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Continental: Leader Or No Leader - No Exemption To US Law

‘Frisky’ US airline dumps Palau leader

Apr 03, 2008

MANILA, Philippines — Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. had just completed a two-day state visit to the Philippines and was not about to subject himself to the indignity of being frisked before boarding his US plane back to his island nation.

But the crew of Continental Micronesia Airlines Flight CO 892 was adamant. Their priority was security rather than courtesy, even for a head of state.

After a two-hour standoff, the plane left without Remengesau and his wife Debbie.

In a strange coincidence, the aircraft was recalled back to Manila minutes after it took off following “intelligence information” to the Manila Control Tower from the Philippine Air Force that a bomb might be on board.

The aircraft turned around and was searched, but no bomb was found. It was finally able to take off again at 4:52 a.m. Thursday, some seven hours after its originally scheduled departure time.

Strangely, it was the PAF chief, Lt. Gen. Pedrito Cadungog, who had led negotiations for the visiting dignitary to be accorded the diplomatic nicety.

“We explained to them that we should give the highest courtesy and respect to a president of a republic,” Cadungog said he pleaded with the US airline crew.

“But they decided ‘we will leave you, close the door, we will take off’,” said Cadungog, who was to walk the Palau president to the plane on his scheduled departure Wednesday night.

Arrogant bullies

“They were bullies and very arrogant,” Cadungog later told the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of

The airline did not disclose the number of passengers booked, but its Boeing 737-800 plane could hold between 162 and 189 passengers.

Remengesau and his wife returned to their hotel and finally made their flight to Palau at 2:16 p.m. Thursday on a plane chartered by the Philippine government from San Miguel Corp., the PAF said.

In a statement on his arrival in Palau, Remengesau expressed regret that the airline crew spoiled what he described as a “highly successful state visit to the Philippines”—the first made by the island’s president in 24 years.

“I am well aware of security concerns that airlines face and I support their efforts to keep flying safe, but there must be some room for the exercise of common sense in all decisions, and there must be respect for the dignity of the highest level of government,” Remengesau said.

“I intend to bring this up with the regional airlines serving Palau as well as the US Transportation Security Administration so that we can ensure that respect and culturally appropriate treatment is accorded heads of state that will visit Palau,” he said.

No exemption to US law

The US carrier stood pat on its decision to keep the Palau president off its plane.

“Continental employees explained the security requirements of the aviation laws of the US in detail to the president of Palau,” Continental said in a statement.

“US aviation law requires that all customers comply with security procedures in order to board a flight. So unfortunately, [the airline] had no choice but to deny boarding of the president and his party to ensure the safety and on-time operation of the flight for other passengers on board,” it said.

Redundancy check

Remengesau, his first lady and 11-member entourage arrived for departure honors at Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1 for the 9:45 p.m. flight. They had flown in on Tuesday, to meet with their Filipino counterparts.

Cadungog said the Palau group, which included senior statesmen and Cabinet officials, yielded to the so-called airline “redundancy” check, the final step in the layered security measure that carriers bound for US cities and territories implement in ports of origin.

When it was Remengesau’s turn, Malacañang and Department of Foreign Affairs officials stepped in and asked Continental’s Manila station manager Maximina Cabantog if the state visitor could be spared the frisking.

As Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) General Manager Alfonso Cusi put it, security checks are waived for visiting heads of state as part of port courtesy. The MIAA, however, kept its hands off the dispute as the final check was a matter left to the airline’s discretion, Cusi said.

Bomb threat probed

As talks dragged on until midnight, Remengesau was “isolated” from the situation in the company of Vice President Noli de Castro at the lower level Presidential Lounge.

“It was a very commonsensical situation that became explosive, affecting relations among countries,” Cadungog said.

He said the airline “refused to understand the human side of the situation.”

With neither side budging, the airline decided to close the plane’s door and push back for takeoff at 12:15 a.m., taking a number of Remengesau’s entourage with it. The Palau president and first lady meanwhile were driven back to their hotel.

A few minutes into the flight, the control tower relayed to Flight CO 892 purported intelligence information it had received from the PAF that a bomb might be on board.

Cadungog said the PAF operations center received an “anonymous call” threatening to bomb the plane. The information was immediately relayed to the control tower, which then alerted Continental.

The MIAA has launched an investigation of the incident, Cusi said.

‘Frisky’ US airline dumps Palau leader

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