Stranded in Tawi-Tawi: flight overbooked, check-in practice promotes chaos, violates health protocols

BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews / 11 December) — After queueing at the check-in counter for at least two hours ahead of all passengers, nine persons bound for Cotabato City with confirmed tickets in the 76-seater aircraft of the  flag-carrier Philippine Airlines were denied boarding on Thursday, no thanks to overbooking and a check-in practice that promotes chaos and violates health protocols. 

Nurosalam Caludtiag, an analyst at the Philippine Statistics Authority in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (PSA-BARMM) lined up as early as 6:30 a.m. at the Sanga-Sanga Airport but was not able to board the Bombardier 400 aircraft on Flight PR 2488 at 9 a.m. 

Like Caludtiag, seven of the 10-member team of training staff and resource persons of the Mindanao Institute of Journalism (MinJourn), the organization that runs MindaNews, were also denied boarding, along with the police chief of Turtle Islands. 

“I queued ahead of many of them but they were the ones who were processed first for boarding,” Caludtiag lamented in Filipino. 

“It was unfair for solo travelers who lined up first only to be left behind because they accommodated big groups all at once,” he added.

PAL check-in counter at the Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi on 8 December 2022. MIndaNews photo

Majority of the passengers bound for Cotabato were Members of Parliament (MPs) of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). According to the Public Information, Publication, and Media Relations Division  of the Bangsamoro Parliament, 16 MPs attended the March 5 to 8 public consultations here. 

The MPs flew to Tawi-Tawi on Monday for public consultations on the proposed Bangsamoro Electoral Code and Bangsamoro Governance Code, and were to return to Cotabato City on Thursday. PAL flies this route twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. 

Caludtiag missed his schedule to serve as one of the resource persons for the preconference on regional data updates of PSA-BARMM in Cotabato City last Friday.

He was among the first five passengers who lined up at the counter all the way until the plane took off. 

Overbooked

Dr. Jose Jowel Canuday,  Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the Ateneo de Manila University and a member of the MinJourn Board who was among the resource persons at the MinJourn and The Asia Foundation’s training on Communicating the Bangsamoro: The Critical Roles of Information Officers in Tawi-Tawi, waited for over an hour nearest the counter but was not attended to by check-in personnel who were busy accepting piles of identification cards from passengers who did not even line up to check in. 

Canuday saw how the counter personnel processed first the pile of ID cards from what would appear to be the BTA delegation. He also saw a guard collecting ID cards of other passengers who lined up behind the MinJourn team, the PSA analyst and the police chief of Turtle Islands and were given boarding passes.

“They knew they overbooked because they spoke through the PA system four or five times saying that the flight is overbooked and that they were looking for volunteers to give up their seats,” Canuday said. 

“The bottomline is, we were there early but our confirmed tickets were never processed. They prioritized several others knowing that they overbooked … and could not find volunteers,”  he said. 

Boarding passes for passengers who did not even line up at the check-in counter for the Tawi-Tawi-Tawi to Cotabato flight on 8 December 2022. MindaNews photo by JOWEL CANUDAY

According to the Air Passengers Bill of Rights, passengers have the “right to receive full value of the service purchased” and “shall not be denied check-in if he or she is within the air carrier’s cordoned or other designated check-in area at least one hour before the estimated time of departure, or within the prescribed time set by the air carrier.”

As a general rule, “a passenger cannot be denied the right to board the aircraft without his consent,” according to the Bill of Rights as provided for under the Joint Administrative 1 of the Department of Transportation and Communication and  the Department of Trade and Industy issued on December 10, 2012. 

It also states that in case of overbooking, the airline/air carrier must look for volunteers willing to give up their seats, and if the number of volunteers is not enough, “the air carrier shall increase the compensation package until the required number of volunteers is met.” 

Canuday added that other passengers who apparently wanted to ensure they could board the flight passed on their IDs to the check-in personnel who lumped them with the IDs of the BTA delegation. 

No online check-in 

Online check-in for the Tawi-Tawi to Cotabato flight is not available.  Passengers are supposed to line up in that small, poorly ventilated space where basic health protocols such as physical distancing were not followed. Many did not even wear masks. 

MindaNews asked for a copy of the passenger manifest to determine how many passengers were actually booked on that flight and how many were given seats even if they had no confirmed tickets. No copy was provided. 

Eight of the ten-member training team and resource persons of MinJourn, including the editors in chief of MindaNews and Mindanao Times, were on the same flight as the MPs for Tawi-Tawi last Monday and were to return to Cotabato City after their training on Thursday. Two resource persons from Manila flew to Tawi-Tawi via Zamboanga, and were to take the flight back to Manila via Cotabato on Thursday. 

Only three of the ten were able to board the flight: Engr. Misuari “Jake” Abdullah, Program Officer of The Asia Foundation’s Activate Bangsamoro 2 and the two resource persons from Manila – Canuday and Red Batario of the Center for Community Journalism and Development.  Dr. Gail Ilagan, chair of the Psychology Department of the Ateneo de Davao University and Minjourn  was given a boarding pass. Canuday and Ilagan were given the last two boarding passes but Ilagan gave up her seat for Batario, to ensure the two Manila-bound resource persons could fly to Cotabato and from there fly to Manila. 

PAL’s 76-seater Bombardier 400 lands in Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi on Thursday, 08 December 2022 from Cebu and Cotabato cities. . MindaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

The small aircraft servicing the Cotabato – Tawi-Tawi – Cotabato route replaced the bigger Airbus 320 that was used during the maiden flight in June until recently.

Last week, about a dozen PAL travelers bound for Cotabato were also denied boarding, again due to an overbooked flight,  a source at the Ministry of Transportation and Communication said. 

More delays 

PAL shouldered the accommodation and food of the stranded passengers and rescheduled their next flights – General Santos for those bound for Koronadal and Davao for those who were bound for Davao. Those who were to be fetched in Cotabato City on Thursday for the land trip to Davao City had to instruct drivers to return to Davao City as there was no one to fetch in Cotabato. 

The airline company also provided a P1,000 travel allowance. It promised stranded passengers bound for Cotabato that it would take care of the land travel from Zamboanga to Cotabato but no vehicle was provided upon realizing that only two would take the van. Caladtiag told MindaNews they would ride with the BTA delegation that would travel by land from Zamboanga to Cotabato. 

The MinJourn team and resource persons bound for Davao flew out of Tawi-Tawi on Friday for Zamboanga, from there to Manila and from Manila to Davao. 

In Manila, stranded passengers, including this reporter on the Tawi-Tawi to Zamboanga to Manila flight and was bound for General Santos City en route to Koronadal the following day, had to wait for some two hours before they were brought to their hotel by a car company contracted by PAL. 

The company’s driver also did not show up during the agreed hotel pick-up time at 3 a.m. Saturday, and was still a no show after 30 minutes of waiting. The hotel staff suggested to take a taxi to avoid getting late for the flight. 

Starting December 1, PAL included Cebu in the Cotabato to Tawi-Tawi loop. The aircraft now flies from Cebu to Tawi-Tawi via Cotabato and Tawi-Tawi to Cebu via Cotabato City.

Effective January 1, 2023, the airport terminal here and other landside operations will be under the BARMM’s Ministry of Transportation and Communication (MOTC) while the airport’s air traffic control tower and other airside operations will be under the national government. 

According to RA 11054, the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the Bangsamoro Government shall have the authority to grant regional franchises, licenses, and permits to land, sea, and air transportation plying routes in the provinces or cities within the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region but “the National Government shall regulate the airside operations of all existing airports.”  (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews, with reports)