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Cablegate: Air Traffic Controller Staffing "Not Unsafe"

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Air Traffic Controller Staffing "Not Unsafe"

REF: A) Manila 4421

B) Manila 3838
C) Manila 3760
D) Manila 1150

Sensitive but Unclassified - Not for Internet - Protect

1. (SBU) Summary. Our most recent discussions and
observations indicated no aviation safety threat at this
time due to air traffic controller (ATC) staffing. In a
meeting October 6 with DCM, econoffs, and a senior U.S. FAA
rep, GRP officials acknowledged a staffing deficit but
provided credible data and background that showed sufficient
staffing to operate safely with overtime shifts. GRP
officials described the situation as "better than one year
ago" because they are training more ATCs than they lose to
attrition. A site tour of ATC and other facilities at the
Manila Airport and our discussions with U.S. carrier
representatives also indicated normal and safe operations
with no evidence to suggest declining air traffic control
quality. End summary.

2. (SBU) DCM, senior FAA rep Chris Metts, and econoffs met
with Undersecretary for Airport Transportation Security
Cecilio R. Penilla, Air Transportation Office (ATO) Director
General Nilo C. Jatico, and other ATO officials on October 6
to discuss air traffic controller staffing and the potential
impact on aviation safety. ATO officials admitted a "43
percent" staffing deficit but said that they sufficiently
covered operations by managing overtime within ICAO
standards, staffing according to traffic needs, and training
new hires and military ATCs (refs a-b). ATO officials
explained that ATCs work a two-hour on, one-hour off
rotation so that even if they clocked two eight-hour shifts,
they actually worked at most 8-10 hours in that timeframe.
FAA rep and emboffs concluded that there are no indications
or symptoms of any breach of safety.

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3. (SBU) ATO officials described the situation as "better
than one year ago" because they trained more ATCs than they
lost to attrition. The emigration of experienced ATCs
remains a serious problem. ATCs receive low salaries, now
about $340-$535 per month (depending on experience), often
less than one-fourth the salary of counterparts in the
region and many multiples below U.S. or European pay scales.
ATO officials underscored that they are seeking legislation
to create an autonomous civil aviation authority so that
they can train, hire, and compensate as needed (refs a-b).
Current government ceilings on hiring and salaries pose
major obstacles, and Congress does not assign a high
priority to ATO funding requests, according to ATO

4. (SBU) ATO officials said that most ATCs appreciate the
overtime and consider it a vital part of their salaries.
ATO officials stated that an Executive Order freezing
overtime pay for Philippine government employees created
discontent, which nearly erupted in a strike among ATCs (ref
c). ATO officials petitioned and received a waiver,
however, to allow the payment of overtime to ATCs and
thereby averting any potential crisis. Jatico suggested
that Secretary of Transportation and Communication Mendoza
"misspoke" and may have overstated the urgency to the Charge
in a misguided attempt to obtain the most funds for this
cause (ref a). Jatico agreed that the situation could have
become dangerous if it had not been immediately addressed
through the waiver.

5. (U) In separate discussions with users of the air
traffic control system here, representatives from Northwest
Airlines (NWA) and UPS told us that there is no noticeable
change in air traffic control quality. Neither carrier has
experienced or heard of unusual delays in flight operations
at airports in the Manila area. Both noted ATC cooperation
and flexibility; UPS cited coordination for an enhanced
aircraft approach that should be starting soon. Embassy
JUSMAG representative noted that U.S. military pilots
experienced no sequence, separation, or other flight or
landing anomalies that would indicate ATC problems. Metts
pointed out that the nearest U.S. air traffic facility in
Oakland corroborated these findings.


6. (SBU) All data and conversations with industry suggest
that ATC staffing is not a safety concern at this time.
Secretary Mendoza appears to have been off the mark when he

described the ATC deficiency as "dangerous" (ref a). He may
have meant that staffing shortfalls and low wages were
dangerous and unhealthy in the larger context of future
civil aviation developments in the Philippines but was not
referring to daily operations.

7. (SBU) The Philippines still faces a possible downgrade
to FAA Category 2 based on related air safety issues. In
order to maintain its Category 1 status, ATO must
demonstrate in the coming months that its aviation action
plan, drawn up last year, is on track and sustainable (ref
d). GRP officials and FAA rep agreed that Congressional
legislation to create a civil aviation authority is needed
to ensure sustained funding for training and other important
ongoing activities in the action plan. This legislation
would also establish the enforcement authority necessary to
run an aviation oversight industry. FAA officials plan to
return to Manila to review progress on this issue in the
next two months. However, Congress, currently distracted by
a number of political controversies and potential
constitutional amendments, may have difficulty focusing on
this critical legislation for civil aviation. In addition
to implications for air safety, a downgrade to Category 2
would also represent an embarrassment for the Arroyo
Administration, a serious problem for the important tourism
sector, and another negative signal to the investor


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