Senators grill local airlines over passengers’ woes

Senators on Wednesday chided local airlines following complaints by airline passengers about overbooking, offloading and booking glitches.

At a hearing of the Senate tourism committee, senators took turns in attacking Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, among others for the inconveniences and damage being caused to passengers. They also bewailed the apparent inaction of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to sanction violations committed by airlines against their passengers.

Senator Nancy Binay, committee chairperson, said passengers face inconveniences on multiple fronts on account of flight delays, cancellations, offloading and overbooking.

“Our airlines are a key partner in achieving our goal of making tourism soar again. But how are we to expect to reach our targets with the way things are going now?” Binay said.

Senator Grace Poe said she believes relevant government agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, should also be blamed for the state of affairs.

She noted the complaints are not limited to Cebu Pacific.

“The airlines shouldn’t take the brunt of the airline passengers’ complaints. The airport and the policies of the DOT should also be scrutinized if they are also part of the problem. Sometimes, the problem is not with airlines but also with our airports,” said Poe, who chairs the Senate committee on public services.

Senator Christopher Go called on the airline to promptly address the concerns of its passengers.

Speaking before the Senate panel, Cebu Pacific Chief Commercial Officer Alexander Lao offered the company’s apologies to the passengers for the disruptions and assured the panel of their commitment to resolve these problems.

“We value the trust and confidence of our passengers and are committed to provide safe, affordable and reliable flights,” Lao said.

To enhance their operations and help customers, Lao also said they have implemented measures such as activating a disruption management team, increasing live chat agents, and improving policies and processes for disruption handling and communication.

Lao admitted these actions may not be sufficient for affected passengers so they are making an assessment to provide better care during the recovery period.

He also spelled out the challenges besetting the global aviation industry that have direct impact on the operations of Cebu Pacific and other airlines.

Among them, Lao said, was the delivery delays from Airbus, their aircraft manufacturers, which necessitate changes to their flight schedules, including flight cancellations and equipment changes from larger to smaller aircraft.

In the same hearing, Binay presented the videos showing the ordeal suffered by Cebu Pacific passengers due to delayed flights that were widely circulated on social media.

Five resource persons were asked to talk about their experiences and dismay over the airline.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said the cost of a delayed or canceled flight is almost always more than the price of the ticket.

She echoed the statement of Binay that this could hurt the tourism sector.

She said the regulators — CAB and the Department of Transportation — the agencies mandated to supervise, control and regulate these air carriers should also be held accountable.

Senator Ronald dela Rosa hit airline companies with computer-generated cancellation of flights as no explanation or apology were made. He also cited instances when flights were not actually canceled, but they were just overbooking of flights.

Senator Raffy Tulfo also bewailed the regulators, particularly the CAB, which merely conducted meetings every time glitches involving flights happened.

“It’s all meetings but there are no sanctions against the airline company,” he said.

Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, meanwhile, urged Congress to suspend Cebu Pacific’s legislative franchise as punishment for its “lousy, terrible” service.

“A congressional franchise is a privilege that should not be used and enjoyed at the expense of the public. Congress should temporarily withdraw such privilege from Cebu Pacific until such time that it can provide satisfactory service to the riding public,” he said. He vowed to initiate moves in Congress that will call for the suspension of the budget airlines’ franchise.

Rodriguez said he has been receiving many complaints from aggrieved passengers, including those from Cagayan de Oro City and other parts of Mindanao.

He chided the Gokongwei-owned airline for claiming the deterioration of its service by 50 percent was due to spare parts and maintenance issues.

“Even if that is true, that’s their own lookout. The public should not be made to suffer for their inefficiency. But to me, that is just an excuse. The issue is not about the availability of spare parts or maintenance but Cebu Pacific selling plane tickets when they don’t have the necessary aircraft to carry passengers for whatever reason. They should stop selling tickets, period!” he said.

He said Cebu Pacific “is always overbooking, resulting in the offloading of many booked passengers.”

“The airline says, ‘Every Juan can fly.’ I say with their kind of deteriorated service, every Juan cannot fly,” he said.

The Mindanao lawmaker also took to task regulators for failing to address passengers’ complaints and sanction erring airlines.

He accused them of falling asleep on the job.

At the same time, Rodriguez urged President Marcos to allow foreign airlines to operate locally, saying this is allowed under the recently-amended Public Service Act.

“The government should now open the country and invite foreign airlines to serve Filipinos, who should have options other than being forced to take Cebu Pacific with its terrible service,” he said.

He said other domestic carriers, “especially our flag carrier Philippine Airlines, should also step up to the plate and offer better service, including matching Cebu Pacific fares.”

“I think that if the fare rates are comparable, Filipinos would prefer to take Philippine Airlines. PAL, with its newly installed young leadership, should try to regain its top spot as most preferred domestic and international carrier,” he said.

Cebu Pacific issued an apology Wednesday.

“Cebu Pacific acknowledges the difficulties and frustrations that our passengers have been experiencing lately. This is primarily driven by fleet availability issues affecting the global aviation industry along with specific environmental factors,” said Carmina Romero, the company’s director for corporate communications.

“We empathize with our passengers, and we sincerely regret the inconvenience that we have caused.”

She said the company has decided to reduce scheduled flights and increase standby aircraft.

“Given the sudden unprecedented number of grounded aircraft, some of which will be out of service for a considerable amount of time, we have reduced our flight schedule to account for the long-term unserviceable aircraft and enable more standby aircraft on the day,” Roero said.

The company increased the number of standby aircraft from three to four and will increase this to six by the end of the year, she said. These aircraft can be used immediately to address “uncontrollable events” that affect their flights.

“We understand that these mitigating actions may still seem insufficient for our affected passengers. We assure you that we are actively managing the situation and determining how we can assist affected passengers,” Romero said.

Cebu Pacific said there is a global problem affecting the airline industry with over 120 grounded Pratt and Whitney-powered Airbus aircraft around the world.

While Cebu Pacific provisioned double the level of recommended spare engines as early as last year, they were advised in March 2023 that they would no longer receive the spare engine support that Pratt and Whitney had previously indicated.

At the same time, the company experienced a number of incidents such as ground damage from runway debris that created additional long-term grounded aircraft.

“In total we have three aircraft grounded due to Pratt and Whitney and five aircraft long-term grounded due to the other incidents. We will recover the five aircraft in the months ahead but the impact of the Pratt and Whitney engine shortage is something we have to plan for a longer time period,” it said.

Apart from the fleet related matters, “we have also entered the rainy season and have seen much higher occurrence of Red Lightning Alerts. This requires the suspension of all flight and ground activities at the airport. From April to June alone there have been a total of 72 Red Lightning Alerts raised, some lasting for more than two hours,” it said.

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