Philippine Airlines/PAL Express Flight Review: Manila to Caticlan (A320)

Author's note: This is the first of two posts related to this trip.  The other post will be about the return trip.  

December 29 and it is time again for the annual family new year's pilgrimage to Boracay, an popular tourist island in the Central Philippines.  Personally, this is my third time to visit the island.  On this occasion, we would take Philippine Airlines (PAL) (which on most domestic flights is technically PAL Express but marketing-wise, is identical to the mainline carrier).  On this occasion, just like the last, we would be using an A320, largely thanks to its expanded airport runway.  Although I have taken this carrier to Boracay last year, this year the flight was reassigned to NAIA Terminal 2, PAL's 'main' or 'home' terminal.  

Sandcastle structures made in Boracay
Image by hybridace101

An early flight meant having to wake up at 5.00 or 5.30.  Due to the size of the vehicle available to us, we broke into two groups, one had to use an Uber and the other had to use the family driver.  My group left 20 minutes after the first but we left rather late: just after 6.50.  Given how bad traffic normally was, I was worried the check-in desks would close by the time we arrived at the airport.  But thanks to the Skyway and NAIA Expressway, we arrived at the airport shortly after 7.05.  Needless to say this relatively new infrastructure was very helpful to us.  

Terminal 2 was much less busy and much more organised than I thought it would be.  In fact, I found it to be more eye-pleasing than Terminal 3 even if its facilities were slightly more primitive and store offerings were rather limited.

NAIA Terminal 2 Domestic check-in desks
Image by hybridace101

Although the check-in staff directed us to certain check-in desks and queues were fairly light, the fact that we had a senior citizen mother meant that we could use the senior citizen's lane.  I do not know of any other country that extends this privilege to the said group.  Someone from the web check-in desk however called on us and processed us.

TIP: If you have someone in your travelling party who is over 60, consider using the senior citizen's lane.  This is increasingly widespread not just in airports but in many commercial and government establishments across the country.  However be considerate and let the over-60 do the talking.    

One of the advantages of PAL/PAL Express is that passengers get a baggage allowance included with their ticket.  In our case, we get 20 kg each which we can pool together.  Being used to European and North American carriers, I was under the impression that we were allowed a maximum of one bag per passenger even if each bag didn't exceed the weight limit.  They were rather particular however about the presence of battery-operated devices inside our hold bags.  

TIP: Before leaving home, please make sure you don't have battery-operated devices in the bags you plan to check in.  You don't want to spend time searching for them and rearranging them at the airport and during the bag drop when you may risk holding up the queue.  

Once the bags were checked in, we went to security.  I was relieved that electronics need not be taken out of our hand luggage.  That sped up the process.  However, we needed to remove our shoes.  

My mom went to the Mabuhay Lounge while me, my brother and baby sister stayed at right at the gate.  Having realised that my Mabuhay Miles number was not included (since I did not book it), I approached the gate staff who were happy to rectify it.  Even if I was unsure if I had the correct number, the staff was able to find my Mabuhay Miles number.  

NAIA Terminal 2 gates
Image by hybridace101

NAIA Terminal 2 pre-departure area
Image by hybridace101

NAIA Terminal 2 pre-departure area
Image by hybridace101

I wondered around the terminal and I could say that the domestic terminal looks just as good as what one will find in mid-sized European cities...except for the number and size of stores: there weren't that many to choose from.  Since I did not yet have breakfast, I decided to buy a pair of almonds and hot chocolate from Cafe France.  I was worried as a boarding announcement was made but my order was not yet ready.  But I showed my number to the staff and was given the goods anyway after about five minutes.  

CafeFrance at NAIA Terminal 2
Image by hybridace101
TIP: Unlike most airports in the world, many stores in Philippine airports do not accept debit/credit cards.  Make sure that you have at least 300 in Philippine banknotes if you want to eat something inside the terminal.    

Normally, I would prefer to board last mainly to avoid dealing with the bottlenecks at the aisles caused by passengers normally taking their time to arrange their hand luggage in the overhead lockers.  But my folks told me to board anyway and so I obliged.  I was struck to know that PAL was using the 'boarding zone' system that has been common in US carriers for many years now.  I still don't know what boarding zones C and D stood for.


Flight number: 2P/PR2043
Gate: 14
Scheduled Departure Time: 8:25
Actual Take-off Time: 8:34
Aircraft Registration: RP-C8399

I won't spoil you with much detail: it was a fairly uneventful flight.  That except for a bag malfunction in our hold bags because some liquids that were packed got spilled.  Luckily we were alerted prior to boarding.  It was sorted after we arrived.

I found my seat rather quickly.

Even if this was a PAL Express flight, it had largely identical elements to what is seen on a mainline PAL flight such as the announcements, PAL's Mabuhay magazine, etc.  A sign is placed near the door telling everyone who is operating the carrier.  The one thing that was missing is in-flight entertainment (IFE).  Nonetheless the flight was too short to enjoy most forms of IFE so it was all good.   Instead I chose to listen to an audiobook I downloaded a few days ago.

PAL Express A320 interiors
Image by hybridace101

PAL Express A320 interiors
Image by hybridace101

In the past, all my flights to the island were either delayed or rescheduled to a later time.  But miraculously, we left the gate five minutes ahead of schedule.  When I checked Flightradar24's webpage later in the day, the recent history surprisingly shows a punctual record.

We took off from the ground close to 9.35.  I stayed seated for practically the entire flight.  I just had a newspaper and the audiobook I mentioned earlier to keep myself entertained.  But the cabin crew served us with a chicken frank hotdog bunwich and water for a snack.  I appreciated PAL for giving out free food even as more premium carriers like British Airways earlier this year started a buy-on-board scheme for passengers who wanted a bite on short haul journeys.    

PAL's on-board snack
Image by hybridace101
It wasn't too long until the plane evidently descended and the seat belt signs were on.  I thought there was turbulence but with only a few minutes left, I knew Boracay was just minutes away.

We landed uneventfully.  I am used to the practice of boarding shuttle busses to take us to a passenger terminal as was the case for this journey.  But what makes an arrival at Caticlan different is that the shuttle busses had to exit the airport premises so we were on one of the main thoroughfares for about 10 minutes.  This meant we saw sights of daily life in the region on our way to the arrival terminal.  As we were not yet technically on the landside part of the airport, a security guard was provided for each of the shuttle busses.  However, I hear news that Caticlan will have a new terminal in the future. 

PAL Express A320
Image by hybridace101

What took long though was what happened once we were at the terminal.  We had to wait for our bags to arrive.  Just like the passengers, the bags were bussed in and had to pass through the main thoroughfare.  However, a smaller van was used so that meant fewer bags per vehicle.  There was also only one baggage carousel in use for all flights and a Cebu Pacific and AirAsia Philippines flight arrived shortly after us.  Sometimes, the bags arrived in no particular order which meant some bags that belonged to Cebu Pacific passengers came before the bags of PAL passengers.  

Caticlan Airport Arrival Terminal
Image by hybridace101

Caticlan Airport Arrival Terminal
Image by hybridace101
We left the premises at about 10.00.  We booked with a resort company who provided transport to and from the airport.  The staff took care of our bags and handed out refreshments on our way.  

These are rated from 1 to 10 with ten being the best score.  This covers aspects of the flight experience that PAL Express/Philippine Airlines and its ground agents are responsible for.

·      Check-in (10/10):   No queues and flexible staff especially as the staff at the web check-in lane invited us to use theirs when no other passengers were around.  Nothing to complain.
·      Boarding Process (9/10): Nothing much to complain here either.  Although the industry as a whole will need to find a way how to sort out bottlenecks in the aisles resulting from passengers who take time to put their hand luggage on the overhead lockers.  Whilst not related to the boarding process itself, the crew at the gate deserves a special mention for flagging up an issue with our bags even if it was primarily a passenger's lookout.  
·      Seat Comfort (8/10): It was a fairly standard seat.  Enough legroom though may get a bit tight if passengers were looking to move around.     
·      Food (8/10): In an industry where buy-on-board is fast becoming a norm even among more mainline carriers, one cannot complain about a free snack and although it was ok, it would have been better if it was warmed up.  
·      Cabin Crew (10/10): They were pretty responsive to our needs, which weren't much. 
·      Punctuality (10/10):  We left ahead of schedule.  We arrived close to 9.15.    
·      In-flight entertainment (na)For a short leg, we can forgive the airline for not having IFE on this occasion.  The flight would have been too short to enjoy IFE so it is unfair to judge PAL for its absence here.

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