Flights of the Laagan

I have, for the past year or so, been writing much about places that I’ve been to, and I think it’s time I write about how I got there.

An airplane “crosses the sun” over Manila Bay

I was 5 years old (or was it 4?) when I first rode an airplane, and I remember kicking and screaming inside the aircraft while we were boarding, apparently scared of the claustrophobic environment inside. The pesky little toddler (that was me) finally shut his mouth though as the plane started moving and finally got airborne. There is a certain rush when you hear the engines spool and you get pushed back in your seat as you accelerate down the runway, and it is as enjoyable now as it was the first time.

A couple of years after that kicking and screaming episode, I developed the ambition of becoming an airline pilot. 15 years later though, my line of work is as far from being a pilot as ever, but that fascination with airplanes, and aviation in general, remains. I’m one of the few airline passengers who would know the exact model of the airplane that they’re sitting on, down to the type of engine being used…yes, I’m an airplane nut. People say all of us have a child within, and that child within me has nothing else in his mind but wings, tails and a fuselage. Today I fly once in a while, both for leisure and for work, and in this article I will write about my experiences with various airlines that I’ve flown with.


Our PAL flight to Shanghai, on the ramp at NAIA 2

No airline is, of course, more special than the one that flies the flag of my country. Philippine Airlines (or PAL as most locals call it) is THE airline of the country, regardless who owns it, and it is also the very first that I’ve flown with. Yes, the airplane that I kicked and screamed on was a PAL BAC 1-11. Anybody who has already been flying in those days will not forget the scandalous howl of the BAC 1-11’s noisy Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans. The plane was the workhorse of PAL’s domestic fleet back then, and though I loved the BAC 1-11 as an airplane, I dreaded sitting at the back, close to the engines (I did get to fly on it a number of times after that kicking and screaming one.)

PAL is also very special for me since I grew up with it. I’ve been flying PAL since the days when they still served pan-de-monggo (a kind of bread quite common in the Philippines) on domestic flights, served on a small box. I’ve seen it change into a snack pack, and now it’s been further reduced to a simple one-piece snack. I’ve also witnessed their drink selection reduce from “coffee-tea-juice-or-soft-drinks””, to “coffee-tea-or-juice?” to just simply “coffee-tea-or-water?”. I dread the day they will just ask “mineral or distilled?”.

I’ve only had one international round-trip with them so far though…an outbound flight to Shanghai and the return flight from Beijing. I had long wanted to fly PAL internationally, curious as to how their service stacks up against the rest of the world. I finally got the chance on our 2007-2008 China trip, and I must say that it didn’t disappoint. Food quality in the economy class was better than what I’ve had in larger airlines, and cabin crew service was top-notch. Our plane didn’t have Personal TV at the economy section, but for the 3 to 5 hour flights to and from China, it was bearable. The overhead TVs that drop down from the luggage compartment worked okay anyway, and their movie selection was current (I finished Transformers on the flight to Shanghai).

PAL in-flight lunch, Fiesta (economy) Class – (Manila to Shanghai)
Our PAL flight back to Manila, on the ramp at Beijing Capital Airport.


Northwest Airlines, at the gate at NAIA 1

Northwest (or NWA as they used to call themselves) was the airline that took me outside of my country’s borders for the very first time. That was back in 2001, and I flew NWA from Manila to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with stop-overs at Osaka, Los Angeles and Detroit (how’s that for long haul?). I flew with them again when I went back to Florida last 2003, and most recently, on a domestic flight from Phoenix to Minneapolis and back last 2008.

Today NWA has been absorbed by rival Delta, and though I will no longer see planes flying in Northwest’s colors in the sky, the airline is also pretty special for me. Northwest’s food and service (economy section) was nothing to talk about…I would even dare to say that PAL’s cabin crew and catering service would run rings around Northwest’s anytime. However, aside from being the first airline to carry me to another country, I do have several other memories with them. I was able to fly on their Boeing 727 and DC-10s before both aircraft types were retired from almost all commercial service. It was also there where cabin crew attempted to talk to me in Japanese (do I look like one?).

It was also in Northwest where I experienced the rapid deterioration of in-flight service in the airline industry in general. On my first long US domestic leg back in 2001 (LA to Detroit), I got served a hot meal on board, even in economy class. By 2003 however, all I got was pretzels and a can of soda. By 2008 (Phoenix to Minneapolis), they already sold food on board. This phenomenon though is already true for most airlines nowadays, and it’s not just Northwest, or Delta.

A Northwest A320 at Minneapolis/St. Paul International. Too bad we’ll never see these colors again.


United at the gate at San Francisco

I flew united from Hong Kong to Phoenix (with a stop at Los Angeles), and Phoenix to Narita (with a stop at San Francisco) back in 2008. By that time, I had already earned enough stripes at work to earn me the privilege of flying Business Class, and I sucked up the experience like a teen-ager tasting beer for the first time. A trans-Pacific flight with full course meals, TV on demand, and a wide reclining seat…plus, meals served on real ceramic plates. Who wouldn’t get excited?

Business Class seat at United (HK to LA)
Oh yes Champagne!
Appetizer, aboard United (business class), HK to LA.
How’s that for a movie night? United (business class) – San Francisco to Narita.
Desert and coffee aboard United (business class)
In-flight breakfast at United (business class)


Cathay Pacific, at Hong Kong’s Chel Lap Kok International

United may hold the record for my longest flights in business class, by my first ever international business class flight was actually with Cathay Pacific, for the Manila to Hongkong leg of my Manila-HK-LA-Phoenix trip back in 2008 (the HK-LA-Phoenix legs were with United, as described above). The flight lasted little more than one and a half hours, but Cathay Pacific is Cathay Pacific, regardless of flight duration, and this is no ordinary airline. The cabin crew’s attention to their passengers was superb, and I felt pampered the moment I entered the aircraft’s door. Cathay Pacific could actually spoil you.

Cathay Pacific also provided me with my first international business class lounge experience, at the Cathay Pacific lounge in NAIA 1. And, you guessed it right, I ate whatever I could stuff into my mouth at that lounge.

(Update: 2012 – I also took Cathay Pacific, round trip, on my recent trip to London. It was on economy class though this time, but Cathay Pacific being Cathay Pacific, the experience was still nice. The shell type economy seats weren’t the most comfortable, but food and entertainment was superb.)

Cathay Pacific’s business class menu.
In-flight breakfast at Cathay Pacific (business class). And I would like to blame turbulence for the blurry photo 🙂


JAL Business Class

I also flew Japan Airlines (or JAL  as commonly abbreviated) business class from Narita to Manila last 2008. It was the last leg of my Phoenix-SanFo-Narita-Manila trip. It was quite a long lay-over at Narita (around 4 hours or so), and so I readily welcomed the fact that my ticket gave me access to the Sakura lounge where I could rest, connect to the internet, and eat.

Among the airlines that I’ve flown with, Japan Airlines is the one that carries it’s national identity into the cabin best, from the cabin crew who bow in true Japanese courtesy, to the food that they offer on board (though you could also select a western meal).

JAL and the Philippines have come a long way, and in fact JAL’s very first aircraft after World War 2 was leased from Philippine Airlines, and until today the Manila-Japan air routes are a hotly contested market.

Sushi and Miso Soup, at JAL’s Sakura Lounge (Narita).
In-flight entertainment at Japan Airlines
Snacks and Champagne at JAL (business class)
In-flight dinner at Japan Airlines (business class). Narita to Manila.
Steamed Japanese Rice at JAL


“Cebu Pac” at Hong Kong

No “Juan” would forget the airline that introduced many things into the Philippines’ flying public, such as “Piso-fares”, e-ticketing on a massive scale, food for sale, international low cost flights, and of course, dancing flight attendants.

I have flown with Cebu Pacific (or Cebu Pac to most Pinoys)  back when they were still using the venerable DC-9s, until they started their refleeting with new Airbus jets, and their complete transformation into a full-fleged LCC (Low Cost Carrier). I remember when they still served Dewberry with C2 on board, and then it became C2 only, until they eventually  started selling C2 itself.

This airline struggled through the course of their transformation, and it came to a point that they inherited PALs previous reputation for “Plane Always Late”. Their LCC model required tight turn-around times and a high aircraft utilization rate, and the natural risk of this model is that if they get a delay anywhere on their flight network (whether due to a tech, bad weather, ground traffic, whatsoever), it affects the whole chain and it snowballs. The learning curve and “re-birthing” pains at Cebu Pac were obvious.

Despite well known problems in their timetable, I continued flying with them. My first ever turbo-prop flight was with Cebu Pacific, aboard their ATR72 from Manila to Caticlan, near Boracay. Cebu Pac also holds the distinction as the airline I’ve flown with to the most number of international destinations. Almost all of my recent, low budget leisure trips were flown with Cebu Pac – Bangkok, Hong Kong, the latest flight to Singapore, and the return from Kuala Lumpur.

(Update: August 2012 – We have also taken Cebu Pacific on our recent trips to Seoul, Taipei and Brunei. You have to hand it to the airline though, for all the good and the bad that they are, they opened the world – or at least a large chunk of it – to the average wage-earning Filipino).

Cebu Pac at the Godofredo Ramos Airport (or should I say airstrip), in Caticlan.


US Airways on the gates at Philadelphia

US Airways was the airline that introduced me to Europe. I flew with them from Phoenix to Zurich and back, in 2008 (with stops in Philadelphia). I chose US Airways for the simple fact that I haven’t flown with them before. Being the airplane nut that I am, I liked trying new airlines whenever I could.

US Airways is the smallest among the US legacy carriers, and the fact that they barely have a presence in asia made them even more attractive to me…I wouldn’t be able to fly with them anywhere else.

My actual experience with them though, was quite forgettable. It was my first trans-Atlantic flight, but that was about the only thing memorable about it. The in-flight movie conked out less than an hour into our flight from Philadelphia to Zurich, which meant we had no more movies all the way from the US territorial limits up to the time we landed in Switzerland. I never got that bored inside an airplane before. Their food at the economy section was also just barely palatable, and came with the most “plasticky” cutlery I’ve come across. I would have preferred to just have Jollibee Chickenjoy instead, but you can’t be choosy 35,000 feet high in the sky.

US Airways, boarding for Zurich. That movie screen on the left died not long after this.
US Airways, approaching Zurich.


China Southern at Shanghai

I flew China Southern on my first and only domestic flight within China so far, from Shanghai to Beijing. It was a short 2 hour flight, but we were provided with an in-flight meal at the economy section, a rarity on domestic flights anywhere nowadays. The food was nothing special, but you’d have to appreciate any airline that makes an effort to provide real food on short flights these days.

As in most of China, I think the crew was not yet that proficient in English, although the flight attendants did understand us if we request for something. It was probably the flight with the least amount of announcements on the PA system, in memory. Aside from the required safety demo (can’t remember if they did it live or on video), there wasn’t anything else , not even the “We are now on final approach to blah blah blah”, or the “Please do not switch on your cellphones until we reach the terminal, blah, blah”.

The meal was labeled Shanghai Airlines, but we were flying China Southern. Either the caterer got confused, or was saving on sticker labels.

Airphil Express (2P)

Airphil taxiing to the gate at Davao International Airport

If there ever was an airline with an identity crisis, this is it. They swtarted more or less two decades ago as Air Philippines, a direct domestic competitor of PAL. Later on they were bought by the owner of PAL, and became its adopted little brother. It was placed on the same house where PAL lived (NAIA 2), and was made to fly the same routes as big brother PAL, in a business model that hardly made sense.

It wasn’t long before they got kicked-out of NAIA 2, and was transferred to NAIA 3, then rebranded as a small regional/feeder airline of PAL and renamed PAL Express. The metamorphosis didn’t end there though, and later on they became Airphil Express, a direct copy-cat of rival Cebu Pacific. Everything about them now is so Cebu Pacific-ish, from the promo fare structuring down to the type of airplane they use, and even down to the type of engine they attach to those planes (the CFM56). In fact, if you replace orange with yellow as the corporate colors, then you’ll be confused which is which. That’s bad news for the Gokongwei’s of Cebu Pac, but that’s very good news for Ang Laagan! Bring on the Piso-fare wars!

I’ve flown with them once as Air Philippines, on their old Boeing 737-200’s with those tiny little Pratt & Whitney JT8D’s attached to the wings. The next time I flew with them, they were already Airphil Express, with spanking brand new Airbus A320’s, that looked like they were delivered from the  Toulouse assembly plant only the day before.


Tiger is the airline that I have flown the shortest with, literally. I only flew them once, from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, on a flight that seemed like it lasted less than the amount of time it took for us to get to the airport. They maybe Singapore Airlines’ (SQ), little half-brother (they’re partly owned by SQ), but they are a low cost carrier through and through. They don’t even have “fragile” stickers for their passengers’ luggage.


This is Singapore Airlines’ (SQ) other little brother. Unlike Tiger though, Silk Air is a wholly-owned Subsidiary. They are not a low-cost carrier, but rather a regional carrier that serves destinations not large enough for big brother SQ to fly to, such as Davao, Phuket, Phonm Penh, etc. They offer the same full service that SQ offers such as business class seats, and in-flight meals.I flew with them before, from Davao to Singapore and back, on my first visit to Singapore back in 2002, and I would have to say, they had the best economy class in-flight meal I’ve had by far. They do have SQ DNA on their genes.


JetStar Airways is Qantas’ little low-cost brother. What Tiger is to SQ, JetStar is to Qantas. I flew with them before, from Manila to Singapore and back, on my second visit to Singapore last 2006, and it was my first ever taste of a low-cost carrier flight, with all food and drinks being sold on board.They also have the unfortunate distinction of causing my longest flight delay by far. I was stuck in the airport for 9 to 10 hours (if I remember correctly). I wouldn’t have minded if I got stuck at Singapore Changi, but I got stuck at Manila’s NAIA 1, for crying out loud! Imagine what you would do at decrepit NAIA 1 for almost half a day? (shudder). This thing though can happen to any other traveler, on any other airline, but for it to happen on NAIA 1 means your luck completely ran out that day.



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