Brian's Blogs

Time for Philippine air companies to pull their socks up?

What is it about some businesses that make them believe all their customers are chronically short of a brain cell or three?

I am checking in at the Philippine Airlines counter at Beijing’s Terminal 2 (the old grotty one, not the brand spanking new gem that is T3). On the desk is a notice that advises passengers that due to the introduction of a new deal aimed at giving passengers a better service, they are now required to check in earlier.

What? Come again? I get a better service if I check in even earlier? Who thinks up these half baked ideas? And worse, who the hell in management then agrees with them going public?

It’s like the Phil’ Air web site. You book your ticket and then finally after what feels like hours you get to the start of the payment process; only to find that your visa card which you can use for just about every other transaction on the internet is not allowed as it wasn’t issued by a South East Asian bank. This, we are told, is better customer service because it protects your security! (As it happens, when I finally get over to the Phil’ Air office in downtown BJ to hand over real cash for a real ticket - well, a real piece of paper anyway - I am quoted a price considerably cheaper than that quoted on their web site, so all’s well in the end I suppose.)

Anyway, back to BJ’s T2 where Phil’ Air has been allocated a set of desks as far as possible from the main entrance. Tensions between China and the Philippines are still not resolved as those canny Filipinos don’t really fancy the Chinese laying claim to territory they have regarded as their own for many years. So petty things, like allocating them the worst check in desks, are now par for the course.

A bored looking Chinese handling agent is sitting playing with his computer screen. I hand over my passport and the Chinese agent starts bashing away on his keyboard.
And then he sits back and looks puzzled.
And presses a button.
And pokes it again – over and over… until he realises that he has forgotten to put blank tickets into the ticketing machine which is why nothing emanates as a result of his finger stabbing.

At last the machine wakes up and a ticket appears. “Here you are Mr Javier … sorry for the delay.”
Errr - I’m not Mr Javier. Maybe that ticket belongs to another passenger.

Your favourite blogger’s passport is once again inspected, just to make sure that I'm not Javier masquerading under another name. Obviously disappointed to find I am who I say I am, the ticket gets torn in two and the whole process starts from the top once again. Maybe this is the new deal that the above notice is referring to and this is indeed why passengers are advised to check in earlier? Or maybe the canny Capital Airport management puts their not-so-bright employees on the Phil’ Air check in leaving the crème de la crème to look after the better airlines?

My theory actually begins to gain credibility after we are told when sitting in the cabin waiting for take off that there will be a slight delay as they are “waiting for a piece of paper”. The so-called bit of paper they are waiting for is the official loading sheet without which an aircraft cannot take off. For some inexplicable reason the airport authorities haven’t handed the loading sheet over, so we wait… and wait… until 90 minutes after we should have left someone nonchalantly walks into the aircraft and hands over the offending sheet. Amazingly, though we – the passengers – have not been told what is going on, someone has the bright idea of accessing the Phil Air web site on their smartphone which informs us that departure time has been put back by – yes, you guessed it… 90 minutes!

We taxi out onto the apron and wait in the queue for getting onto the runway for take off. But the moment the aircraft in front of us has taken to the skies our captain regrets to inform us that owing to a technical problem with the steering we will have to return from whence we came so that the engineers can check it out.

We sit for another 45 minutes while all kinds of weird and wonderful servo noises rise through the body of the aircraft. Packets of peanuts are handed out to the more complaining of the passengers, except that they soon run out, leading to more complaints from the passengers who lost out in the scrimmage. Eventually, with the passengers getting restless, the crew take it upon themselves to start serving out the lunch trays. No sooner has every passenger been served a tepid meal (the auxiliary power had to be switched off for a while, hence the ovens were not running at their correct temperature) than we are told that the fault has finally been put right. But now of course we cannot take off until everything has been cleared up.

The Phil Air web site informs us that we will take off exactly five hours later than we should have done … and so it turns out to be.

Naturally, no sooner are we in the sky than half the planeload wants to visit the loos, so long queues develop along the aisle of this not-so-pristine Airbus A320. I wait till the queue has run its course and then go to inspect the plumbing myself. And wish I hadn’t. A thick brown scum has coagulated over the years under the loo seat, making me wonder if anyone has ever bothered to clean it. As they say, the picture below doesn’t do it justice. But I determine not to avail myself of Phil Air’s plumbing facilities in the future.

Apart from that, the flight is pretty uneventful. There are only overhead TV screens showing very second rate movies and hardly anyone even bothers to open their headset bags, let alone view the “entertainment”. Eventually, however, we arrive in Manila – 5 hours late – and the captain hopes we had an enjoyable flight and wishes us a good stay. “Mabuhay!” he signs off – literally "long live” – an expression used in welcoming guests and showing hospitality and something I am destined to come across on many occasions over the next few days.

Inside the terminal, a girl band plays to us as we wait for our luggage with one of them calling out Christmas greetings to anyone who stops to listen. A nice touch which after our flight makes a welcome change.

Manila’s traffic is as hectic as ever – a combination of expensive 4x4s, swanky limousines, bog-standard cars, jeepneys (which I blogged about the last time I was in this country), motorbikes and motor-trikes – which are the standard method of transport for shorter journeys. Motor-trikes come in a variety of shapes and sizes – this one is a standard design for the Laguna area (about two hours south of Manila central) into which you can just about squeeze two bottoms in the passenger cart as well as having two passengers riding pillion. The height of it has obviously been developed for slightly shorter Filipinos and your favourite blogger sits with his head jammed to one side wishing desperately that the journey would end, however long or short the journey happens to be.

The next day it is time to fly to Busuanga island in the Calamianes chain, north of Palawan. We fly from MNL terminal 4 on Zest Air in an MA60 plane which is so designed that you can hardly see a thing out of the windows except for one of the engine housings, unless you look sharply downwards.

The MA60 is a turboprop made by China's Xi'an Aircraft Industrial Corporation and was designed to operate in rugged conditions with limited ground support and has short take-off and landing capability. But its safety record is pretty poor, with Indonesia – not renowned for its own air safety track record – actually banning the aircraft from using three of its airports, after one of the planes crashed and killed 25 people in May 2011.

In January 2009, an MA60 operated by Zest crashed at Caticlan airport while trying to land. The aircraft caught fire and suffered extensive damage to its wing, landing gear, undercarriage and one engine; and several passengers were injured in that accident. Another Zest MA60 overshot the runway while trying to land at Caticlan in June 2009.

On this journey we are flying at around 16,000 ft so we can catch glimpses of the myriad islands passing underneath.

The airport at Busuanga is a tiny air strip stuck out in the middle of nowhere – a good 45 minutes drive from the main town of Coron. But everyone is terribly friendly and is made to feel very welcome. Mabuhay!

Here there are very few private cars and only a handful of jeepneys, but hundreds of motor-trikes. This variety is much better than the ones to be found in Laguna with a design that lets two people sit in the front, two people in the back and another two pillion passengers. That’s seven people carried by one motorbike engine! A couple of days later I am sitting in one with six adults and two kids. I have no idea how long the engines of these Kawasaki bikes last, but the strain they are under must be phenomenal.

Like the jeepneys, many of these motor-trikes are personally decorated – some more successfully than others!

Naturally there are refuelling stops all over the place such as this one… No, that’s not coke. It’s petrol, sold for 30 pesos per bottle.

On the return journey from Busuanga we are told there is a slight delay following a tropical storm that has passed by within the previous 24 hours. Everything is running late and some passengers who were grounded the previous day are desperately trying to get aboard our flight.

We sit it out in the airport until we hear an announcement that departure is expected in about an hour’s time. We continue to sit it out, only for another announcement to be made half an hour later that the flight has now been cancelled. Would all passengers return to the check in desk.

I get to the front of the queue where I am asked if I have an onward connection. The implication is clear. Those with onward connections will be given priority for whatever arrangements they can make. I do indeed, I declare (forgetting to point out that my onward connection is actually a bus journey!) And sure enough, a select handful of us “onward connecting passengers” are bumped over to competing Air Phil Express (which flies Bombardier Q400s – previously known as Dash 8s).

Another passenger tells us that in the 14 flights she has flown with Zest Air, all 14 have been delayed for one reason or another. So why does she continue to fly with Zest? It turns out she is an intern and Zest are much cheaper than the competition. But she always hopes she will be bumped over to another airline as she has been today.

Unlike Zest Air’s total lack of service, Air Phil Express offers the option of purchasing a cup of tea – well, that is a cup of warm water and a tea bag. No milk or sugar on board unfortunately. But after such a wait, anything warm and wet is appreciated.

We finally get in to Manila – this time landing in Terminal 3 which is pristine and totally unlike the other three terminals in the capital.

The Philippine Tourism Authority has been in creative mood and around the baggage claim area are a number of advertisements extolling the virtues of the country for tourists.

Even the loos are pristine – not as gleaming as the ones in Beijing’s Terminal 3, it has to be admitted, but clean all the same. And not a (Chinese) slogan in sight!

Two days later it’s back to Terminal 2 to take Philippine Airlines back once again to Beijing. It’s the same plane as before; the loos are as disgusting as ever; and the main feature film only has a soundtrack in Chinese as the crew cannot work out how to switch it across to the English channel. But the flight is only a quarter full, we are served copious quantities of drinks and the food isn’t at all bad. We take off 15 minutes earlier than scheduled and arrive in Beijing 12 minutes ahead of schedule.

We start the very long taxiing from the runway to the terminal, but after 10 minutes come to a complete halt in the middle of the apron.

Ladies and gentlemen, please stay seated, the captain intones over the speakers. It appears there is a fault with the steering and we need to be towed to the gate. Now where have I heard that before? But the tow truck soon arrives and minutes later we are deplaning into Terminal 2.

Even if one hasn’t seen all the signs in Chinese, you can still tell we’re back in China. “China Inspection & Quaratine Imformation” a sign reads. Oh yes; I’m back in China alright!

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