each other in the numerous committee hearings conducted by both legislative chambers to determine the state of civil aviation in the Philippines.

Going back to my story, Mr. Ortega suggested that I immediately call a meeting at the Department of Tourism, which I did, so he could explain to Mr. Cuerno, in my presence, about the importance of abiding by ATO regulations. To my surprise, Mr. Cuerno did appear and looked rather debonair in a gray morning suit. Mr. Ortega told him that the ATO Aviation Safety Division staff members in Clark ( where the Ilusyn was parked) were waiting for his go-signal to have the aircraft examined. With cell phone in hand, he was poised to make a call right at that moment. Mr. Cuerno agreed, finally, and the meeting ended quite amicably.

However, I later found out that that was all for show. Mr. Cuerno’s people did not allow the ATO to even peek into the engine of the Ilusyn so, naturally, no flight permit was issued. “Can you imagine if something had happened to that plane after it had taken off from Philippine territory!” Mr. Ortega exclaimed, “ The image of the Philippines would have suffered.”

Yet, I was summoned to appear before a senate hearing because then Senator Francisco Tatad had received a verbose letter of complaint from-- guess who?-- Mr. Cuerno himself. But when I told the good senator how the ATO saved the day, he quickly dismissed the case and went on to the next issue.