POSTSCRIPT / February 14, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Tiny Bahrain pushing out giant Saudia from RP air?

CLARK FIELD — A dark cloud hangs over civil aviation circles amid concern that the Philippine panel in the air talks with Bahrain, set Feb. 16-17 in this former US air base, seems disposed to giving the tiny Arab sheikdom everything it wants.

Fears of a sellout arise from the panel’s track record in previous air talks — with the United States (in 1995, that resulted in the lopsided “open skies” agreement), Taiwan (1999), Korea (2001), Singapore (2001) and the United Arab Emirates (2003). In all these, the Philippines got a raw deal.

There is even no urgency to hold the talks at this time. The Manila-Bahrain route is well-served by the current frequency of four flights weekly. Casting a lustful eye on something else, the Bahrainis are demanding an additional six flights per week, for a total of 10 weekly flights.

To think that we already gave the Bahrainis, in addition to the flights to Manila, valuable rights to fly to Cebu and Clark twice weekly each, an option they have never exercised.

Note that Bahrain sends less than 1,800 tourists to the Philippines each year, and there are only 30,000 Filipino workers on that island that is smaller than Quezon City. Yet its flag carrier deploys 61,000 seats per year to Manila and now wants to increase this to 107,000 seats!

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BAHRAIN’S TARGET: Why the gross obsession of Bahrain to boost its frequency and amass those excess seats on its flights to Manila? Answer: The aggressive Bahrainis are targeting the larger Philippine-Saudi Arabia market next door.

Saudi Arabia is the Philippines’ chief trade, economic and strategic partner in the Middle East. But this is not reflected in the air links between them, prompting Saudi’s neighbor Bahrain to try stepping in and engage in the massive dumping of excess capacity.

The problem was brought to the fore last month, when Philippine Airlines announced the suspension of its flights between Manila and Riyadh starting March 2 because of losses arising from the oversupply of airline seats in the market.

To continue serving Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia, PAL has been absorbing losses incurred when its planes fly with many seats empty. But after nearly a decade of deficits, the airline — which is still under rehabilitation — decided to stop the bleeding.

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OFW CLAMOR: The pullout of PAL stirred protest from the nearly one million Filipinos in Saudi Arabia. Philippine Ambassador to Riyadh Bahranim Guinomla expressed dismay, saying it would jeopardize national interest.

Rhoel Mendoza, founder of the Philippines to the World Entertainment Foundation, an organization of Saudi-based OFWs said: “I am angered by PAL’s impending cessation of its Saudi operations. The government must not let PAL abandon its Saudi routes. Doing so will not only demoralize our hundreds of thousands of kababayans in the region. Making PAL stay in Saudi is not only necessary, it is of paramount importance!”

Poe Gratela, head of the OFW organization Kalahi , said the government should make it easier for Filipinos to work in Saudi Arabia by negotiating for more flights to lower the cost of deployment. “After all, they are our economic saviors,” he said.

Through their heads, two of the largest associations of labor recruiters expressed misgivings. Jackson Gan, president of the Pilipino Manpower Agencies Accredited to Taiwan (PILMAT), and Eduardo Mahiya, president of the Overseas Placement Association of the Philippines (OPAP), said the situation should compel the government to re-examine its excessively liberal aviation policy.

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P.A.L. PROPOSAL: The clamor moved PAL to rethink its position. Last week, it submitted an urgent request to the Department of Transportation and Communications for it to hold urgent talks with Saudi authorities, with a novel proposal on the table.

The flag carrier is proposing a new Manila-Dubai-Saudi Arabia (Jeddah or Riyadh) PAL service, with commercial traffic rights between Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

The idea is for PAL to gain a new revenue stream (from the Dubai-Saudi sector) and a chance to bring down losses on the overall Manila-Saudi route to a more manageable level, while continuing to address the needs of OFWs in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

“(This) is perhaps the last chance to save our flag carrier’s direct air links to the OFWs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said PAL president Jaime J. Bautista in a letter to DoTC Secretary Leandro Mendoza.

It is crucial that the government give priority to the Saudi air talks, not to negotiations with other Gulf countries, including Bahrain. It should strike, ‘ika nga, while the iron is hot — and push for PAL rights to fly to Saudi Arabia via Dubai.

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SAUDIS OPEN: Industry and official sources said that the Saudis are willing to consider the Dubai connection — a stance not so common for conservative Saudis. This means that the government should lose no time pushing PAL’s proposal.

The government must maintain its focus. It must not allow itself to be sidetracked by not-so-urgent negotiations with other Gulf states, specifically Bahrain, the most aggressive among the Arabs in poaching RP-Saudi traffic.

The government must recognize that by dumping on other RP-Middle East (and even RP-Europe) air markets, Bahrain has compounded the ruinous oversupply situation. Note that this is the reason why PAL considered suspending its Saudi services.

In fact, even the powerful Saudi flag carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines has felt the pinch. It has reduced frequency to Manila from 10 flights weekly in previous years to eight at present.

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NO COMPARISON: With these considerations, it should be clear to the Philippine panel where the national interest lies. It is a clear choice between saving the critical Saudi Arabia route or giving in to the demand of Bahrain for more seats, far in excess of its needs.

Note that Saudi Arabia employs close to a million Filipinos; Bahrain just 30,000. There is a clamor from OFWs in Saudi for more direct flights to serve them. In contrast, the small OFW community in Bahrain seems quite content with the current service there.

Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the Philippines in many investment areas. Among other things, it is the chief supplier of oil to the country.

Bahrain produces little oil and does minimal trade with the Philippines, making its demand for massive seat entitlements out of proportion to its relevance to us.

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EO 366 BASICS: The general objective of Executive Order 366 is to improve government performance, at the Executive branch primarily. This is supposed to be through rationalization, not a general reorganization that requires congressional approval.

But at the rate the Change Management Teams (CMTs) created in all departments, GOCCs and agencies of the Executive branch are going about it, the first and biggest casualty seems to be “due process” which should be accorded every citizen, including government personnel.

This basic notion is important not only because the right to due process is the backbone of democratic governance, but also because under EO 366, the declaration of what functions are to be abolished or merged are not appealable.

Consultations are supposed to have been done by the management teams, but feedback has it that these have not been “consultations” but rash announcements of decisions already taken and made by the teams.

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CMT GODS: Affected employees in various agencies have been asking: What are the bases for the decisions made? How is a position declared “redundant,” meaning abolished, and another affected only? Were the persons affected “consulted,” their personnel files reviewed and the reasons for their having assumed such positions studied carefully?

Affected personnel want to know: Why are those whose positions have been declared redundant being forced to retire or transfer to other offices they do not even know where? And when they complain, why are they being investigated and imagined infractions attributed to them?

In the first place, who are the members of the CMTs? In Malacanang, these are the Senior Deputy Executive Secretary, the Asst. Deputy Secretary for finance and administration, four Asst. Secretaries, the Director for Personnel, and the President of the employees union (OPEN).

Are these people qualified to perform the sensitive management functions thrust upon them? Baka naman hindi.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 14, 2006)

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