An Active Week at Philippine Airlines: Paying Tribute to the Past, Setting the Stage for the Future, and Exploring What's Beyond

The past week has been a particularly active news week for Philippine Airlines (PAL) and its parent company San Miguel Corporation (SMC). From the retirement of the Boeing 747's, to the crowning of the Boeing 777's, and even the prospect of a new airport courtesy of SMC, the week marked a significant turning point in PAL’s history. 

pal 747-400
Copyright Photo: Angelo Agcamaran/PPSG

Paying Tribute to The Past

The past week saw the beginning of the end of PAL’s Boeing 747-400 era. RP-C7472 was the first of the flag carrier’s original 747-400's to leave the PAL fleet. It made its way from Ninoy Aquino International Airport to Clark International Airport where it joined other retired Airbus A330 and A340 aircraft.

A few days later, RP-C7475 (formerly known as N754PR) joined its older brother at Clark. This particular 747-400 was notable for several reasons. For one, it had a different look and feel compared to the other three original 747-400's. It also featured Arabic signs around the aircraft as it was originally ordered and expected to be delivered to Kuwait Airways, which eventually aborted the order. It also had more seats for premium passengers compared to its older siblings and even featured a business centre with fax facilities.

Before the  reconfiguration of the PAL 747 cabin in 2008 and 2009, N754PR was the only aircraft in PAL’s fleet that featured personal in-flight entertainment (IFE) across all classes, which according to PAL crew, did not function most of the time. It was such a notorious experience being on board this aircraft that some flight attendants even referred to flights using N754PR as the “sorry flight” of PAL since they frequently had to apologise for services and amenities that were not up to PAL’s standards.

It was also announced that the last 747-400 flight to San Francisco would be scheduled for June 30, 2014. Before that, the 747-400 will make one special flight to Xiamen, China on May 23, which is apparently a special charter.

In order to pay tribute to the jumbo jet, PAL held a retirement ceremony on May 12 at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City. It was attended by senior PAL and Boeing executives, along with two popular Filipino singers.

PAL operated the 747-400 for more than 20 years. The first 747-400 arrived at Subic Bay on November 21, 1993 with President Fidel Ramos aboard after he concluded an official visit to the United States. PAL accepted delivery of a total of five 747-400 aircraft. They primarily operated the airline's two mainland United States routes to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The aircraft also made regular appearances in Hong Kong, Tokyo Narita and Cebu, as well as occasional appearances in Bangkok, Riyadh, Sydney, Melbourne and Davao.

Setting the Stage for the Future

On the same day of PAL's 747 retirement ceremony, the airline also crowned the Boeing 777-300ER as its new flagship aircraft. This fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft is gradually taking over PAL’s mainland US routes. The 370-seater aircraft started flying to Los Angeles on May 3, and part-time to San Francisco six days later. This move was long overdue as a downgrade by the US Federal Aviation Administration of the country’s air safety rating to Category 2 status in 2008 forced PAL to continue using less fuel-efficient Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A340-300 on existing US routes. Category 1 was eventually reinstated on April 10, 2014. PAL says that by using the Boeing 777-300ER, it hopes to save up to US$120 million in fuel and maintenance costs.

PAL’s first Boeing 777-300ER was delivered on November 18, 2009. Four out of the six 777 aircraft in the fleet are less than two years old. PAL also uses this aircraft for its London, Vancouver and Toronto flights. But PAL's Boeing fleet is not the only aircraft that received major attention this week. On May 15, Philippine Airlines formally unveiled its new Airbus A330-300 High Gross Weight aircraft to invited guests. The unveiling comes nearly one month after the flag-carrier’s first bi-class A330-300 High Gross Weight aircraft, RP-C8760, was delivered.

Image Source: Airbus
The most notable feature of this aircraft is the new 18-seat business class cabin with seats designed by Equinox and wireless IFE streaming by OnAir Play across all classes. The business class seats are flat beds and configured 2-2-2. Unlike traditional IFE, OnAir’s system lets passengers stream content from a central IFE database to their own portable devices via a WiFi connection. These will be featured on seven of PAL’s upcoming Airbus A330's. PAL plans to deploy these aircraft to Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok and Honolulu. RP-C8760 made its first flight to Hong Kong on May 16.

The flag-carrier has also made it clear that it intends to continue pursuing expansion. After retiring the 747's from the fleet, PAL is deciding whether they will order more Boeing 777-300ER's, the next generation Boeing 777X or the Airbus A350 to aid their expansion plans. One aim is to have up to 100 aircraft (including those delivered since last year) to achieve economies of scale. These will hopefully save the flag-carrier even more in fuel and maintenance costs, and make Asia’s first airline sport one of Asia’s youngest fleets too. Once the re-fleeting is completed, the average age of an aircraft in PAL’s fleet will be around 3.5 years.

Regardless of which aircraft the flag-carrier will order, this re-fleeting effort is essential to expanding their route network, not least of which would include future destinations in the United States. This week, PAL reiterated its desire to expand to New York, Chicago and possibly a city in Florida. PAL President Ramon Ang indicated that PAL may be able to launch a flight to New York via Vancouver by October. He is also considering Tokyo and Seoul as stopover points. The viability of flying to more destinations in Europe is also currently being studied.

The news of expansion comes as PAL narrowed its losses in the first quarter of 2014 over the same period in 2013. Its Q1 2014 net loss was ₱931.28  million (US$21.6 million), 25.8% lower than its ₱1.26 billion (US$29.3 million) loss posted in Q1 2013. The management of Philippine Airlines remains confident that it will return to profitability soon.

Exploring What's Beyond

Although PAL itself made a lot of news this past week, its parent company San Miguel Corporation also made some aviation news of its own. In particular, SMC proposed several solutions to alleviate air traffic congestion at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

One solution is the construction of a new runway to alleviate the heavy loads of Runway 6/24. According to Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya, the proposal to construct the runway has already been approved but the technicalities are still being ironed out.

SMC also suggested the purchase and installation of a Ground Base Augmented System (G-Bus). However, Abaya indicated that consultation with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines would be required before a decision could be made.

Image Source: Jinno Rufino
The most significant news of the week came as San Miguel Group proposed a more permanent and long-term solution involving the construction of a larger and more modern airport. Earlier this week, SMC presented its plan to MalacaƱang to construct a US$10 billion airport with four runways on an 800-hectare parcel of land owned by Cyber Bay Corporation, which RSA owns a controlling stake in. The airport would be built on Cyber Bay land along Manila Bay, and would be made accessible via the Cavite Expressway and a railway link to the city. Under the proposal, a primary terminal would be constructed, along with two low cost carrier terminals, and an airport city.


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