Department of Homeland Security issues safety warning for Manila Airport – is it safe to travel?

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a safety warning to travelers, stating that Manila’s International Airport (MNL) NAIA is not meeting safety standards and forcing airlines to issue safety warning to passengers traveling to Manila. It didn’t ban flights or make any restrictions – so, how serious is the situation and is it safe to fly? In my opinion, living in Manila, it’s perfectly save to fly. Find out the facts and why I think so below!

What happened: TSA inspectors conducted their (annual) audit of Manila’s NAIA airport that has direct flights to the US, operated by Philippine Airlines (PAL) and United (UA). Based on their audit, they identified a number of what they perceive as shortcomings and made 16 recommendations for improvement. They issued the following warning: 

“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today announced the determination that aviation security at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL), which serves as a last-point-of-departure airport for flights to the United States, does not maintain and carry out effective security consistent with the security standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This determination was based on assessments by a team of security experts from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).” full text here!

Based on reports in the local media, the TSA audit identified a number of short-comings and made recommendations to purchase new and additional equipment for scanners and cameras, implement background checks for new hires and improve the “security culture” among existing staff.

According to the local authorities, they have already implement 7 of 16 recommendations and are working on all the others. The purchase and installation of new or additional equipment will take some time and is scheduled for Q2/2019. They are committed to implement all recommendations to ensure Manila’s airport meets the requirements.

Is it safe – my take: If you haven’t been to Manila, let me describe the current security set-up at MNL: If you are flying to the US, you go through THREE security checks: at the entrance to the terminal, detailed check after immigration and a gate check for flights to the US. The standards are the same as in the US, you have to take out toiletries and your laptop, as well as take off your shoes.

The DHS points to ICAO safety standards, yet local media report that the ICAO conducted their own safety audit and considers security “satisfactory” in light of ongoing improvements. 
Seems like the DHS is using the ICAO as a safety blanket when it’s really the US trying to enforce their own standards.

The DHA is recommending additional training to “improve the security culture”. According to an official quoted by the local media, the TSA observed that checks are sometimes thorough, sometimes lax.
Some of that might be due to local attitude, but some of it is just common sense: If they don’t make an old lady who can barely walk, go through the scanner three times because she forgot to take out her phone or wallet, I call that compassion and common sense, not lax.
There is also a good bit of “profiling” going on – children, old people or local government officials are likely to find “lax” security treatment. Then again, they are also less likely to blow up a plane!
I do think that this recommendation has merit – additional training for security staff can only help and will make them more professional. But I don’t think you have to worry about a terrorist slipping through the three layers of security as it is. 

The DHS recommended the purchase of new scanners and the installation of hundreds of new security cameras, three times the number already installed – and Manila authorities agreed to install them. Interestingly, the US embassy in Manila reportedly offered the assistance of US consultants and US technology providers, combined with $5M in aid. 
In my opinion, the US is exporting some of the security theater we have witnessed in the US since 9/11. Billions have been spent on technology, yet the TSA is still letting slip through 90+% of weapons in undercover tests. While all this technology might make people feel more safe, the effectiveness seems to deteriorate with every million spent… I think that money would be better spent on more training and higher salaries for the staff. With salaries in the Philippines so low, that’ll probably reduce security risk much more cost effectively than better technology!

The DHS recommended to implement background checks for newly hired staff, consisting of National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (Nica) and neighborhood checks. This one made me laugh, as it is a great example of US bureaucrats having no clue of the local situation and applying their US mindset to foreign countries: If one of the richest countries in the world can’t keep track of foreign visitors (currently being the home to 11+ million undocumented residents), how do they expect a developing country like the Philippines to do it? The Philippines has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, millions live in informal settlements with no government support or move from the rural provinces to Manila each year, with no records. Expecting a database for a background check is ridiculous. Fortunately, the Philippines are a very “social” country, still relying on communities to watch out for each other and on “word of mouth”. Likely, the “neighborhood” check means that the local village elders will be asked to vouch for the job candidates or existing staff to refer new candidates. 
This is probably a soft spot for security, in Manila as well as anywhere else in the Western world. There is always a change that people will undermine security – but I think the chance is lower in the Philippines than in the US. There has never been a terrorist incident involving Manila’s airport or local airlines….

Bottomline: Manila Airport and government officials are implementing the security recommendations to ensure ongoing, safe travel between the US and the Philippines. This is not only important to Philippine Airlines, but impacts the livelihood of millions of Filipinos who rely on remittances from the US. I have no doubt that the issues will be addressed as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, I’m not worried about security at Manila’s airport. While the technology at NAIA might lag behind US airports and staff hasn’t gone through “background checks”, I agree with ICAO that the current situation is “satisfactory” and will continue to fly without safety worries.
I sure hope that the “improved security culture” doesn’t turn the friendly and compassionate Filipino staff into the rude, grumpy agents you’ll find at US airports. It just makes me sad that the US is pressuring an ally to spend money on (US) consultants and technology when that money would be better spend on improving the lives of the Filipinos – with more than 25 million people living on less than $2/day, there are certainly more important things to spend the money on!


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