POSTSCRIPT / July 13, 2021 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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OFWs suffer in loss of Phl-Saudi flights

OVERSEAS Filipino Workers in Saudi Arabia are caught in the middle of the Philippine-Saudi haggling over the allocation of a dwindling number of flights between the two countries adjusting to the pressure of restricted travel during the pandemic.

The load capacity of some 20 airlines flying in and out of Manila tightened after the Philippine government limited to 2,000 the maximum number of all arriving passengers per day – not just OFWs – to reduce the risk of the coronavirus and its variants sneaking in.

The impact of the arrival restriction has challenged the airlines, such as Philippine Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), that fly the high-demand Manila-Saudi Arabia routes.

After Saudia was made to cut back on its flights to Manila to comply with the limitations, Saudi authorities forced the cancellation of 12 flights of Philippine Airlines, six out of Manila and six out of Saudi Arabia, from July 9 to 13, according to a PAL advisory on Facebook.

What will happen after today, July 13, is not yet clear. None of our industry sources would venture a guess as to what the Saudi and the Philippine governments are likely to do.

One problem of both governments is that they are not in control of the key factor – the pandemic which refuses to be tamed and continues to fuel fears of surges and the spread of highly contagious variants.

The dozen canceled PAL flights displaced from 3,000 to 4,000 passengers, some of whose visas were expiring as they waited for a chance seat. Many have had to rely on the Philippine embassy in Riyadh and labor officials for accommodation or food. In Manila, workers have been waiting to be able to fly and take up or resume their jobs in Saudi Arabia or lose them.

Saudia is the only foreign airline flying regularly between Manila and the kingdom. Before the pandemic, it had daily flights, sometimes two in one day, but now it deploys only three round-trip flights per week (two to Jeddah and one to Riyadh).

Philippine Airlines flies to Riyadh and Dammam in Saudi Arabia, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and to Doha in Qatar. Cebu Pacific flies to Dubai, too. Philippines Air Asia also flew some international routes before the pandemic.

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IN A related welcome development, 348 OFWs from Dubai landed Sunday in Manila on PAL flight PR 8659 as part of the government’s stepped-up repatriation of Filipinos stranded in severely infected countries from which travel has been stopped.

The ban effective until July 15 covers  India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, UAE and Oman, where the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus has been detected.

More repatriation flights to bring home close to 2,000 OFWs and their families in the blacklisted countries have been scheduled on July 12, 17, 27 and 30.

Remittances from some 8.5 million overseas Filipinos, who comprise almost 9 percent of the national population, dropped by 1.7 percent to $2.895 billion in January 2021 compared to the $2.944 billion in the same month in 2020. The workers contributed some 12 percent of the gross national product.

• Help flag carrier help OFWs

THE MAXIMUM limit of 2,000 arrivals per day set by the government is the equivalent of six planeloads (assuming an average of 300 seats per flight) that must be shared by at least 20 airlines – at an average of 100 passengers per airline if divided equally.

But distributing them equally to 20 airlines does not look right. Manila-based airlines have multiple routes and flights, while foreign airlines tend to ply only one route from their home country – except Saudia which has two, one to Riyadh and another to Jeddah.

Note that PAL alone has 23 international routes and Cebu Pacific four. Foreign airlines typically have one each, Saudia being the only one with two. An airline may find it difficult to choose which flights to cancel, assuming it insists on operating despite the bad business situation.

The options are even worse for airlines with multiple routes. For instance, PAL will have to decide which of its 23 routes to cut back and which flights to cancel to be able to survive and show a profit.

Since flights are pre-planned, pre-approved and pre-booked, and passengers have to make lots of preparations (health declarations, Covid-19 tests in some cases, hotel arrangements, etc.), why pass on to them the additional pressure of grabbing a plane seat?

The only “fair” way seems to be to spread out the pain by canceling some routes today, others tomorrow, and so on week by week. That is what PAL reportedly does, and what Cebu Pacific also does but on a smaller scale.

But the most sensible way, in the end, is for government to set higher and more sensible arrival limits at the NAIA that do not unduly burden our OFWs.

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ONE wonders if the Saudi government is using the pandemic to pressure the Philippine government into giving some concessions to the kingdom’s flag carrier in preparation for a scenario where the strongest survivor will dominate the post-pandemic business.

Air talks between governments involve complicated secret, sometimes high-level, bargaining where the party holding the weaker political and business cards is likely to lose in the exchange.

Passengers may curse the airlines for canceled flights, but the airlines have no choice but to observe the limits set by the government.

Pledged to help OFWs by order of the President himself, government agencies must strive in urgent discussions with representatives of foreign governments to help the flag carrier improve its frequency and carrying capacity so it can, in turn, serve better Filipino travelers and workers abroad.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 13, 2021)

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