If you cannot even rely on an airline to deliver the most basic of services, you are certainly one big suicidal nut to even risk patronizing any of its fleet. My recent experience flying Philippine Airlines (PAL) proved to me just that.
My wife, Meyang, my sister Carol and I returned home after a week-long family reunion in Singapore on the Monday after Easter where we spent time with our sister Dorothy, who had been based there for the past two years or so as head of Bayer’s regional Corporate Communications.
Osteoarthritis on my left knee aggravated by a recent ACL injury now makes it necessary for me to take along my own wheelchair that’s suitably designed to carry someone of my build. It is impossible for my knee condition to support my 320-pound frame, give or take a pound or two before and after eating. It is equally difficult for me to find service wheelchairs, particularly in Asia, that are engineered to carry someone my size. As I can only be on my feet no longer than 10 minutes and can manage, albeit agonizingly, to walk no more than 500 meters, my precious wheelchair has become my survival kit, the one most important tool for my mobility and freedom.
Last year, I flew with Emirates to Italy with my wheelchair in tow. It was a long flight with a stopover in Dubai and my travel agent of many years had made the usual proper arrangements with the airline, making sure that my wheelchair would be available at the time I needed it. Without much ado, my wheelchair was on board sharing space in the very samecabin and available when I needed it.
The same arrangements were made with PAL for my trip to Singapore and back. I was allowed to bring my own wheelchair but it was up to the flight purser to determine whether it should be on board the cabin with me or loaded as priority cargo to be made available to me upon disembarkation. Should it not be possible to have the chair in the cabin, I was assured that I would be given the cue when it was ready on the bridge (also called the tube) so that I could deplane without any trouble.
When we arrived in Singapore on March 20, the wheelchair was there on the bridge waiting as we exited the aircraft and I was promptly wheeled out to the immigration area of Changi Airport. No problem at all. But this was not the case on our return to Manila last March 28. Somebody advised the flight crew of PAL PR 502 that the wheelchair was ready on the bridge and therefore I may deplane.
Since the wheelchair wasn’t in the bridge when I deplaned, I thought it could be at the terminal entrance. I was forced to hobble on crutches throughout the entire length of the tube, squeezing out rushing passengers to the much narrower space at my left. When I finally reached the part where the tube ends and the airport terminal begins, I was aghast to find nothing but an empty hallway except for the now dwindling number of people, passenger and crew alike, oozing out from the entrails of Flight PR 502.
Because of my physical condition, the NAIA provides me assistance through airport processing whenever I travel. That day, an old familiar Public Affairs supervisor, Ms. Grace Apolonio, was there to assist us. Grace also saw us off when we left for Singapore.
Grace was appalled to see me – instead of being wheeled in as usual, there I was, barely emerging intact from the tube, doddering like an incredible hulk about to expire on depleted batteries. Well aware of the risk I faced with the prolonged stress on my legs, Grace promptly rushed inside the terminal to get me a chair. When she came back with the chair, she also brought along a PAL Customer Service Assistant (CSA) whose ID tag read “Rosanna Geluz.”
Being the very first PAL representative to show up, I lost no time in pouring out my displeasure over the incident. To aggravate the situation, this so called customer service assistant had the temerity to snap back and say to me: “I did not promise you a wheelchair!” In this day and age where airline companies, and most any service organization for that matter, will move heaven and earth to appease a customer, much more one who is a patron of business class, this PAL representative throws us an attitude. My sister Carol could not help but tell her not to be impertinent.
Thanks to Grace, the airport staff managed to secure a service wheelchair. We then proceeded to clear immigration and secure our luggage. With all the brouhaha, we were among the last ones to reach the baggage carousel area, expecting to find our precious priority cargo on hand by then. In the stationary section in the middle of the luggage conveyor belt sat two infant strollers, still unclaimed – but no wheelchair. Was this some kind of a joke or some sardonic twist in PAL’s customer service philosophy, I was then beginning to wonder. Again, thanks to Grace’s resourcefulness, she was able to find a PAL staff member who was not assigned to our flight but who was able to produce the wheelchair. No thanks to PAL, a most memorable family reunion in Singapore ended with a sour note.
My sister Dorothy had long stopped patronizing PAL. Instead, she would much rather pay the price difference to fly her sons to visit her in Singapore via Singapore Airlines. She told me how a big cost-conscious multi-national firm had abandoned the idea of taking the cheaper PAL flights because the inefficiencies ended up more expensive in the long run.
In one of my businesses, I deal with visiting executives from major studios like Warner Bros., Sony Columbia, Fox, Universal – and all of them avoid flying PAL, even if PAL happens to offer more favorable schedules and prices. PAL lives up to its reputation as the Plane Always Late with delays now seemingly the rule rather than the exception. Our inbound and outbound journeys via this national carrier both suffered delays with the outbound lasting more than three hours. A Party-List Representative leaving for Japan on the same day we were leaving found his PAL flight cancelled. From the woeful stories of our family and friends alone, you can actually put up a website to accommodate passenger nightmares with PAL.
On the way home from the airport, that experience wiped out all the pleasant memories of our Singapore family reunion and I could not help mulling over these thoughts:
1. Why should I continue to patronize PAL? Why should I patronize an airline that cannot even provide the most basic of services that I saw other airlines extend with no hitch whatsoever? Should I ever again entrust my particular condition to an airline such as PAL that seems to find it particularly difficult to attend to special needs of customers like me?
2. I know from the history of aircraft tragedies that even the airplanes of world class airlines had been downed by a single worn out bolt or wire. If PAL cannot even minister to the simple and most basic problem of coordinating the whereabouts of a disabled passenger’s personal wheelchair, what assurance do I have that PAL is capable of the more difficult task of proper aircraft maintenance?
3. What assurance do I have that the attitude of that PAL ground stewardess – inappropriately referred to as “customer service assistant” – is not reflective of the corporate culture of PAL? It was an attitude that had no place in a service organization and had absolutely no justification especially considering the circumstances. We all know that PAL has been having union problems. Just a few years ago, they were all over the headlines because of their pilots’ and rank and file strikes. Even if only a minority of PAL pilots and mechanics has that same attitude, then PAL is a disaster waiting to happen.
4. We know that Lucio Tan, PAL owner, is under fire for tax evasion with his Fortune Tobacco Empire. Without passing judgment on his case, why should I take the risk of the possibility that PAL may, in some way, also be avoiding maintenance SOPs or expensive-to-adopt safety procedures?
I have had all the opportunities – and these opportunities exist to this day – to live overseas where I can be spared of third world inconveniences and the stink of a corrupt government. But I chose to stay and I chose to do my bit to get the truth out – the kind of truth that is meant to empower and set people free. This is my country for better or for worse.
But I do not have to live with Philippine Airlines. I do not have to endure and suffer their inefficiencies and their attitude. I do not even have to live with their so-called lower prices because now, with options like Tiger Air, there are much cheaper airfares with more reliable airline operators who can get you to your destination – alive and on time!
My family and I have had our fill of nightmares flying with PAL. The same goes to the many, many others we know whose own sad tales have remained undocumented. But the biggest tragedy of all is that the name Philippines is emblazoned on every aircraft that PAL flies. As a marketing professional, I know that that it is sheer folly to use your highly valued brand name on a product known to many people as a lemon.
The mismanagement of PAL may be but a microcosm of our country’s state of mismanagement. But as a Filipino, I shall henceforth refuse to patronize an airline that shames the Filipino’s dream to strive for respect and honor in a world that has become viciously tough and competitive.
You may email William M. Esposo at: firstname.lastname@example.org