MANILA -- The government is considering the implementation of an open skies policy if the operations of the country's flag carrier is crippled by a strike the Philippine Airlines' (PAL) employees are planning to stage against the management.

President Benigno Aquino III, in a news briefing Wednesday, said PAL, being the dominant carrier of the country, provides a necessary service that affects tourism and commerce.

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"Both sides have legitimate issues but in imperiling the economy and the people should not be a part of the agenda. There has to be ways to resolve all of these issues apart from sacrificing the national interest," he said.

Aquino said he will not think twice of opening the Philippines' skies to other local and foreign airlines if the strike the Flight Attendants and Stewards Association (Fasap) is planning to stage against PAL in the coming days will pursue.

"We will hasten the opening of our skies if they proceed to disrupt a very necessary service of our country," said Aquino.

He noted that adopting an open skies policy would enhance tourism by inviting more visitors since travel to the country would be more convenient.

He cited this policy was not new anymore because it has been implemented sometime in the late 90's.

"There are already certain airlines that will make up for the snag just in case the flag carrier is not in the position to fulfill its obligation," he said.

President Aquino appealed to PAL management and Fasap to iron things out immediately, noting that the government would only decide on what is best for the greater people and not just to one corporation.

He expressed disappointment that PAL has not yet arrived at any resolutions despite the given time to discuss its problems with stewards and pilots last Tuesday.

Several concerned agencies such as labor, transportation, tourism and justice have been tasked by the President to handle the case of PAL. But the departments decided to leave the discussion to the management, assured that the issues will be settled among themselves.

Announcement of strike

On Wednesday, however, the Fasap reiterated its decision to hold a strike, but assured the public that it will not be caught by surprise when the strike takes place.

In a statement a day after Fasap's mediation talks with the PAL management collapsed, the group's president Bob Anduiza affirmed that they fully intend to hold a strike but would not yet disclose its exact date.

"We assure the riding public that Fasap will announce the date of the strike so that the passengers can make necessary adjustments," said Anduiza.

To recall, the resignation of some 25 pilots in late July caught many by surprise, including passengers of the flag carrier, leading to a massive flight disruption of PAL.

On Tuesday, Fasap decided to withdraw from the mediation proceedings at the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB), saying PAL's present hard-line stance on the "discriminatory" issues they are contesting are indicative of the airline's bad faith.

Fasap said it is already left with no other choice but to take its "final option," which is to go on strike.

Anduiza said they are set to file a Notice of Strike to the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) in the "comings days" after meeting their members.

There is an estimated 1,600 members of Fasap composed of flight attendants and stewardess of PAL.

The PAL Employees' Association (Palea) said it will be conducting a coordination meeting with Fasap to discuss the latest developments in their respective labor disputes.

"The coordination meeting with Fasap people will be held this week, if not, next week," said Palea Public Relations Officer Gina Licayan.

The statement comes after the union of PAL ground crew employees expressed openness to the idea of holding a "joint" work stoppage with the flight attendants against the management.

Palea has a similar labor dispute with PAL over the decision of the management to just outsource their services and turn their ground crew into contractual employees.

Intervention

The Dole, meantime, is ready to immediately resolve the labor dispute between PAL management and its employees once the case is filed before the agency.

But Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said it is too early for them to intervene after the airline's cabin crew union withdrew from the talks mediated by the NCMB.

Baldoz explained that the Labor Code outlines a long legal process before workers can go on strike as she hoped the management and Fasap would reach a mutually-accepted solution to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) impasse.

"There is a 30-day cooling off period after the filing of notice of strike. It shall be the duty of Dole to exert all efforts at mediation to effect voluntary settlement," she said.

Baldoz said the union may declare a strike if it fails to settle the dispute with the PAL management, but this must be approved by majority of the union membership through a secret balloting or referendum.

The PAL workers who are against the holding of strike, on the other hand, appealed to the Labor department to closely monitor the pending strike by Fasap.

"We're concerned that our anti-strike sentiments will not be heard. Our main concern is our livelihood and the future of our children," the workers said.

Waiting period

Once Fasap submits its strike vote to NCMB, there will be a seven-day waiting period during which Dole will certify the strike vote was indeed undertaken and complied with the Labor Code's requirements.

Fasap is calling for the abolition of the retirement age requirements for flight attendants, saying it is "discriminatory."

But PAL management said the group was a signatory to the age provision contained in the previous CBA.

"The current Fasap leaders calling for the scrapping of the 40-year-old retirement age were the ones who actually signed the CBAs containing these early retirement provisions," PAL said in a statement.

Under the agreement, the retirement age for female flight attendants hired before November 22, 1996 is at 55 years old, five years earlier than the retirement age for male flight attendants.

This policy was revised, setting a common retirement age of 45 for both male and female employees who were hired from November 22, 1996 and beyond.

Both parties then agreed that all flight attendants hired after November 2000 would be deemed resigned when they reach the age of 40.

The PAL management continued to question why the Fasap is insistent on its opposition to what the union called as "discriminatory" policies despite previously agreeing to its implementation.

The company said the move may have been spurred by what appears to be an "independent" move of Fasap officials in the past.

"They're moving heaven and earth to remove it (the policy) now because a lot of their fellow cabin crew discovered that their union leaders agreed to it, not once but twice," said PAL in a separate statement.

The cabin crew union pulled out of the mediation talks after the airline stood firm on its offer of P80-million package to Fasap, which insisted the age/gender issues be also included in the 2005-2010 CBA.

The Lucio Tan-owned firm said the issue on the retirement policy should just be discussed during the next CBA negotiations covering the years 2010 to 2015 since it is not until 2018 when the early retirement provision will affect any cabin crew.

The airline company also stressed that the negotiation on the CBA for 2005-2010 could already be completed if only Fasap would agree to take on the P80-million offer to the cabin crew union.

"Management is insisting on limiting the talks to the economic aspect of the CBA to put closure to its 2005-2010 CBA with Fasap," said PAL. (Jill Beltran/AMN/FP/Sunnex)