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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Resigned OTS chief Aplasca hits ‘cultural decay’ in airport security

Office for Transportation Security (OTS) administrator Ma. O Aplasca, who resigned Tuesday night, has criticized the “cultural decay” within the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) security management teams which, he said, allowed corrupt screeners to remain in their jobs.

In an interview with TeleRadyo Serbisyo on Wednesday, the former police general and House sergeant-at-arms said the problem with airport security “is not only systemic but also cultural.”

He pointed to the previous “tanim-bala” scheme at the NAIA where airport screeners placed bullets inside passengers’ luggage to alert security and eventually extort money from them.

“There’s my proof, the problem with ‘laglag-bala’ (dropping bullets into luggage). Perhaps in the past, the problem was not highlighted because no one was caught. Based on our records, for the past several years, no OTS personnel have been dismissed for violation of our disciplinary policies,” he said.

Aplasca was the chief of the Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group (Avsegroup) during the term of President Rodrigo Duterte and said his priority then was to eliminate the “tanim-bala” practice.

He submitted his courtesy resignation as OTS chief late Tuesday, a day after House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez demanded it following the principle of command responsibility after the series of thefts at the country’s premier international airport involving OTS personnel.

Romualdez threatened to block congressional approval of the 2024 budget of the Department of Transportation and the OTS, its attached agency, if Aplasca did not leave his post.

Aplasca said he resigned voluntarily to avoid jeopardizing the DOTr’s budget approval pending in Congress.

“In view of the pronouncement of Congressman Romualdez that he will personally block the approval of the budget of OTS and DOTr, I have come to this decision to officially submit my courtesy resignation for the consideration of SOTr and the President,” he said in his letter.

“I am not in any way ready to sacrifice my organization, but I consider this as a noble undertaking for a greater interest,” Aplasca said in his letter addressed to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. through Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista.

“May I, however, state that as Administrator of OTS, I have done nothing wrong but to wage an honest campaign against corruption in all our airports nationwide. I feel it is a sacred duty of every head of any government agency to be expressed and solemnized when we take an oath,” he said.

“It is just unfortunate that as we weed out the scalawags in our ranks, it will always draw media attention and tarnish the reputation of our country. But I can assure His Excellency that the good men and women of OTS will not falter in their commitment to cleanse its ranks to finally deliver your promise of a convenient, affordable, safe, and secured transportation system.”

In 2015, more than 10 Avsegroup men and 65 OTS personnel were relieved in connection with the bullet-planting extortion scheme, which victimized unsuspecting passengers at the airport.

During his tenure as OTS administrator, Aplasca said his office initiated the filing of 68 cases against erring personnel, resulting in 11 dismissals.

The latest theft at the airport involved a female security screening officer (SSO) who was caught on video swallowing three US 100-dollar bills stolen from a Chinese passenger leaving Manila.

The SSO was reportedly conniving with at least two airport personnel, including the baggage X-ray machine operator.

An administrative investigation into the incident found four OTS personnel “guilty of stealing,” Transportation Secretary Bautista said Wednesday.

Bautista said a review of videos from different angles showed what may have happened to the US$300 that a traveler said was missing from his bag. Asked whether the four OTS personnel will be dismissed, Bautista said “following due process”.

But a resignation at the top does not clean up an agency’s ranks, stressed Senator Grace Poe, referring to Aplasca.

Poe, chairperson of the Senate Public Services committee, noted that “more than ever, the OTS needs steady leadership” to implement much-needed reforms.

“Actions should be taken not only after an incident,” said Poe, noting the need for zero tolerance for criminal acts and unprofessional behavior.

The challenge now is for the Transportation Department to appoint “someone with immense political will” to overhaul the OTS and “stop these incidents once and for all.”

Aplasca expressed regret about leaving his post, stating that his leadership was close to succeeding in the fight against corruption at the airport.

Prior to his OTS stint, Aplasca served as House sergeant-at-arms during the term of then-Speaker Lord Allan Velasco.

Last Monday, Speaker Romualdez demanded Aplasca’s resignation under the principle of command responsibility to make way for a full revamp at the airport security office.

The lawmaker emphasized that a top-to-bottom overhaul is needed to prevent atrocious activities and misconduct at the airport, which is bad for the country and the economy.

Romualdez also recommended a complete reorganization of the OTS and suggested that the Department of Transportation replace the entire OTS workforce and rehire only those who would pass a strict vetting process based on their honesty, efficiency, and integrity.

He also called on Secretary Bautista to closely watch his own backyard, as he has heard of “nefarious activities, aviation glitches, power equipment malfunctions, and disruptions” taking place at the airport.

Poe also said the country’s airports should improve the physical layout of their security screening stations and provide proactive measures to prevent any further incidents.

“The OTS must improve its system at the point of hiring, review its recruitment policies, and enforce ethics training,” she said.

The senator noted that employees must undergo extensive background checks.

For the long term, Poe said lawmakers should also look into providing better compensation and benefits to these employees “so they would not be enticed to do this nonsense.”

As of July 2023, more than half of the OTS manpower are still contractual personnel with only 475 with permanent status, she noted.

“The permanent solution is still to give them security of tenure and increase the salary of highly-skilled technical personnel in our airports,” Poe said.

The OTS also collects airport security fees from passenger tickets. A portion of these fees should be used to compensate passengers who have well-founded claims against airport security employees, the senator added.

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