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Philippine Airlines’ 5-star aspiration

My work requires me to do a lot of travelling. In the last three months alone, I’ve been to five countries across three continents. When you travel as much as I do, the excitement of it all escapes you. It’s no longer fun dealing with airports and living out of a suite case.

I’ve been a frequent flyer of Philippine Airlines since the ’90s. I fly PAL not because they are anything special but because they have the most direct connections from Manila. PAL, to me, is like a Toyota purchased 15 years ago. While fundamentally reliable, it is not as efficient, luxurious nor as prestigious as the newer kids on the block like Qatar or Emirates. I have become accustomed to PAL’s 3-star service and have learned that demanding for more could be futile.

That said, my last experience on PAL has changed my perception of the flag carrier altogether. See, I hold dual citizenships and my second passport allows me to travel to most countries without a visa. On my last trip to Sydney, I overlooked the need to secure an electronic travel authorization (ETA) from the Australian Immigration and Border Protection Office. No surprise that when I checked in at the PAL counter, I was told that I was not eligible to board the flight.PAL logo thumbnail

This was not a trip I could write off. My plane ticket was non-refundable and I had important commitments to meet in Sydney. I was in a fix. But instead of simply dismissing me as an unqualified passenger, the ground staff, Kathleen Pamilar Ocampo, went out of her way to find a solution for me, even without my asking.

Kathleen asked permission from her supervisor to accompany me to PAL’s back office where she could help me secure an ETA. She endorsed me to her colleague who guided me through the process. They even allowed me to use PAL’s computers. Both did not leave my side until my ETA application came through despite three failed attempts.

The process took some time and the gates were about to close. Acting with urgency, Kathleen whisked me off to the check-in counter where she rushed to process my boarding pass. She didn’t stop rebooting the system until my ETA was confirmed recognized by the Australian immigration office – otherwise, I could get deported upon landing.

I made the flight with only minutes to spare. As I settled in my seat, I realized that it was Kathleen’s concern and can-do attitude that made my flight possible. Her gesture of favor and consideration made PAL a five-star airline in my book.

 

Five star aspiration

I’m not sure if my experience is a result of better training on PAL’s part. If it is, then its five-star aspiration should not be dismissed as a marketing ploy but to be taken seriously. It will be recalled that earlier this year, PAL’s Chief Operating Officer Jimmy Bautista, announced the flag carrier’s plan to become a five-star airline within five years. It was to achieve this through service improvements, route expansion and fleet modernization. Jimmy told me that they are working closely with Skytrax (the airline rating agency) to help it through its transformation.

It’s an ambitions plan considering San Miguel Corporation (SMC) practically turned the airline into a low-cost carrier during its 29-month control of the company. Under SMC’s baton, PAL prioritized cost efficiency over passenger comfort. It even ordered new of aircraft with sparse cabin interiors and tight configurations. Nothing wrong with being cost conscious, but it negated the prestige that legacy airlines should be known for.

In September 2014, Lucio Tan re-purchased SMC’s 49 percent stake in the airline for about a billion dollars, nearly double what SMC bought it for. Whatever the case, it decided to shift strategies altogether. Instead of competing at Cebu Pacific’s level, it decided to migrate upmarket and elevate PAL to a level befitting a legacy airline.

This development is something every Filipino should welcome. After all, the flag carrier is the country’s single greatest ambassador abroad. It represents the country’s level of sophistication and extent of global orientation. It is reflective of the Filipino’s ability to compete against the world’s best. The reputation of a nation’s flag carrier weighs heavy on the nation’s country brand. This is the reason progressive countries like Singapore and the UAE spend billions to subsidize their respective flag carriers.

The strategy of Philippine Airlines could not come at a better time. With the Philippines now the fastest-growing economy in Asia, it only makes sense that the flag carrier embodies the country’s newfound dynamism.

 

Hardware and infrastructure

Unfortunately, heartfelt service is not enough to propel PAL to five-star status. It needs the hardware to support it. PAL’s fleet of twin isle aircrafts, the Boing 777 and Airbus A340-A330, needs to be upgraded. On my recent trip to Vancouver onboard the B777, the business-class seats were of the old generation and the entertainment system had limited options. On the A330 used for my Sydney flight, there was no entertainment system at all, even in business class. There was, however, the option to use a pre-loaded iPad, which, oddly, was not readily offered but only provided upon request. The A340’s have individual screens on business class but utilize last-generation overhead televisions on economy class.

The Airbus 321’s used for domestic and regional flights are not rigged with built-in entertainment systems. The A320’s, however, have last-generation overhead televisions. Wi-Fi is available for a fee on some flights through the my PAL Wi-Fi portal.

There is the option to use “myPAL player”, a free inflight entertainment app that allows you to stream movies, music and TV shows on your personal device. However, you must upload the app before the flight.

On the ground, PAL uses the ageing NAIA terminal 2 as its main hub for both domestic and international flights. Terminal 2 was designed to be a domestic airport when it was commissioned in 1999. It is small, sparse and no longer suited for PAL’s expanding operations. The business class lounge is newly renovated but still occupies the same 520 square meter foot print. It gets crowded and noise decibels are high during peak hours. PALMabuhay Lounge is like the Pavilion Hotel on UN Avenue – old, tight, busy and utilitarian. Whereas the lounge of a five-star airline like Qatar at the Hamad International Airport, is like Solaire – spacious at 10,000 square meters, modern and luxurious. None of this is PAL’s fault. Not having a world-class airport falls squarely on the shoulders of the past governments who were paralyzed by indecision.

PAL’s fleet woes should be resolved soon. Beginning 2018, the carrier will take delivery of six Airbus A350-900’s, with options for six more. The A350 is the most modern aircraft today and we expect PAL’s units to come with the latest bells and whistles in its three-class configuration (Business, Premium Economy and Economy). It is also taking delivery of two more B777’s this year and seven A321’s this year and next.

I reckon the new fleet will up PAL’s game. Unfortunately, it must still make do with Terminal 2 as its hub. This may be its weak link.

 

On the air

Since announcing its five-star aspiration, some improvements have already become obvious – most notable is the food. Whereas in years past, the onboard meals were below par, this year, it has risen to casual dining levels. Credit goes to the menus created by Glenda Baretto, Jil Sandique, Fernando Aracama and Noel Ramos, among others. On my flight to Vancouver, I had the Roast Chicken with Tamarind Sauce paired with Rawson’s Retreat Shiraz. It was good. The only thing I could ask for is to have salt and pepper shakers served with the meal, not given upon request. Flight Purser Clint Dado and Anj Jaraza took good care of me.

To Sydney, I had the Cod Fillet served with a Beringer Chardonnay. It hit the mark, too. I was well attended to by Purser Joy Coronado. I also noted the improvement in the format and content of the Mabuhay Magazine.

On board service is efficient and friendly. None of the crew missed a beat. But if I were to benchmark the crew to other five-star airlines, I would say that PAL needs to work on their crew’s level of sophistication and carriage. They tend to be too chatty among themselves with an overly casual demeanor. Appearance-wise, the new navy blue uniforms are an improvement from the old ones but still appear generic. I think it fails to capture the essence of Filipino culture.

The management should also know that replaying of the PAL jingle before and after take off is very annoying. A single replay is enough. Apart from these minor issues, the nation’s flag carrier is transforming nicely.

PAL’s taking up the challenge to compete against the world’s best is a metaphor for how the Filipino is finally gaining confidence on his own capabilities. Done right, in five years time, PAL will be a source of pride and a symbol of the nation’s success. Lucio Tan and Jimmy Bautista should know that they have the Filipino people rooting for them.

 

 

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Andrew is an economist, political analyst, and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail andrew_rs6@yahoo.com. More of his business updates are available via his Facebook page (Andrew J. Masigan). Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.