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Irony alert: Major airport to be interrupted for two hours to replace UPS

Three power outages have hit NAIA in the past year. What was that about ramping up tourism?

The replacement of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) at the air traffic management center in a major airport in the Philippines will result in the entire country's airspace being shut down for two hours on May 17.

The corrective action at Ninoy Aquino International Airport was originally scheduled to suspend operations for six hours on May 17. This was later shortened to between 2AM and 4AM (1800 to 2000 UTC).

"After careful study, simulation, consultation with CAAP's technical team and service provider, it was agreed that the maintenance activity can be expedited by providing additional manpower and a standby UPS," CAAP spokesperson Eric Apolonio told the Philippine News Agency.

The planned solutions include the UPS being replaced, the Automatic Voltage Regulator (AVR) repaired, and the air traffic management system (ATMS) upgraded. The ATMS power supply upgrade will include the installation of a bypass panel and the reconfiguration of the distribution panel that separates voice from data. UPS and AVR will then serve as backups for one other in case of any further outages.

Budget airline AirAsia said it was notifying guests of the changes in advance via SMS and email, and had embarked on a social media information dissemination campaign.

Operations were also suspended for two hours on May 3. The maintenance work follows two recent major power outages at NAIA that resulted in chaos and stranded travellers on heavy travel days – New Year's Day and Labor day weekend.

The New Year's Day incident lasted for eight hours. Over 65,000 would-be passengers across 360-plus flights were stranded when the blowers in the Communications, Navigation, and Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) systems' electrical network "conked out" and the two uninterruptible power supplies failed.

They had one job. It's right there in the name.

Technicians at the time further complicated matters when they fried the terminals that receive satellite data from airplanes and air traffic management systems by shooting the wrong voltage into the system to bypass a damaged UPS.

The Labor Day incident stranded around 9,000 passengers when the power went out in Terminal 3. Manila Electric Co. said a current activated a fault indicator that therefore tripped the circuit breaker in an attempt to protect the system. The team replaced a damaged elbow connector and restored power fully around eight hours later. In the meantime, mission critical areas were powered via a generator.

AirAsia and Cebu Pacific were among the airlines affected.

Transportation secretary Jaime Bautista called for a 60 to 90 day full electrical audit of Terminal 3, potentially followed by a similar audit of terminals 1 and 2.

The government is reportedly considering renting or purchasing generators in the interim.

This year's power outages were in no way isolated incidents – the same terminal had outages in 2016 and September 2022.

Terminal 3 had its only electrical audit to date in 2017. Batista said the resulting recommendations were never fully implemented.

Any audit in the case of NAIA may seem in some ways redundant. It's already well known that the CNS/ATM was outdated before it even became operational in July 2019. An upgrade is expected to cost upward of $233 million – a price similar to what the entire system cost in 2018.

As for Terminal 3, it's long been mired in controversies and legal battles.

According to local media, Terminal 3 was originally designed for limited use, but operations steadily ballooned to what it is today.

The Philippines has sought to boost tourism recently and some politicians have been critical that these power outages are not helping.

President Bongbong Marcos happened to be in the UK for the coronation of King Charles III alonside Bautista. The pair made a side trip to meet with Global Infrastructure Partners – the company behind Gatwick Airport's exceptional infrastructure.

"This learning experience has provided us with valuable insights as to how we can develop the truly world-class airports we aspire to build in the Philippines," tweeted Marcos. ®

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