The Laguindingan disaster

The Laguindingan disaster

January 28, 2014 at 6:50am

Last week, most flights to and from Laguindingan Airport, which services Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities, and nearby provinces, were cancelled. I personally experienced these cancellations; in fact for four times. Finally, I decided to go by van to Davao City, an eight-hour ride through the Bukidnon-Davao road, and catch a flight there to get back to Manila.

It was a strange and disturbing experience, those four days going back and forth to the Laguindingan Airport (an hour’s ride from Cagayan de Oro), having one’s flight cancelled, and listening to frustrated fellow passengers (some of whom have been stranded already for 10 days) complain and rage. Weirdest of all was the ubiquitous and inevitable announcement one heard many times: “We apologize but your flight has been cancelled because of prevailing weather conditions in the Laguindingan Airport”. Another variation of the announcement had a different last word: “because of prevailing weather conditions in this terminal”.

As someone who has travelled all over the world, to probably around 100 countries now to practice international environmental law, I have never heard an announcement like that before. Maybe it’s just awkward English, yet, thinking about it, the announcement is actually correct in that the reason why the flights from that airport were cancelled is not really because of weather. True, typhoon Agaton behaved like an unpredictable ballroom dancer, fickle and temperamental, moving one direction now, another direction four hours later, then staying stationary for long periods. But the typhoon was not the reason for the disaster in Laguindingan. In fact, even when Agaton was already far away, flights were still cancelled. I saw for myself that even when it was just a bit cloudy or there was just a light drizzle, planes could not land. Even in Lumbia, in the old Cagayan de Oro Airport which ironically was abandoned because it was in a mountain area and extremely weather-sensitive, I remembered planes being able to land and take off in weather like that of last week. No wonder, the locals has started calling the airport “Di-malandingan” (cannot be landed on).

The fact is that this new airport – international at that, relied on by a region that is economically dynamic and vibrant – was opened prematurely, last April 30 2013, without runway lights and navigational equipment (radar and Instrument Landing System or ILS that would guide planes to land safely). There was miscalculation and human error, although some also attribute malice in the decision to open that airport despite the pleas of the business community of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities and the region. In open letters published last April 2013 in local and national papers, the Cagayan de Oro Chamber of Commerce and Industry Foundation (Oro Chamber), Iligan Chamber of Commerce Inc. (ICCI), Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry-Northern Mindanao (PCCI-NM), Misamis Oriental Fil-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MOFCCCI), asked that the airport’s opening be deferred pending commissioning of the airport’s air navigation and support services facilities (ANSSF). The Regional Development Council (RDC), composed of local governments and regional offices of national agencies, supported this request.

Incredibly and arbitrarily, these appeals were ignored by the Department of Transportation and Communications and those higher up that still made the decision to go ahead. The result is the Laguindingan disaster, one which is likely to be repeated a number of times until the needed equipment, currently “in the process of procurement” according to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), is finally put in place “hopefully by May” according to some reports.

Initially, I did not want to make a big fuss about the flight cancellations. As a constant traveler, I know that these things happen all the time. One must be calm, take things in stride, and adapt. I love Cagayan de Oro, it’s my hometown, so I really did not feel stranded. In fact, I found it providential that I was there to see first hand how the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (CDRRMC) expertly and effectively managed the threats posed by Agaton, for example by raising Code Red at the right time and ordering mandatory evacuation. Mayor Oscar Moreno and his colleagues should be congratulated for what I thought was first-class disaster emergency response, characterized above all by prudence and foresight.

One could not say the same for the decision to open prematurely the Laguindingan Airport. And while the magnitude of the disaster is certainly not equal to the death and devastation caused by Yolanda or Sendong, there have also been real and insidious consequences of the national government’s irresponsibility. Among others, I could overhear many angry tourists promising never to come back to the area again. Businessmen lost opportunities because of missed flights. Serious damage was done to several overseas Filipinos, including some I met, whose contracts were imperiled because they could not get back on time. Everyone incurred extra costs in coming back and forth the still-isolated airport (another reason why the opening should have been postponed, as pointed out by the area’s business community, is that the road and other support infrastructure is not yet in place), paying for extra days in hotels, or having to drive to Davao City to catch flights to Manila.

What is to be done, then? Some members of the business community in the region has called for the temporary reopening of the Lumbia Airport. Others have opined that this is no longer an option. I am not an expert on what makes an airport functional, but I do know procurement procedures and understand there is such a thing as emergency procurement. It is not acceptable to wait another six months f        or making the Laguindingan Airport fully functional. I hope that the political leaders of our region, especially Senators Koko Pimentel and TG Guingona, make representations so that the procurement of the necessary equipment is fast-tracked. Otherwise, the Laguindingan disaster will happen many times over.