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Senators probe Cebu Pacific amid overbooking, offloading issues; demand accountability even from CAB, DOTr

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 21, 2023 7:49 pm

More flight horror stories. Demand for accountability, including from state regulators. These things characterized June 21’s Senate hearing on Cebu Pacific amid issues on alleged overbooking, offloading, and booking glitches that have caused inconvenience to several Filipinos since weeks ago.

During the joint hearing by the Senate committees on tourism and public services, which came about after Sen. Nancy Binay filed a resolution, some Filipino travelers recalled their harrowing experiences with the airline company, saying that they led to wasted time, canceled hotel bookings, worthless scheduled leaves, unnecessary absences from school or work, and missed business opportunities, among many others.

One resource person, for instance, had to leave for Manila on May 1 as she was about to take their dentist licensure examinations on May 3. But her flight was being moved to May 5, the third day of the exam’s written phase, for no apparent reason.

She said she requested the earliest flight possible, i.e., May 2 at 8 p.m. though there was still a risk of cancellation. Yet, when her relatives abroad tried booking her a new flight with a ticket worth P14,000, the same May 1 slot she was about to lose was suddenly available.

Senators play viral videos of Cebu Pacific passengers airing their grievances on social media. (Senate of the Philippines/Facebook Live/Screenshot)
Senators call for solutions, penalties in line with the issue

During the hearing, which also saw the attendance of representatives from Philippine Airlines and AirAsia amid reported similar cases, senators demanded solutions to prevent if not lessen issues, even as they also want to penalize erring airlines.

Sen. Grace Poe, in a list of suggestions, urged airlines to smoothen their rebooking process without additional charges, as well as expedite refunds. A resource person earlier told senators he has yet to be refunded for his canceled flight since Cebu Pacific, according to him, said it’s after three billing cycles.

Poe also urged airlines to have more staff members addressing customer concerns. Cebu Pacific noted that it answers about 3,000 phone calls daily.

Sen. Raffy Tulfo, meanwhile, said that overbooking is the day’s main issue and that there’s that bigger picture of public safety in jeopardy.

Citing an aircraft mechanic, Tulfo said the delays are caused by the unserviceability of airline equipment. He questioned whether airline regulators are conducting proper maintenance checks.

The airplanes’ vital parts, he said, may also be strained as the planes undergo an excessive number of flights especially since airlines are adding more flights to offset pandemic losses, which, he said, also result in pilots and flight attendants getting fatigued.

“The fraud being committed against the passengers is just the tip of the problematic iceberg that is our airline industry,” Tulfo said. “We must dig deeper and reveal all the other concerns that go into the safety of our travelers.”

Sen. Risa Hontiveros also pointed out that government agencies like the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Department of Transportation (DOTr), which have the mandate to regulate and oversee the airlines, must also be held accountable for supposedly not doing their jobs.

Hontiveros also called on airlines to submit annual reports they’re asking for. She asked CAB to deny airlines permission to operate if they cannot do so.

Apologies, explanations from Cebu Pacific

During the hearing, Cebu Pacific’s chief commercial officer Alexander Lao acknowledged the senators’ comments and apologized for the disruptions.

“We assure you that we are committed to resolving these challenges,” Lao said. “Naiintindihan namin na responsibilidad pa rin namin ito bilang serbisyo publiko.”

Lao then mentioned two major concerns they’re dealing with: the aircraft supply problems the aviation industry worldwide, as well as the rainy season.

Cebu Pacific flies to 35 domestic and 25 international destinations in Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. 

The officer mentioned that there are 120 grounded Pratt and Whitney-powered Airbus aircraft worldwide and while Cebu Pacific already provisioned twice the level of recommended spare engines in 2022, he said they’d no longer receive spare engine support that Pratt and Whitney had previously indicated.

“Immediately upon receiving such advice, we sought to adjust our flight schedule accordingly to minimize the impact. A number of flights, which were scheduled and sold months in advance, inevitably had to be disrupted,” he said.

He also said that the rainy season has led to higher occurrence of red lightning alerts, which require the suspension of all the airport’s flight and ground activities. From April to June, he said 78 red lightning alerts were raised, with some lasting for over two hours.

The airline, according to Lao, also put in place initiatives to mitigate the situation, like increasing live agents, reducing flight schedules in light of unserviceable aircraft, and increasing standby aircraft from three to four, seeking to make it six by the end of 2023.

Binay, in wrapping up the day’s hearing, is looking forward to “unearth more issues” surrounding the country’s airlines in the coming hearings, whose dates have yet to be announced.

“What has been highlighted so far in this hearing is the evident lack of customer handling,” she said. “Hindi ito finger pointing. Ang target natin ay paghahanap ng epektipong solusyon. Let's all work together... to uphold the welfare of the riding public.”