Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Left My Heart in a Philippine Airlines Boeing 747-400 (Part I)

As Philippine Airlines prepares to retire the Boeing 747-400 from its fleet, join PapaLimaSierra as he takes us on a journey aboard the Queen of the Skies on a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to San Francisco paying tribute to one of the most important aircraft in aviation history. This article is the first of a two-part series dedicated to the Philippine Airlines Boeing 747-400.

Aviation has been my passion ever since I was young. It all started when I accompanied my dad to pick up his sister at NAIA Terminal 1. She resides in San Francisco and has visited the Philippines every year since the late 1960's. I was only four or five years old back then and one of the things that first impressed me was the variety of airline logos hanging in the departure area of NAIA 1.

In 1995, my dad went to visit my aunt in San Francisco. I can recall going to a steakhouse and Filipino restaurant at the end of the departure area that had great views of the airplanes parked at the west side of the terminal. The first thing I remembered seeing was a big, shiny Philippine Airlines aircraft with the Sunriser logo illuminated at night. The first thing that sparked my attention was the six foot winglets fitted on the wing tips with the Sunriser logo proudly displayed. I asked my dad what kind of plane that was. He told me that it was PAL's newest airplane, the Boeing 747-400, and that he would be taking that plane to San Francisco.

Was it love at first sight? All I knew is that my love for aviation, Philippine Airlines, and the Boeing 747-400 had begun.

PHILIPPINE AIRLINES AND THE BOEING 747-400

"The aircraft registered N755PR was originally supposed to be the fifth 747-400 to be delivered to Philippine Airlines in 1995. However, PAL later decided not to take up the order and the aircraft was delivered to Canadian Airlines instead. It was operated by Canadian carriers as C-FGHZ until 2003 when it was leased to Philippine Airlines by GECAS as RP-C8168. The aircraft was retired in July 2013 and is now scrapped."
Photo Credit: Boeing Media
Philippine Airlines ordered a total of 8 Boeing 747-400 aircraft and 1 Boeing 747-400M Combi. However, due to the airline's financial and economic problems, a total of only 3 passenger variants and one Combi variant was delivered brand new to Philippine Airlines. The Combi aircraft was originally ordered by Kuwait Airways but the order was not taken up so PAL accepted the delivery and operated the aircraft in a full passenger configuration.

A fourth Boeing 747-400 passenger variant that was part of the original order was added by Philippine Airlines on lease back in 2003 bringing PAL's Boeing 747-400 fleet up to five aircraft. That aircraft has since been phased out and scrapped. Currently, four of the original five 747-400 aircraft in the PAL fleet remain in active service flying PAL's lucrative Transpacific routes to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

On Thursday, April 10, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration upgraded the Philippines to the Category 1 safety rating acknowledging the country's compliance with international aviation safety oversight standards. This announcement also signalled the end of the 747-400 fleet with Philippine Airlines as the airline finally begins to deploy their more modern and fuel efficient Boeing 777-300ER fleet on US routes.

In spite of my on-going love affair with the PAL 747-400 since I was a child,  it was not until 2003 when I took my first flight aboard one. Since then, I have had a total of eight flights on board PAL's Boeing 747 fleet. Four of the flights were on the aircraft registered "N751PR/RP-C7471" while another four were on the aircraft registered "N754PR/RP-C7475."

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to experience flying on  "RP-C7472," "RP-C7473," or "RP-C8168."

SAN FRANCISCO
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Even though it was just my third time to visit the city, I already considered San Francisco as my second home. It was the best city that I've ever visited and continues to be my favourite to this very day. There is something really special about San Francisco that I just can't begin to describe.

PRIOR TO THE TRIP

My dad had been planning a family trip to the United States since May of last year. He wanted us to spend his birthday and the holidays there but the US Visas belonging to my brother and I had expired two years earlier. In addition, my eldest brother's business partner, my sister in law, my nephew, and my niece had not yet applied for a visa.

A month or two before we left, we got our visas approved and we began checking out air fares to San Francisco with a travel agent. My dad wanted to fly Philippine Airlines because of its direct flights but they were a bit pricey at $1,200 each round-trip. We all ended up travelling on separate dates with my parents, my brother, his business partner, and I departing on December 6, while two of my other brothers, my sisters-in-law, and their kids departed on December 13.

PRE-DEPARTURE

Before leaving for the airport, I did some last minute shopping for my necessities at Green Hills near our house. I was just too excited and not even ready to leave. I literally threw all the clothes into my luggage that I needed for the trip. My parents and I left the house at around 5:45pm and arrived at NAIA Terminal 2 at 7:00pm due to heavy traffic. My brother and his business partner left a bit later as they still had unfinished business at their office.

AT NAIA TERMINAL 2

Before checking in, I had to go to the PAL ticketing office to change the spelling of my name on the ticket. On my passport, my second name was spelled Paulo, and on my ticket, it was spelled Paolo. I decided to change it to avoid further problems or hassles even though it had a charge. We checked in at around 7:45pm and my brother still had not arrived at Terminal 2. Immigration and Security check was uneventful and I proceeded to the coffee shop and smoking lounge to do some plane spotting. After 30 minutes, I bumped into my brother and we had coffee while chit chatting with my parents. The other US flight, PR103 bound for Los Angeles was delayed until 11pm. Lucky for us, our flight was on time and we boarded at 9:30pm.

Date: December 6, 2013
Flight Number: PR104
Route: MNL-SFO
Distance: 6,978 Miles
Flying time: 11h20
Aircraft: Boeing 747-469M Combi
Registry: RP-C7475

"It is great seeing you again my love!"
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
"Love at first flight"
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN

ABOUT THE AIRCRAFT WITH "ARABIC SIGNAGE"

"9K-ADE, the long lost sister of RP-C7475 seen at Manila"
Copyright Photo: Robert "Bob" Reyes/PPSG
This particular aircraft was one of the three 747-400M Combi aircraft that were ordered by Kuwait Airways in the early 1990's. Only one aircraft was delivered to them in 1994. One aircraft was already built for them in 1995, but it was cancelled and not taken up. It should have been registered as 9K-ADF during delivery, but PAL accepted delivery of it instead brand new and registered it as N754PR in 1996.

It featured a side cargo door on the rear port side of the aircraft. The side cargo door was never used and the aircraft still continues to operate to this very day in full passenger configuration. This is the only jumbo in the fleet that was fitted with personal entertainment screens from nose to tail at the time of delivery and it had a different cabin layout from the rest of the original 747-400 aircraft in the PAL fleet.

"RP-C7475 landing at Manila"
Copyright Photo: Kit Stephen Agad/PPSG
The aircraft's original seating configuration was 32 in First Class, 40 in Busines Class, and 326 in Economy. In 2008, the aircraft was re-registered as RP-C7475 and it became the second jumbo jet in the fleet to be retrofitted with Recaro angled lie-flat seats in Mabuhay Class and Recaro seats in Fiesta class. It was also equipped with Thales i5000 personal entertainment systems complete with audio video on demand capability from nose to tail. The new configuration had 56 seats in Business Class and 335 seats in Economy class. The aircraft is frequently used on flights to San Francisco as flights PR104 and PR105.

ON-BOARD

Upon entering the plane, I was greeted by somewhat senior flight attendants and the purser. They may be older than the usual flight attendants that you see from other airlines but they give the warmest service ever. That's one of the reasons why I love PAL!

FA/Purser: Good evening sir, welcome aboard!
Me: Good evening Ma'am!
FA: May I check your boarding pass? ....Right this way sir.

As I approached my seat at the rear of economy class, I opened the overhead compartment only to discover that it was already full. While I was thinking of where to put my carry on luggage, a male flight attendant assigned to our section approached me.

FA: Sir, would you like me to put away your carry on for you?
Me: Oh please, thank you!

As I sat in my seat, I first noticed that my IFE screen was off and the rest of the screens were on. I tried to turn it on but it never worked. I was beginning to worry that I would have to spend the entire 12 hours sleeping or staring out the window. Later on, push back commenced at around 10:10pm and the safety video was played. The four GE CF680C2B1F engines started to come to life.

Lights were now dimmed and we taxied to Runway 24 even though Runway 06 was operational. Two of my friends told me that both Transpacific flights sometimes use the opposite side of the runway due to the down slope of the runway which improves take-off performance. During taxi, the flight attendants checked if everyone was wearing their seat belts and window shades were up. We ended up departing from Runway 24 about 18 minutes behind our scheduled departure time. We turned right above Manila Bay as our Transpacific journey began.

An hour after take-off, the flight attendant reseated me to a row ahead of where my parents and I had been seated. I was lucky because the flight was not full and the middle seat was vacant. Headsets, US Immigration and Customs Declaration forms were distributed. Meal service also commenced and we had two choices:

FA: Good evening Sir, would you like to have Beef Kare Kare or Taosi Pork?
Me: I'll have the Beef, but Is it okay if I also try the Pork?
FA: Sure sir!

The main entrees both came with a weird pasta salad, Chocolate Caramel cake, and a bun with nuts. I was also given a whole can of soda!

"Beef Kare Kare"
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Taosi Pork
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
The Beef Kare Kare was delicious. The meat was tender and the sauce didn't need the usual shrimp paste (bagoong) that is normally paired with the meal. The Pork Taosi was a bit salty. However, the salad and the bun was nothing to write home about and the dessert was too sweet, being almost painful to the palette. I also forgot to mention that the butter and berry preserve are no longer part of the meal service. I guess it has something to do with the cost cutting measures of the airline.

"The weird pasta salad"
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN

The Chocolate Caramel Cake
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Meal service eventually ended and while the trays were being collected, the friendly female flight attendant asked me if I enjoyed both meals. I told her that the Kare Kare was delicious but the Pork Taosi was a bit salty. She then asked me if I needed anything else. I just told her that I'm okay with everything and thanked her. She went back to me after a few minutes and gave me packs of peanuts and another can of soda. Now that's the warmest service in Asia! I just hope that this was done to all passengers and not only to me.

FA: Something for you to enjoy when you watch movies!
Me: Wow, I didn't expect this! Thank you!
FA: You're welcome sir!

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Later on, the cabin lights were dimmed and turned off for all the passengers to rest. I started to check out what movies were available to watch in the Flights of Fancy In-Flight Entertainment system. This personal entertainment system is available from nose to tail on the 747-400 and the 777-300ER fleet. It has an audio video on demand capability with access to numerous movies, tv shows, music and games. On this flight, it was limited to 99 choices with a mixture of both old and recent movies. I decided to watch a movie that I never had a chance to watch when I was in Manila: "Disney's Planes."

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Half way through the movie, I began to feel sleepy. I suddenly realized that no amenity kits had been distributed to us. In the past, amenity kits were given to all passengers after departure on long haul flights. It consisted of the usual toothbrush/toothpaste set, a pair of socks, and eye-shutters all placed inside a reusable pouch that you could bring home. Now the amenity kits contain all the same contents but the reusable pouch has been replaced with disposable plastic and the amenity kits are only available upon request from the cabin crew...Cost Cutting #2.

I then went to one of the rear lavatories to wash up. I noticed that this particular aircraft was not equipped with a crew rest area being a Combi. I headed back to my seat and left the personal tv turned on with the movie paused to find out how much time was left in the flight. In the AVOD interface, there is small text indicating the actual flight time left before arrival. This was the only flight information available as the "Airshow" and moving maps were disabled on flights to and from the United States. I read that it was due to security concerns.

Finally, it was time for some shut eye! I woke up after three hours because of some light turbulence in the area. I checked the time and it was another 7 hours to go, but it happened to be the same time when the cabin crew was distributing mid-flight snacks and drinks.

FA: Good morning sir, would you like to have some snacks?
Me: What do you have there?
FA: We only have Corned Beef Pandesal (Bun with Corned Beef Filling)
Me: Okay, I'll have some.
FA: Would you like to have some Water? Juice? Coffee? or Tea?
Me: I'll have some tea, thank you!
FA: You're welcome sir

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
The Corned Beef Pandesal was from San Miguel Food Corporation, the airline's owner. It was okay, something to fill an empty stomach. Later on, another snack was given to us and it was Mammon (Pound Cake) from Goldilocks which I didn't consume.

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
I then decided to peek through my window shade and was amazed to witness the beautiful sunrise.

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
I went around the cabin to stretch my legs and checked on my folks. As San Francisco was still six hours away from touch down, I went back to sleep again. Sleeping in the plane seemed to be not much of a problem for me since PAL has generous legroom on their long haul fleet in economy class. I always choose a window seat because I get claustrophobic. The window seats not only give you a beautiful view of the scenery, but it also gives you a wall to lean on when sleeping.

I woke up again after three or four hours to check on the time and the light outside. At this point, most passengers were already awake, stretching their legs out or watching movies, but with the cabin lights still turned off. Some passengers were already starting to raise their window shades up. With only two hours to go, the cabin crew began preparing the cabin for the second meal service.

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Ever since I first traveled with Philippine Airlines, I always loved their breakfast. The best breakfasts that I had from them were Chicken Tocino and Beef Tapa. I would also get breakfast every time my aunt went home to the Philippines as she doesn't eat airline meals when I pick her up at the airport. Although our arrival in San Francisco was scheduled for dinner time, breakfast was served. The friendly female flight attendant approached my seat and informed me of the choices.

FA: Good afternoon sir. Would you like to have Chicken Tocino or Steamed Bangus (Milkfish)?
Me: I'll have the Chicken Tocino
FA: I'm sorry sir, I ran out of Chicken, but I'll try to check for more.

Ms. FA comes back after a few minutes....

FA: I'm sorry sir but we ran out of Tocino
Me: It's okay, I'll just have the Fish
FA: Okay sir, here you go. Enjoy your meal! I'm really sorry that we didn't have your choice.
Me: It's okay, no worries!
FA: Something you would like to drink? We have apple juice, orange juice, Coke, Sprite..
Me: I'll just have OJ, thank you!

The meal was paired with almond lychee, the nutty bun, and a banana cake courtesy of Manila Hotel.

Steamed Bangus (Milkfish)
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
Almond Lychee
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
I was a bit disappointed when I learned that they ran out of my favorite. I guess many passengers preferred to eat chicken. Oh well, there is a saying about airline meals that you "shouldn't get the fish." But no! I was surprised that the fish was delicious! It wasn't salty and didn't have the fishy, or "malansa" taste. The banana cake was also delicious! No wonder since it came from a five star hotel. While eating, I continued watching the last half of Disney's Planes.

After meal service ended, the cabin crew collected the meal trays. The friendly female asked me again if I enjoyed my meal.

FA: Hi sir, how was your meal?
Me: It was great! I never expected fish to be this good! But I was quite disappointed that there was no Tocino.
FA: I'm really sorry about that sir, I guess majority of the passengers love the Tocino.
Me: I thought I was the only one. (laughs) Anyway, it's okay.
FA: (laughs)

I finally finished watching the last half of Disney's Planes. While the cabin crew were going around for the in flight duty free, also known as Philippine Airlines' Fiesta Boutique, I went into one of the rear lavatories to freshen up before the line started. For the next hour, all I did was just stare at the window as the sunlight faded away into darkness. Forty-five minutes prior to arrival, the flight crew made their announcement that we had begun our descent into San Francisco.

Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
The approach into San Francisco International is my favorite as it is regarded as one of the most scenic approaches in the world. You get to see the Golden Gate Bridge first, then Downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge, while flying above the airport before commencing the "slam dunk" approach onto Runway 28L or 28R. You also get to see the Palo Alto, Redwood City, Foster City, and San Mateo during the slam dunk. The best time to experience this would be during Summer or Spring as PR104 arrives during sunset and I highly recommend that you get a window seat on the left side of the aircraft to enjoy these views.

As it was December and Winter in the United States, we arrived in pure darkness. The descent and slam dunk approach was pretty bumpy with some turbulence in the area. Gear down and Flaps 30 as we reached the San Mateo Bridge signalling our final approach to Runway 28R in San Francisco. The final approach was gusty and pitch angle was a bit steep. At 6:30pm local time, we touched down hard but good on Runway 28R. We were then put on a short hold on an exit in between the two runways due to departing traffic on 28L followed by a pretty long taxi towards the A Gates of the International Terminal. As we came to a full stop at our gate, rain began to pour down.

While most passengers had already disembarked, I started to say my goodbyes to the friendly female flight attendant and thanked her for her excellent service.

FA: Goodbye sir, it was great to have you on board. Enjoy your stay here in San Francisco
Me: Thank you and I hope to see you on board soon!
FA: Are you here for vacation?
Me: Yes, I'm with my family
FA: For how long?
Me: A month and a half
FA: Wow sarap naman

Wish that I remembered her name though....

As I reached the exit, I bumped into the flight purser and asked her if I could visit the flight deck. I told her that the First Officer on this flight was a cousin of my good friend. She went to the upper deck to ask and came back to me with the happiest response that an aviation enthusiast can hear: "Yes!" She then escorted me to the upper deck and introduced me to the flight crew. My goal was to only take a photo of the 747-400's flight deck but the first officer offered to take my photo with the controls. Not only that, I was also surprised that the captain wanted to have a group photo with me and the rest of the flight crew. I then bid my farewell and thanked them for the opportunity to visit the flight deck of my favorite aircraft. As I left the aircraft, I did my ritual of knocking and rubbing the exterior of RP-C7475 knowing that it would be my last time to fly on her.

Flight deck of RP-C7475
Copyright Photo: PapaLimaSierra/PFN
ARRIVAL

It took me 20 minutes to disembark from the aircraft after all of the passengers and my family had left. I soon headed straight to the waiting area outside the toilets to meet them. We then proceeded to the immigration area where we discovered that the line was really long as they were processing our flight and a British Airways flight that had just arrived from Heathrow. Immigration was strict and the process was longer compared to the last time I visited. As we arrived in the baggage claim area, all of our bags were already outside the carousel. Customs was strict compared to my last trip in 2004 and asked a lot of questions. The only thing that we declared was money. Overall, the transit took us two hours before we exited the terminal.

THE VERDICT
  • Transit in Manila (9/10): Despite NAIA being one of the world's worst airports, the people at the Centennial Terminal 2 were very friendly. From the janitors who clean the toilets and the check-in agents, to the immigration officers, and security staff, everyone would always bring a smile. Transit was also quick and hassle free, but maybe it's because we were in an exclusive terminal. Not to mention the check-in agents are also known as the PAL Ambassadors.
  • Service (10/10): PAL has had a special place in my heart ever since I took my first flight with them back in 1996. I've encountered both rude and friendly flight attendants with them, but there is one thing that I love about most of their cabin crew and that's going the extra mile in spite of their already excellent service. I will DEFINITELY take them on my future trips.
  • Food and Beverage (7/10): Food was delicious, both dinner and breakfast service. But it would be better if they didn't take out the butter and jam. Quality and quantity of the snack was way below what it used to be in the past.
  • In-Flight Entertainment (8/10): Even though I was amazed by the number of movie selections available, it was still below the standards of what other airlines have. Majority of the movies were old, and the rest were just a mix of recent ones and movies from the previous year.
  • Overall Score (8.5/10)
Watch out for my second installment to read all about my experience on the return flight back to Manila!

8 comments :

  1. Gonna miss the 747 too. That's the first plane that I rode way back when I was two years old going to LAX. Since then, I looked forward to riding them, except for RP- C8168. Gonna miss the 747, that plane is a big part of my childhood and teenage life.

    ReplyDelete
  2. flew on pal 747 to sfo and lax, but tried nw from det-nrt-mnl. oh, the memories of long-haul flights to and from usa before 9/11!

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  3. I don't get how a B747-400 is already existing at NAIA1 during the late 60's when the first B747 for PAL (and its the 200 series yet), started operations on the 4th of January in 1980,. dubbed as Jumbo jet which was used to fly across the Pacific at that time.and the sunriser logo bacame famous only after the 1st edsa revolution during the mid 80's... hmmm nothing coincides..
    **********************************************
    The first thing I remembered seeing was a big, shiny Philippine Airlines aircraft with the Sunriser logo illuminated at night. The first thing that sparked my attention was the six foot winglets fitted on the wing tips with the Sunriser logo proudly displayed. I asked my dad what kind of plane that was. He told me that it was PAL's newest airplane, the Boeing 747-400, and that he would be taking that plane to San Francisco.

    Was it love at first sight? All I knew is that my love for aviation, Philippine Airlines, and the Boeing 747-400 had begun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry about that, it was 1995 when I first saw the 744 at NAIA1.

      Delete
  4. PAL's Boeing 747 need to retire. They have been in service for a while now. On my last flight from Manila to Los Angeles in July 2012, a large piece of foam fell from the overhead compartment at take-off roll and fell on a lady seated next to me by the isle. She got spooked and almost shouted loud, but held her mouth by her hand.

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  5. The photo of the N755PR in there is not “Ocho-Ocho" or RP-C8168. It could be the present VQ-BHW of Transaero which is originally the ZS-SBK of SAA. I noticed the two white windows and an uncovered window which is located at the aft portion and when I compared to the first N755PR (Ocho-Ocho) and the second one (VQ-BHW), Ocho-Ocho didn't have that said window and also, the window configuration of the new N755PR is different than Ocho-Ocho and the remaining 744 that are still active w/ PAL (excluding RP-C7475). Sorry if I heavily talked about the N755PR photo, but I wish I could still ride on a 747 in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The 747 400 was nice but even nicer was the 747 200 back in the day when it had plush seats and those sleeper beds upstairs.
    It is sad to see how PAL has evolved since those days. It is no longer the comfortable airline on which one can catch up on sleep when crossing the Pacific. Those slanting seats on the 777 are horrid.

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  7. This is still one of my favorite 747's. Everytime I see it land and depart at SFO, I can't help but stare at its beauty. I am lucky that I get to work and maintain the 747-400 at my airline. Sad that it will eventually be replaced due to its high operational cost. I have always wondered about those arabic markings on my last PAL flight. Thanks for the info.

    ReplyDelete