The Long Road Back to Category 1: A Milestone in Philippine Aviation

More than six years after the country was first downgraded to Category 2 status by the US FAA, the Philippines has finally clawed its way back to the highly coveted Category 1 designation. With the favourable announcement, Philippine carriers can now add new routes and increase frequencies to the United States in addition to code-sharing with US carriers. But the road to get to this important position in the nation's aviation history has been anything but smooth.

us faa category 1 philippines

The road to Category 1 status began when the Civil Aviation Authority began working to lift the Philippines off the International Civil Aviation Organization's list of nations with significant aviation safety concerns. It was upon the recommendation of the ICAO that the Philippines was downgraded by the US FAA to Category 2 status in January of 2008.

In March of 2013, the Civil Aviation Authority announced that it had successfully passed an audit conducted by the ICAO the previous month. The audit was to serve as a validation mission to confirm the corrective actions that had been undertaken by CAAP to improve safety and oversight of civil aviation in the country. Only with the approval of the International Civil Aviation Organization could the Philippines begin to seek the approval of the international aviation community. The passing of the audit in March 2013 triggered the ICAO to lift the Philippines off its list of nations with significant aviation safety concerns.

Following the lifting of the ICAO concerns, the Civil Aviation Authority proceeded to work with European Union aviation regulators to lift Philippine carriers off the European blacklist which prevented any local airlines from flying to the European Union. The European Union placed the Philippines on its aviation blacklist in 2010. While the ban was lifted off of Philippine Airlines in July 2013, it remained in place for Cebu Pacific, which still had more work to do in order to bring the airline up to international standards. Eight months later, that work is now complete and an announcement was made this month that the European ban had been lifted off of Cebu Pacific paving the way for the airline to mount its first flights to Europe.

Given the favourable news from the International Civil Aviation Organization and the European Union, the Civil Aviation Authority had expected to be upgraded to Category 1 status by the end of 2013. Even Deputy Director General John Andrews placed his job on the line publicly announcing that he would resign if the Philippines did not receive its upgrade.

The United States Federal Aviation Administration began deploying a number of teams to the Philippines in May 2013 to conduct mini-audits to ensure that the country remained in compliance with international civil aviation safety standards. After each audit, a number of corrective measures were given to the Civil Aviation Authority to address. It was not until the most recent audit last month that the US FAA finally gave the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines a clean bill of health indicating that they had passed the audit triggering the upgrade to Category 1 status.

Now that the Civil Aviation Authority has been successful in getting FAA Category 1 status restored, the true test will begin as the national aviation regulator must maintain the status and sustain the enhanced aviation safety measures. The process is on-going and Federal Aviation Authority inspectors will be back again in the future to ensure that the country is maintaining adequate safety oversight.

US Federal Aviation Safety Standards

In order to qualify for Category 1 status, a country "must adhere to the safety standards of the ICAO, the United Nations' technical agency for aviation that establishes international standards and recommended practices for aircraft operations and maintenance."

As part of its program, the US Federal Aviation Administration assesses each of the national civil aviation regulators in all countries that have applied to fly to the United States, currently fly to the US, or participate in code-sharing arrangements with US carriers. The assessments are designed to determine whether or not a foreign civil aviation regulator is in compliance with ICAO safety standards.

The Philippines maintained Category 1 status until it was downgraded to Category 2 in January 2008. The Category 2 rating refers to countries that either lack regulations or laws necessary in order to maintain adequate safety oversight of local airlines in accordance with international aviation standards, or its local civil aviation regulator is deficient in one or more areas including record keeping, inspection procedures, trained personnel, and technical expertise.

Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Abaya referred to the favourable announcement as a landmark development in the Philippine aviation industry. "This upgrade cements a landmark era in the Philippine aviation sector," said Abaya. "From one major achievement to another in a span of less than 2 years, the country has made great strides in enhancing its aviation industry to one that is at par with the best in the world."

He added that the achievement is expected to improve economic ties between the Philippines and the United States. "This will allow airline carriers to open more direct flights to and from the US, which will boost the country's tourism industry, help airline companies expand their operations, and improve trade and business relations between the two countries," Abaya said. "We congratulate the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines for a job well done in ensuring the lifting of the International Civil Aviation Organization's significant safety concerns, the lifting of the European ban on local airlines, and now, the FAA upgrade to Category 1. Truly, your accomplishments prove that good governance and competent leadership will be the legacy of President Aquino."

In a separate statement, the Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Jose Cuisia Jr, added that the upgrade has brought a "major economic diplomacy thrust" between the Philippines and the United States. "With the Category 1 rating, we hope to see the expansion of flight routes in the United States by Philippine air carriers," said Cuisia. "This means opening up more routes for business and tourism travel between the Philippines and the US as well as creating more opportunities for Philippine and American businesses."

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