MANILA -- Officials will hold emergency meetings with Philippine Airlines (PAL) management and its disgruntled pilots to settle a dispute that caused the cancellation of local and international flights, the President said Sunday.

President Benigno Aquino III told a news conference that Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa along with Cabinet members dealing with labor, transport, and justice, will separately meet PAL's management and the pilots as early as Monday to prevent damage to the economy.

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"Hopefully, we'll be able to come up with a resolution so that the riding public is not inconvenienced and the economy does not suffer in what is an inter-company dispute," Aquino said.

PAL was forced to cancel at least 10 flights, including one to Hong Kong, on Saturday after 13 captains and 12 first officers flying Airbus A320 and A319 aircraft resigned to seek better-paying jobs abroad. Eight domestic flights were canceled on Sunday, the airline said.

PAL spokesman Jonathan Gesmundo said Sunday the airline rejected the resignation of the 25 pilots and ordered the latter, who resigned in recent days, to return to work, warning them of possible criminal suits for alleged breach of work contracts.

Under government regulation, the pilots needed to stay with PAL for at least six months after resigning to allow the airline to find replacements. Some of the resigned pilots also signed a contract committing to work for PAL for a few years in exchange for the costly aviation-school training provided by the airline, Gesmundo said.

"PAL doesn't want to get in the way of its pilots' dream of landing better paying jobs abroad," the airline said in a statement. "But they have contractual obligations with the company and a moral responsibility to thousands of passengers," he added.

Three-front war

However, the airline's threat to press charges against pilots who chose not to report for work immediately after submitting resignation letters irked members of the Philippines Airlines Employees' Association (PALEA).

The group has called on PAL management to "think twice before swinging Damocles' sword on the heads of the pilots, lest the company face a three-front war against all of its employees."

PALEA president Gerry Rivera said the flight attendants' group and ground crew, who are PALEA members, support the pilots because they share the goal of security of tenure.

"The pilots resigned not simply because they were poached by other airlines with offers of better pay as PAL's propaganda releases state. The pilots were enticed by better conditions, which assure them of security of tenure and good benefits unlike their status as contractual (employees) in PAL. The impromptu resignation by a dozen PAL pilots is the damaging results of management's drive to make all of its employees contractual instead of regular," said Rivera.

1998 strike

Mactan Airport-based PALEA director Eutiquio Bulambot said the pilots who left PAL were among those who participated in the 1998 strike and were reinstated on condition that their status will be converted from regular to contractual and they could no longer join a labor union.

"For me, the pilots did not resign but they did not anymore renew their contract with PAL management," said Bulambot.

"Do you think they would leave if they have valid contracts? They decided to leave because their contract expired and they did not want to renew it because the management is not giving them security of tenure," Bulambot said.

Rivera agreed.

"The Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines was busted in 1998, so the pilots' discontent was expressed in individual resignations instead of a collective protest," said Rivera.

"But their deteriorating working conditions are no different from that experienced by flight attendants and ground crew," he added.

Cancelled flights

The airline said Sunday steps, including the training of more pilots, were underway to bring flights back to normal within a week.

PAL, meanwhile, said affected passengers in Sunday's cancelled flights were accommodated in merged or succeeding flights.

The eight cancelled flights include Manila-Cagayan-Manila (PR181/182); Manila-Bacolod-Manila (PR133/134); Manila-Iloilo-Manila (PR147/148); and Manila-Cebu-Manila (PR847/848). Meanwhile, a Manila-Iloilo-Manila flight (PR145/146) that usually departs Manila at 4:20 p.m. was rescheduled to 6:30 p.m.

Recognizing the plight of its passengers, PAL sought public understanding as it adjusts flight schedules and merges some flights. It also intensified the training of more pilots to fill the gap.

"We apologize to our loyal patrons for the inconvenience. We know our passengers missed connecting flights, including important personal and business appointments. Many of them simply did not show up for work and just handed in their resignation letters," the airline said.

PAL added that most of the resigned pilots were reportedly "pirated" by other carriers in the Asian region including the Middle East where the pay is allegedly two or three times bigger than their current salaries.

"By Philippine standards, an Airbus A320 pilot's pay at PAL is considered 'high'. But it's still no match to the offer of foreign carriers. Our problem is, our competitors abroad seem to prefer PAL pilots because they were highly trained by PAL and renowned for their flying skills," PAL added.

Meantime, PAL said it is in talks with various government agencies like the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines to avert the loss of more pilots to "poachers" abroad.

PAL, founded in 1941, has about 500 pilots and a fleet of 38 aircraft. It flies to 46 domestic and international destinations. It has incurred losses in the last few years because of rising fuel costs and low passenger loads, the airline said. (MSN/Jill Beltran/EOB of Sun.Star Cebu/AP/PNA/Sunnex)