(CNN) – Chaos erupted in the Philippines on New Year’s Day after a severe power outage temporarily disrupted air traffic control at the country’s largest airport, disrupting hundreds of flights and leaving tens of thousands of travelers stranded at the Southeast Asian hub.
Despite a restoration of power, some travelers are still struggling to be rebooked and continue on to their final destinations.
Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) is the primary gateway for travelers to the Philippines, serving the capital Manila and the surrounding region.
Technical problems were first identified on Sunday morning, the airport operator, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), said in a statement.
A total of 282 flights were either delayed, canceled or diverted to other regional airports, around 56,000 passengers were affected on New Year’s Day from 4 p.m. local time.
In a press conference on Sunday evening, Jan. 1, Philippine Transportation Minister Jaime Bautista apologized for the inconvenience caused to passengers and said the airport’s central air traffic control system suffered a severe power outage. Although there was an emergency power supply, it did not provide enough power, he added.
“It was a problem with the air traffic management system,” said Bautista. “If you compare (our airport) to Singapore’s, there’s one big difference – they’re at least 10 years ahead of us,” he said.
Bautista added that his transportation department has also coordinated with affected airlines to provide food, refreshments, transportation and accommodation “at no cost to all affected passengers”.
Among the flights affected by the airspace blackout was a Qantas plane bound for Manila, which departed from Sydney just before 1pm local time on January 1, returning to Australia.
“All airlines were blocked from arriving in Manila on Sunday afternoon as local authorities closed local airspace,” Qantas said in a statement. “That meant our flight out of Sydney had to turn around.”
Operations had partially resumed as of 5:50 p.m. local time, CAAP said in an update, and the airport had started accepting incoming flights again. A statement from the Department of Transportation shared on Facebook says airport operations are back to normal while restoration of equipment is still ongoing.
A possible investigation
However, flight delays continued for the second straight day through Tuesday – even after power was fully restored, affiliate CNN Philippines reported. Officials have advised travelers to “expect more delays” as airlines schedule new flights to replace the canceled flights.
“Passengers should expect flight delays as this is a result of the salvage operations we are conducting today,” Cielo Villaluna, a spokesman for Philippine Airlines – the country’s airline – told CNN.
She also said many planes were still stranded due to the system problem on New Year’s Day.
Frustrated and tired passengers lamented their loss of what to do as they camped outside airline ticket offices for clarification and early flights.
The incident has sparked fierce public backlash online, with many, including politicians, wondering how and why the blackout happened in the first place.
Philippine Senator Grace Poe announced an official investigation into the incident. “There needs to be transparency and accountability on the part of the CAAP,” Poe said.
“We will therefore hold a hearing as part of the Senate’s oversight role — to determine who is liable and what we must do to prevent the malfunction from happening again,” Poe added.
Passengers weigh themselves
Global air travel has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, but passenger traffic is slowly recovering, with industry experts predicting the industry will return to former normal levels by 2025.
Photos and videos shared online showed a huge crowd at NAIA. Queues formed at several check-in counters. Many passengers lugging their luggage around were also seen crowding around flight arrivals screens, waiting for updates.
Manny V. Pangilinan, a Filipino businessman, shared Twitter that he was on his way back to Manila from Tokyo, but the plane had to return to Haneda Airport because “NAIA’s radar and navigation systems had failed.”
“Six hours of useless flying,” he said. “Inconvenience to travelers and losses to tourism and the economy are appalling.” His plane eventually landed in Manila at 11 p.m. local time, Pangilinan said.
Student Xavier Fernandez was among thousands affected by the New Year’s flight disruptions. He spent hours on the phone with United Airlines and other airlines trying to reschedule his flight to San Francisco at a later date. “It was an absolute nightmare” he told CNN, adding that he had been at the airport for more than 10 hours.
Fernandez also said there were other passengers who boarded their planes Sunday morning before the power outages were announced and eventually had to disembark their planes after waiting on board for several hours.
The widespread flight disruptions come amid a busy end-of-year travel season in the Philippines, which sees large numbers of foreign tourists, as well as foreign citizens flying in from abroad, into the country to celebrate Christmas and New Year, some of the country’s most important holiday celebrations.
Fernandez had been in Manila to celebrate Christmas and the New Year with his family.
“Quite literally the worst way to start the year,” he said of the episode.
The New Year’s airport crisis also threw many Filipinos working abroad from their flights to Hong Kong and Singapore.
Nora Dela Cruz, a domestic worker, told CNN that her job is “now on hold” after failing to return to Hong Kong on Sunday. She was “exonerated,” along with other women working in the industry, over the delays, she said.