PAL reacts to the wheelchair incident
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2005-05-01
WHEN I related the harrowing wheelchair episode I had with Philippine Airlines in my column of April 4, (“Why I’ll never fly with PAL again”) I was inundated with feedback coming from Filipinos and friends of Filipinos from all over the world. Out of more than 26 pages of single-spaced responses, 90 percent came from readers who had their own nightmares to tell and many of them have stopped patronizing PAL.
Before my column was published, I had written PAL management to complain about the incident. To PAL’s credit, their VP and president, Ms. Marilou Mendoza and Mr. Jimmy Bautista, respectively, quickly responded by telephone and letter to express their regrets over the incident and promised to investigate the matter expeditiously.

Last April 14, Philippine Airlines VP Marilou Mendoza faxed to me at home another letter to say:

1. They can offer no excuse for the wheelchair incident of March 28.

2. They are now instituting measures to ensure that the incident does not recur (as well as similar other possible incidents).

3. They want to "regain my confidence" by offering me a free MNL/SING/MNL Business Class Roundtrip Ticket.

Following was my reply to their letter:

Dear Ms. Mendoza:

Thank you for your letter of 12 April 2005 which was faxed to me this morning.

I appreciate the efforts that PAL is undertaking to look into the March 28, 2005 wheelchair incident when I returned home from Singapore via PR 502. I further appreciate your admission in that letter that there is really no excuse for the wheelchair incident. I have no reason to doubt that the office of the PAL president is seriously concerned about these nightmares that PAL passengers have been experiencing. However, the deed had been done and there is no removing or reducing its negative effect on the aggrieved party.

In my April 4, 2005 column at the INQ7 where I shared my PAL experience with my readers, I was shocked at the amount of responses I received from people who wanted to share their own harrowing experiences with PAL. The responses printed out to all of 26 pages! Ismael (Nas) Khan, a former PAL executive (and I believe a friend of Jimmy Bautista) asked me for a copy of the responses after he read my column. Nas said he will forward it to Jimmy Bautista.

I do hope that PAL manages to get its act together. Really, there is no amount of damage control that you or Jimmy Bautista can do that can erase those inexcusable failures of the airline. After all, PAL is in business to deliver good air travel service and not to apologize to passengers for this, that and the next fumble.

A friend of mine in the United States (Millette Mendoza Rutlege) who I knew since college wrote to say that had the incident happened in the US, there will be a long line of lawyers who will want to represent me because there is no excuse for the incident – as you yourself admitted. Arrangements for disabled passengers are airline top priorities.

Lastly, I wish to acknowledge your offer to give me a free Business Class ticket as a gesture of regaining my confidence and making amends for the incident. This I must politely decline.

Best regards.

After reading my reply to her letter, Ms. Mendoza called me at home last April 16. She said that she was touched by how I expressed appreciation for what they are trying to do by way of remedial measures and for the tone of forbearance in my letter which encouraged her to call me. She again extended the offer of the business class ticket which I again politely declined.

I had to make my point and decided to share the experience with my readers who it turned out had their own unpleasant experiences with PAL. I will make good my word not to fly with PAL again and a free roundtrip business class ticket will not change that.

The conversation with Ms. Mendoza evolved into an exchange of notes on the problems of PAL and what I thought can be done to address it. In essence these suggestions that I offered her are, as follows:

1. PAL has a culture problem. The flight delays, the attitude that met me at the airport when I complained to a PAL Customer Service Assistant (CSA), the other nightmares that readers narrated – all these indicate an encultured negative attitude that an airline cannot afford to have. Many of the readers who wrote observed a three-tiered attitude among some PAL flight crew members who they said reserved their best smiles for foreigners, their second best smiles for perceived upper-class Filipinos and their worst faces for OFWs. This is specially damaging considering that it is the millions of OFWs that give PAL their biggest business.

2. PAL does not have a monopoly. Nearby carriers like Singapore Air, Cathay Pacific, Malaysian Air, Thai Airways are in better financial states to be able to offer budget packages that can easily undercut PAL’s fare prices. This is already happening through airlines like Tiger Air, Air Asia, JetStar Asia and so forth. PAL’s OFW business can easily be lost to the generous offerings of these so-called alternative budget airlines especially if these are enhanced by stopover promos in their base cities to promote tourism.

3. To reverse that culture problem, PAL has to upgrade salaries and benefits to international standard and then start bringing foreign staff to threaten the “fat cats” among their local staff. These foreign hires may well become the showcase of the ideal airline service output and attitude. PAL strikes me as having the worst of the two – having a comparatively poor salary and benefit package and Philippine labor laws that prevent foreign hires.

Hiring foreign staff is not an issue of nationalism. It is an issue of survival, which in turn is the real longer term nationalist issue. If nationalism is the issue, why then did this all-Filipino PAL exhibit such un-nationalistic attitude towards compatriot OFWs? Having the best selection from among the world’s available airline job-seekers would serve to counter self-destructive complacency which shifts focus away from the true source of airline revenues – the satisfied and happy customers. Leading airlines Emirates and Cathay Pacific employ mixed nationals.

The government will also need to review its labor policies to allow globally-competing companies like PAL the option of beefing up its workers pool with the best ones available from the international job market. Should PAL as a company crash, the country would suffer more than the few incompetent people in that company who do not deserve to be there because they cannot perform according to international standards.

It will be a long uphill climb for PAL. Attitudes form the spirit that drives people and companies to success or failure. If a company is beset with an attitude problem sweeping down the ranks, it will take more than just the best and the brightest management team to set things right. A great management team certainly helps but the problem of attitude crosses over to borders beyond PAL’s control.

The same problem of attitude was what had driven many multinational firms to close their Philippine operations and move to countries like Malaysia and Thailand. Attitude keeps alive graft and corruption in the Philippine government by making people accept, tolerate and condone wrongful practices. Such an offensive disposition takes away focus from our real national prosperity goals by espousing false nationalism, one that drives the crafting of labor laws that fosters a hypocritical and false sense of nationalism that ignores the realities of globalization. Attitude is what makes government get away with inefficiency as it also perpetrates a hostile business environment that keeps our industries and consumers unprotected from the high cost of energy, likewise burdening investors suffering with lack of infrastructure.

The Philippines is not the only site where companies can manufacture goods and most certainly, PAL is not the only airline people can fly. There is a competitor waiting in the wings to grab hold of the market share a loser will have left behind. Outside of the Focolare’s business culture under the principle laid down by the movement’s Economy of Communion, there is hardly any other Christian charity left going around in the business world – more so in this globalized era.

If only to uphold the name of our country that is prominently displayed on every PAL aircraft, I sincerely hope that PAL can get its act together. However, until such time as I am convinced that it has, I will do as I said and fly with other carriers.

You may email William M. Esposo at:

  Previous Columns:

It had to happen on The Ides of March and Holy Week

Suggested guidelines for liability- free Internet posts

Election lawyer: PCOS critics should put up or shut up

All Excited by Pope Francis

A great disservice to P-Noy

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