Cebu Pacific Airways has cancelled all its scheduled flights to Virac on the first half of July that were supposed this Friday.
The decision came two days after Governor Joseph Cua sent a letter to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) informing of his administration’s decision to allow resumption of flights to the island but with certain conditions.
First among them but not included in the list is that the flights must accommodate only Returning Overseas Filipinos (ROFs), Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs), Authorized Persons Outside Residence (APOR) and persons invited by the provincial government and other LGUs in the province.
Clearly, tourists and other travelers with non-essential purpose in the island will not be allowed to buy tickets for Virac flights or be allowed entry.
To be able to board the aircraft, all passengers must obtain health certificate and Travel Authority from the Philippine National Police (PNP), with the airline and airport terminals to strictly enforce minimum public health standards.
A copy of the passenger manifest must be sent to the provincial government at least a day before the departure of the flight, which must have a 50% seating capacity with its passengers one seat apart.
The manifest will enable the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the capitol to advise LGUs of the names and specific destinations of passengers aboard the aircraft so that quarantine areas, whether at home or at an LGU facility, could be assessed and prepared.
Upon arrival at Virac airport, passengers shall fill out contact tracing forms and must undergo rapid COVID-19 test.
Those who test negative shall be allowed to proceed to their destination, the letter stated, but those who test positive shall be immediately transported to the LGU-designated quarantine facility for the 14-day quarantine and must undergo confirmatory RT-PCR test.
During last week’s hearing at the Sangguniang Bayan of Virac, the Cebu Pacific Airways representative admitted that their policy for the flights is full occupancy, which the honorable councilors said should not happen.
Each flight, the airline official said, will set aside three seats at the back row to accommodate any passenger who falls ill to COVID-like symptoms during the one-hour flight in which all passengers will share the same airconditioned air circulating in the closed cabin.
The airline, it was said, will have some work to do in asking passengers to disclose their eventual destination in Catanduanes, as the manifest only lists their names.
The delay, then, could be attributed to either the airline deciding to wait for a favorable guideline on flight occupancy from the Department of Transportation (DOTr) or it needs more time to somehow reconfigure its system to produce a manifest with the passengers’ actual addresses on the island.
What needs to be spelled out, as far as the accepting LGUs are concerned, is the last numbered condition in Gov. Cua’s letter to CAAP: “All other guidelines from IATF and other government agencies shall be followed.”
Clearly spooked by the recent Cebu Pacific flight to Legazpi that brought in a passenger that later tested positive for COVID-19, Virac councilors are calling on CAAP to provide space for each town’s representatives to be able to verify the travel documents of each passenger.
The verification process would surely lead to a delay in leaving the airport premises, just as the passengers in the ferry endure a long wait of sometimes three to four hours at the port before they are cleared to depart for their home towns.
Under IATF guidelines, LSIs and ROFs are to be fetched by their respective LGUs. What does then mean for those who wish to personally fetch their family member right at the airport?
While the CAAP has instituted a pretty convincing system of minimum health standards at the airport, there is no way local officials will be able to ensure that no passenger carrying the coronavirus would be able to board the plane and depart from the Virac airport for their hometowns.
Having all passengers undergo rapid diagnostic tests at the terminal upon arrival is good, but it would be best to ask the national government to require Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for all air commuters as another requirement prior to their departure.
Last week, Malacanang ordered the suspension of travel for LSIs to Western Visayas, Cebu island, Mactan, Eastern Visayas and CARAGA region after the increase in COVID-19 cases in these areas were blamed on returnees.
Before deciding to lift the moratorium, it is planning to require all travelers to undergo PCR testing upon arrival at their destination, with the national government to shoulder the costs if the LGU cannot afford it.
But then, why do the testing upon arrival when it can do the same for the traveling LSIs as another pre-requisite before departure? After all, no less than the Department of Health (DOH) has reported that the COVID-19 testing laboratories have yet to operate at full capacity.
Allowing potential carriers of the virus into the island without requiring PCR testing before departure is like leaving the house door open for a poisonous snake and then trying to catch it in the dark.