Philippines travel chaos as power cut grounds hundreds of flights

Passengers have been diverted after a loss of communication with air traffic control causes delays

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At least 300 flights were cancelled, delayed or diverted on Sunday as the Philippines closed airspace to commercial flights after a power outage hampered air traffic operations.

The fault caused misery for about 60,000 travellers on New Year's Day, leading Transport Secretary Jaime J Bautista to apologise for the inconvenience.

He said that authorities are still working to assist all affected passengers.

Bautista said the problem started in the morning, when the Air Traffic Management Centre, which oversees all flights in Philippine airspace, lost communication, radio, radar, and internet because of the power outage.

The air traffic system was restored in late afternoon and flights resumed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.

Officials said they requested airlines to mount more flights and to upgrade to more wide-body planes to accommodate more passengers, and that full recovery is expected after 72 hours.

Some travellers were outraged, among them tycoon Manny Pangilinan, chairman of the telecommunication company PLDT, who said he was on his way to Manila from Tokyo when the outage happened.

“We’re told radar and navigation facilities at NAIA are down. I was on my way home from Tokyo - 3 hours into the flight but had to return to Haneda. Six hours of useless flying but an inconvenience to travellers and losses to tourism and business are horrendous,” he tweeted.

A woman who was supposed to fly to Singapore said she spent several hours sitting in a plane on the tarmac but were eventually taken off the plane and offered hotel rooms.

"We were told it was a complete failure of radio comms at air traffic control," she told AFP.

Manila passenger Daryll Delgado said she had managed to rebook her flight for a later date after a "frustrating" experience.

Earlier in the day, the country's Civil Aviation Authority said the halt in flights into the Philippines' airspace was to ensure passenger safety.

"The safety of passengers is the priority of the agency and it is better to secure the aircrafts on the ground to avoid any airborne accident," it said in an advisory sent to media, as per local reports.

The Manila International Airport Authority, which is in charge of operations at Ninoy Aquino International Airport terminals, said its crisis management and emergency response teams were addressing issues on the ground.

Flight tracking service FlightRadar24 tweeted on Sunday afternoon a map of the airspace showing the impact of the halt in flights.

As well as the flight from Japan carrying Pangilinan, Bloomberg news reported that as of 4pm local time about 280 flights were cancelled, delayed or diverted to other regional airports from Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Services returned to normal at about 5.50 pm while equipment restoration was still ongoing, according to the Department of Transportation.

As well as flights being grounded, a passenger on board a United Airlines plane to Singapore from San Francisco said it was diverted to Honolulu. A Scoot flight to Singapore from Narita airport was forced to return midway, according to passenger Jon Villanueva.

A Qantas flight from Sydney, Australia was "forced to turn around mid-flight" and eight flights bound for Manila, Cebu and other destinations in the Philippines had been rerouted to Hong Kong airport as of 6 pm local time, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Airport Authority said by phone.

There were chaotic scenes at check-in counters across the country as thousands of people tried to re-book tickets or find out when their flights might take off.

Budget carrier Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines said they were offering passengers due to fly on Sunday free rebooking or the option to convert tickets to vouchers.

Updated: January 02, 2023, 11:58 AM