An Open Letter to the President of Philippine Airlines With Love from Australia

While Philippine Airlines has placed much attention on both Europe and the United States recently, not all destinations are feeling that Philippine Airlines is offering them a "Home in the Sky." As one unhappy PAL frequent flyer shares, Mr. Ang would be well advised to not forget about our friends in Australia...

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Dear Mr. Ang:

Philippine Airlines' current focus is on the United States market.

PAL recently said that all six of PAL's modern Boeing 777-300ERs will operate to and from the USA "from May 2014."

This is understandable. There are at least three million USA residents of Filipino descent, while PAL's homeland has never lost its love affair with activities that are as American as apple pie such as basketball.
Arguably, the very successful Jollibee is a McDonald's clone adapted to the sweeter Filipino palate.

Living as I do in the Great Southern Land with 23 million others, I'm aware that you might easily forget about the 'Land Down Under'. I've never seen any recent indication that you've visited.

You should not forget about Australia.

If you asked the very effective Tourism Secretary, Mr Ramon Jimenez, or the CEO of the Tourism Promotions Board, Mr Domingo Enerio, you might just discover that Australians are the fifth largest source of visitors to the Philippines.

Australia and Norway battle it out for the title of the world's most affluent nation, at least in a material sense.

Australians spend almost twice the world average on each overseas trip. Part is due to the distance we must travel to reach Europe, some is due to our long annual holidays (20 days annual leave plus numerous public holidays - and we're the world experts at creating "long weekends!"), and the rest is due to our natural passion for exploration and travel, from 18 year-old backpackers to 75 year-old retirees.

Australians are hungry for new places to visit. The trend has been for more of us to fly over Ayers Rock to Southeast Asia or Europe rather than visit that monolith.

Bali, Thailand and Fiji have long been coastal staples. The United Kingdom and Europe more generally remain a favourite, with many of us buying Eurail passes. The United States is a shopping mecca.

However, Mr Ang, if you examined overseas departure trends from Australia, you'd notice a few destinations that lack the media profile of the above countries in Australia's travel media but that nonetheless continue to steadily attract more 'Ockers' (as we've been called at times).

One of the unheralded star destinations is the Philippines.

Increasingly, Australians know that the Philippines offers friendly people, great white sand beaches, good local air and ferry links, attractive scenery, and more accommodation options each year, plus a great January to May climate (and it's even good away from Luzon for some parts the rest of the year.)

In 2013, almost 220,000 of us ventured to the land of 7,107 islands.

The trend in recent years is that the number of Australians visiting the Philippines has steadily increased. A typical growth rate per annum is eight to twelve percent, which with the wonders of compounding soon turns a respectable number of visitors into a high number of visitors.

We have a third as many visitors to the Philippines as the USA does, but we only have eight per cent or so of the USA's population. We are therefore about four times as likely to visit the Philippines than a USA resident. After all, we're much closer: only seven and a half hours of flying time.

A goodly number would be Australians of Filipino descent: we now have more than 160,000. Others are embarking on a Boracay holiday at upmarket resorts such as Shangri La, as I found on a recent nothbound PAL flight. Last year, I came across a group of more than 70 on a 'reward' trip from their company, again to Boracay. I've also spoken with young female solo travellers who had been warned by family and friends not to go to the Philippines 'because it's unsafe', but discarded that incorrect advice because they then read widely and discovered a lot of good things said on the net.

So what, Mr Ang, does Philippine Airlines do in response?

At peak season over Christmas (which is also Australia's major school holiday period), the airline kindly rostered one of its six Boeing 777-300ERs on the Manila - Sydney - Manila route (four flights a week each way). Good move!

Yet to Melbourne, despite excellent seat occupancy on some days, PAL scheduled a 16 or 17 year-old Airbus A340 or a slightly larger Airbus A330. Neither has individual seat entertainment in Fiesta (economy) class while Mabuhay (business) class lacks the "almost lie flat" seats of the more up to date Boeing 777.

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Copyright Photo: Angelo Agcamaran/PPSG
On the newish Brisbane and Darwin to Manila route, PAL gave it a new Airbus A321 for the school holidays but that has since reverted to an older Airbus A320. The A321 at least has a few tablets available: I asked the cabin crew for one, since you don't really advertise it. Hardly anyone else on the well occupied flight had one after I joined at Darwin for the four and a half hour run to Manila.

Mr Ang, may I remind you of the numerous ways that I can reach Manila from Melbourne?

I can use PAL and often do: non-stop and three days a week, but typically priced well above the competition.

Or I can choose between, with most having excellent in-flight entertainment systems (the exception is Jetstar):
  • Royal Brunei (BI): Full service airline but no beer, although they will allow you to mix your own spirits; typically the cheapest, usually a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner to Bandar Seri Begawan, daily flights, variable wait for connecting flight so not every day of the week efficiently connects to or from Manila.
  • Malaysia Airlines (MH): Full service, usually a bit above BI in price, three daily flights from Melbourne but not all connect to Manila although good connections when offered in Kuala Lumpur, and every chance of grabbing four middle economy seats to myself at present as I did recently due to the MH370 tragedy affecting bookings, modern Airbus A330 and connecting to MNL via modern Boeing 737-800s.
  • Singapore Airlines (SQ): Full service, four daily flights from Melbourne but not all efficiently connect to Manila, renowned as a top airline worldwide, reasonable connections at the amazing Changi Airport - always a pleasure - modern Boeing 777-300ER or Airbus A380 aircraft on most connecting flights to SIN then an older Boeing 777-200 to Manila, now discounting heavily in Australia.
  • Cathay Pacific (CX): Full service, three daily flights from Melbourne, offers impressive Premium Economy product, also renowned as near the top globally, good connections in Hong Kong that unlike Singapore is an exciting stopover, typically not a discounter but sometimes priced below PAL.
  • Jetstar (JQ): Qantas subsidiary, has just dropped its Darwin - Manila - Tokyo flights but retains Melbourne - Singapore with connecting Jetstar Asia flights to Manila; poor reputation in Australia, can be cheap on slower days of the week but restrictive ticketing conditions.
  • Qantas (QF): Full service but highly variable from at times disinterested or even hostile staff, only runs four days a week with a compulsory change of plane from domestic to international terminals at what many regard as the less than world class Sydney airport, uses non-refurbished Airbus A330s from Sydney to Manila, tends to price fares above Philippine Airlines at busier times but will discount during less busy months.
  • China Southern (CZ): Full service and now after criticism employing at least one Australian flight attendant between Australian airports and Guangzhou, reasonable connections at an average airport.
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Image Source: Singapore Airlines
Mr Ang, what else has PAL recently done in Australia?

After three months, you dropped the four days a week onwards flight from Darwin to Perth, yet staff told me at the time that it was slowly starting to load better than the Brisbane via Darwin flights. (Brisbane now seems to be doing quite nicely). Most airlines allow a route 12 months to establish itself. Travel agents and the general public have to get to know it. This does not occur overnight.

PAL also commenced its five mornings a week Manila - London Heathrow flights in November 2013. Initially, passenger numbers were poor, but have now improved.

Yet among airlines that fly to both Australia and Europe, PAL does not offer through fares on its 'Kangaroo Route' routing via Manila.

To construct an online fare from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or Darwin to London using PAL, a traveller has to go to the multi-city option on the website and laboriously select the days he or she wants to travel.

This is difficult because none of the flights are daily.

A good economy fare or a bargain business class fare then usually appears.

What a great opportunity lost to increase seat occupancy percentages on both the Australian and London routes and as a side benefit encourage passengers to visit islands in the Visayas or the Westerner friendly majority of Mindanao. (Oh...I forgot...PAL Express recently cancelled many routes out of Cebu and Davao).

Mr Ang, your newish PAL Country Manager in Australia has the lowest of low profiles.

I have not been able to contact her.

But from what I've seen, since San Miguel Corporation took over the effective management of PAL, the Australian routes have not received the attention they deserve.

It's about time that PAL rostered planes with IFE on the 10 weekly flights to Australia (and hopefully brought back the Perth via Darwin route.)

You thankfully eventually stocked PAL flights with cold San Miguel beer to replace the tasteless Asia Breweries product.

However, the Land Down Under passengers need more than that.

Why, Mr Ang, should Australians be treated like second class citizens by PAL?

Yours sincerely,

Unhappy PAL Frequent Flier

P.S. If you treat the Australia routes better, I might even shout you some prawns on a barbie with a Pavlova for dessert and take you to an Australian Football League match (different from rugby, gridiron or soccer).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this letter belong solely to the author and do not represent the opinions of Philippine Flight Network.

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