Philippine Airlines: An Identity Crisis (Part 1)


Copyright Photo: Lester Tangco/PPSG
Ever since the San Miguel Group bought a stake in the PAL Group, its management led by Ramon Ang (RSA) carried the objective of rationalising the flag-carrier and its low-cost sister carrier, airphil Express, now known as PAL Express. They hoped that by rationalising these operations, they could provide a single standard across the PAL Group and further cut costs. There was also hope among passengers that with a significant financial infusion from the country’s largest conglomerate, Philippine Airlines would have more than enough capital to bring the flag-carrier up to the standards of their 4 and 5-star counterparts in East Asia.

However, as services were rationalised, some passengers became disgruntled with the quality of service that PAL provided them. More importantly, confusion is mounting over whether the Philippines’ flag carrier is continuing its tradition as a legacy carrier or slowly transforming into a low-cost carrier. On one hand, you find Philippine Airlines highlighting the superior features of its Boeing 777, particularly as it gets set to fly to the United States. Such features include lie-flat seats and gourmet cuisine prepared by world-renowned chefs. But on the other hand, passengers are also experiencing a stripped-down version of PAL with bare-bones features on its newer aircraft including lack of in-flight entertainment, less leg room space, and even ‘cartoonish’-like advertising reminiscent of a low-cost carrier.

The question on everyone's minds is where does PAL stand in the spectrum of carriers? Does it lean towards being a low-cost carrier or a legacy carrier? Since the San Miguel Group assumed management of Philippine Airlines, the national flag carrier has displayed a number of product inconsistencies that would leave a passenger confused over what one should expect when they travel with Philippine Airlines.


Seats on newer aircraft are now leather. Okay, let’s be fair in that other legacy carriers may follow this practice. However, I personally find fabric seating more comfortable to sit-in. One could reasonably conclude that PAL is doing this to cut costs as leather seats are easier and faster to clean than fabric seats.

More economy class seating. As a general practice, low-cost carriers, especially on short-haul flights are designed to have economy class across the entire aircraft. On the newly ordered A330 aircraft, Philippine Airlines has installed only 18 business class seats representing about 3-4% of the aircraft’s total seats. The total number of economy seats alone on the new A330 aircraft exceeds the total number of seats that were installed on one of the airline's older A330 aircraft.

In addition, Philippine Airlines is one of the few carriers in the world to have configured their A330’s economy class section with 3-3-3 configuration with 9 seats abreast. Budget carriers AirAsia X and Cebu Pacific have also done this. In such a configuration, the aisles are very narrow for even the crew to effectively perform their jobs. To accommodate more seats, Philippine Airlines reduced the amount of legroom available. The newer A330 aircraft delivered to PAL feature only 31 inches of seat pitch, which is 1 inch less than their older counterparts.

The average A321 aircraft on a typical legacy carrier will seats as many as 16 Business Class passengers, with the possibility of more depending on the carrier. However, Philippine Airlines installed just 12 Business Class seats. Legroom on this aircraft is even more cramped at just 30 inches, which is the same amount of legroom offered by European budget-carrier Ryanair. That is 2 inches below the industry standard of 32 inches for this aircraft.

Although having more seats on each aircraft may provide a better chance of finding a seat available on your preferred date of travel, it comes at the expense of passenger comfort, which can become a particularly unforgivable experience on longer flights.

Stricter with seat selections. Up until early 2010, PAL was generous in giving passengers any economy seat they wanted for free. However, it later became clear to Philippine Airlines and other carriers that not all “regular” economy class seats were created equal. PAL began charging for preferred seating including those with extra legroom such as exit row seats. In fact, the practice became such a strict policy that even if the preferred seat was still available once a passenger boarded the aircraft and a passenger wanted to sit in it, the cabin crew were obligated to collect payment on-the-spot for the privilege of sitting there. On a recent experience with European budget carrier, easyJet, I observed some passengers got away with this by sitting in the front row once it was clear nobody was seated here and easyJet did not attempt to charge extra. It is worthy to note that Cebu Pacific also allows passengers to select premium seats at no-extra charge when using the self check-in feature at the airport if the seats are still available on the day of departure. The point is that if even a low-cost carrier could allow this, why should Philippine Airlines be so strict with passengers? If we were discussing upgrading from economy to business class, one could understand as additional service is involved but in economy class, it just appears cheap and stingy.

Less in-flight entertainment options. I extensively discussed this issue in a previous article. The main point is that legacy carriers are not saying goodbye to those individual seat back monitors just yet for in-flight entertainment. In fact, they are enhancing them. Philippine Airlines on the other hand decided to just do away with them on newer aircraft, and offer iPads as an alternative. This will of course come at a fee for regular economy passengers. Wireless streaming of IFE will also be provided to personal devices if the passenger has brought their own device. This is also the standard set in the new business class of the Philippine Airlines A330 aircraft. It's somewhat embarrassing given that in some cases, even low-cost carriers have beat PAL in the in-flight entertainment department by installing their own IFE systems. By not having an in-flight entertainment system installed on new Philippine Airlines aircraft, this also means that the cabin crew will also need to keep doing their safety demonstrations live, which puts them on the spot more often. In-flight entertainment in the form of iPads are more appropriate for low-cost carriers and hence it is unforgivable to deprive passengers of IFE on-board flights of considerably long duration.

Image Source: Owen Saulog/PPSG
Tacky print and web ads. When you look at a legacy carrier’s print and web advertisements, they use fairly straightforward elements, nothing really over the top. But when you glance at those belonging to Philippine Airlines, you might confuse the ads for those belonging to a budget carrier. The fonts and style of the banner headlines would be appropriate if used by a low cost carrier. However, it should be noted that legacy carriers rarely employ cartoonish motifs. The cartoonish themes seem to be used by Philippine Airlines across the board regardless of what destination you are travelling to. Improvements seem to have been made and the ads are beginning to look less cartoonish but they are still a far cry from what you would expect of a legacy carrier, much less a national flag carrier. 

Image Source: Philippine Airlines
‘Inappropriate’ promotional content. Even the content of the advertising is LCC-ish. For example, when was the last time a legacy carrier used a headline similar to “Are you ready for something MAD?” or "Saya ng feeling ‘At Home’?" This is a stark contrast from the ads displayed not too long ago that highlighted the "premium quality" of PAL’s flagship 777 on Manila-Narita flights.

Image Source: Philippine Airlines
Moreover, doesn't consistently advertising low airfares offer the impression that an airline is a budget carrier? Don’t get me wrong, I like low prices, and sometimes 5-star carriers do this. But the likes of Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines only do this sparingly. You don’t see them come out every week with a new fare promotion. PAL makes low prices a hallmark of its marketing.

This is also true when one discusses its business class offerings when PAL describes its own product as “business class you can afford.” Business class is business class because it is intended for business executives who need extra space and a more comfortable environment to unwind before they set-off on the next part of their journey. It connotes a premium that has to be paid for the exclusive services that enable one to enjoy more space and privacy to work and relax while 35,000 feet above the ground.

It's hard to comprehend who Philippine Airlines is actually targeting. Are they catering to younger passengers, who generally prefer to fly low-cost carriers? The Boeing 777 and A330 Business Class products seem to suggest that PAL is targeting a different audience.

Half-baked new Business Class Product on A330. PAL recently launched its new business class on its A330 aircraft. In his welcome letter to passengers published in the May 2014 issue of Mabuhay Magazine, PAL President Ramon Ang indicated how this new product is targeted at the “discriminating business segment of the market” which he also characterised as an “important part of PAL’s customer base.” He outlined the features that make it state-of-the-art such as being turned into a flat bed, ample storage and electronic controls. 

Image Source: Philippine Airlines / Mabuhay Magazine
However, in relation to my previous critique of the “business class you can afford tagline”, the new Philippine Airlines A330 business class is, in my view, a double-edged sword for PAL. At first glance, it may appear to contradict the “discriminating business segment” that the company wishes to target even if it is clearly more expensive than economy class.

On one hand, you have all of those features that were highlighted. But on the other hand, there was hardly any mention of traditional in-flight entertainment. As mentioned in a previous point, there are also only 18 of these seats on board the aircraft whereas most legacy carriers have at least 30 of them on long-haul flights. While we see some effort of the current PAL management team to reach out to a higher end of the market, they clearly did not go all the way when most other major players have enhanced their latest offerings. One example is that PAL’s newest long-haul business class seats are still configured in 2-2-2; whereas the competition is doing 1-2-1. This guarantees that each seat has direct access to the aisle. Other carriers go as far as offering wider side tables in addition to dining tray tables, cabin-wide mood lighting, storage designed for shoes, laptops and other valuables, and even noise-cancelling headsets in addition to personal seat-back entertainment.


On-board dining provided to passengers. This is a relative rarity on short-haul flights. PAL and its LCC-sister PAL Express claim that they are the only carriers from the Philippines that provide hot meals on-board. For now, this is a good thing. In fact, Manila-Hong Kong flights also features a full rice meal with passengers able to choose their selection.

Moreover, if you look at PAL’s business class menu, it highlights how its full-course meals are prepared by world-renowned chefs. On long-haul flights to and from long-haul destinations such as London, you can get up to three meals. Some passengers are even known to have requested and received both meal options.

Boeing 777 aircraft still top-product. A lot of the LCC features that people think are associated with PAL do not apply to its flagship Boeing 777 aircraft at least for now. Its seats are still upholstered with fabric and legroom is quite standard at 33 inches, which is an inch more than economy class on Cathay Pacific's long-haul 777. However, Cathay Pacific has addressed that with an impressive premium economy product.

Philippine Airlines also maintains personal in-flight entertainment on its Boeing 777 fleet regardless of the class you are in. Three of these aircraft were delivered to PAL after Ramon Ang took over. It confuses me somewhat that if Ang was totally committed to transforming PAL into a LCC, why did he choose to continue installing IFE on the remaining 777 aircraft to be delivered rather than adopt the same model chosen for the new Airbus aircraft. The same could have also been true when considering the lie-flat business class seats. However, it is possible that prior contracts could have played a role in this.

PAL retained its original 42-seat business class configuration on its Boeing 777 fleet, representing more than 11% of the aircraft’s total capacity. These seats are not just recliners but actual lie-flat seats with electronic reclining functionality. Although they are not the flat beds featured on the new A330 aircraft, they do have full in-flight entertainment that even features a USB port that not only charges devices, but also allows a passenger to play music from their own personal collection through the IFE system.

Acknowledgement of the importance of business class passengers. Building on the previous point, Ramon Ang mentions, at least publicly, how important the business class market is to PAL, hence the new business class on the A330's. To some extent, these go a bit farther than the 777's, with the introduction of fully flat-bed seats although the IFE lacks. The full extent of whether Asia’s first airline is committed to this will only be realised once a future order for long-haul aircraft is placed.

Keeping long-haul destinations on the table. Long-haul flights seem to work best for legacy carriers. It's an area of the airline industry that low-cost carriers have yet to conquer. AirAsia X and the now defunct Oasis Airlines went as far as London from their Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong bases respectively. But AirAsia X pulled back on this going only as far as Sydney and Tokyo, whilst Oasis completely folded its operations.

Philippine Airlines seems heavily focused on long-haul destinations. A number of cities are being considered including New York and Chicago, even Paris or Amsterdam. Such destinations are usually reserved for aircraft with premium products.

PAL made good on its pledge to restore service to London and start a new service to Toronto. Both of these destinations continue to be served by its most ‘premium’ 777. However, that may change if Philippine Airlines launches new routes in the US in the near future.


The point so far is that PAL seems to be headed in two directions. Which side of PAL you get to see depends on where you are flying to and what type of aircraft you are taking. If you are flying on the newer Airbus A321 and A330's, you will probably experience the low-cost carrier side of PAL. But it is important to note that these new A330's will also be deployed on medium to long-haul routes in the Middle East, Hawaii, and Australia. If you are flying on the Boeing 777 to a North American destination or the United Kingdom, you might be a bit luckier.

Whilst I understand that PAL may wish to borrow the low cost model of PAL Express for its own operations, it is important to understand that legacy and low cost carriers each have their own distinct operating structures for a reason. By imposing a LCC structure too much into a legacy carrier’s operations, it may create doubts in the minds of previously loyal passengers as to the future identity and direction of the legacy carrier.

In the second part of this series, I will highlight one glaring example of how PAL cannot make-up its mind on what identity it should adopt. With both PAL and PAL Express deployed to the Middle East, one must question whether there is a point in deploying both brands to the same region especially when the products are relatively similar.

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