‘Open Skies,’ finally?

Early this month, at a forum held in Makati City, a Philippine Airlines (PAL) vice president for external affairs, Maria Socorro Gonzaga, affirmed support for the ASEAN Single Aviation Market and added that our country needs an “open skies” policy.  I was not at that forum and am basing my comments on a news report (not in MB) written by Ma. Cristina Arayata. Frankly, I was perplexed:  PAL is advocating “open skies”?  Perhaps Ms. Gonzaga was misquoted or misinterpreted because when last I looked, PAL was vehemently against anything that hinted at opening our skies.

That was what I espoused when I was appointed Secretary of Tourism by then President Joseph Estrada, that we need “open skies” because 98 percent of those who come to the Philippines travel by air.  Faster than lightning, PAL  unleashed its weapons of mass defamation who were ordered to accuse me of nothing less than treason.   But that was 20 years ago wind currents must have changed for the better.

Last year, at the 32nd ASEAN Summit in Singapore, connectivity dominated  the agenda as the ten member countries expressed commitment to a “Seamless ASEAN Sky.” (Seamless was a system I advocated for domestic travel.) That implies   integrated operations, harmonization of safety standards and air traffic management.and liberalization of  the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th air traffic  freedoms or rights. It seemed that ASEAN was more than encouraging its members to adopt an “open skies” policy.  Will the Philippine government allowat least the ASEAN airlines to fly infreely, orwill it be swayed by PAL’S stubborn and vintage mirror-image policy?

The said freedoms are as follows: 3rd is the right to carry passengers and/or cargo from one’s country to another; 4th is the right to carry passengers and/or cargo from another country to one’s own country; 5th allows airlines to pick up and drop passengers along their international route; 6th freedom is to transport via the home country air traffic between two other states; 7th freedom allows a country to fly its aircraft between 2 foreign countries without offering flights to its home country. PAL was vehemently against the 5th freedom, if memory serves.

The ASEAN “Open Skies” Policy is meant to enlarge the air market so ASEAN-based airlines can operate freely in this region of more than 600 million inhabitants.  Aware of the advantages, many ASEAN members have already liberalized air travel with bi-lateral agreements, like Singapore and Malaysia who have granted each other the 3rd and 4th freedom rights as early as 2008. In 2010, the Philippines ratified unlimited 3rd, 4th, and 5th freedom traffic rights among all points with international airports in ASEAN.  In 2011, we ratified  unlimited 3rd, 4th, 5th freedoms among designated points in the ASEAN.   We have not ratified the 6th or unlimited 5th freedom rights between ASEAN capital cities, nor have we granted unlimited 3rd and 4th freedom traffic rights between ASEAN capital cities. We have ratified   3rd , 4th, and 5th freedom rights in ASEAN sub-regions (BIMP-EAGA, MT-GT.ACMECS).

Our government has ratified the Air Transport Agreement between ASEAN members and People’s Republic of China as well as  unlimited 3rd and 4th freedom rights between any of the ASEAN cities. In 2012,  it ratified unlimited 5th freedom traffic rights and passenger air services between any of the ASEAN cities.

While the liberalization wave in ASEAN reaches its crests, the ‘single’ aviation market has not quite materialized because the 7th freedom that allows ASEAN carriers to operate between two foreign hubs is still up in the air. In 2017, ASEAN adopted an Air Traffic Management Master Plan to facilitate movement of aircraft across the member countries, build airspace capacity in order to reduce delays and operational costs for the airlines. Ownership restrictions in air transport services like ground-handling will be completely removed so firms of member countries can   set up offices in each other’s territories. The ASEAN has agreed to mutually recognize licensing requirements for flight crew and pilots to increase the pool of available resources.    However, ASEAN members  are still at different stages of development. Singapore is way ahead while Myanmmar lags behind every other member. It will take time to achieve policy convergence that will bring about a seamless ASEANSingle Aviation Market for all its members to enjoy.