Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cebu Pacific and PAL

In my domestic flights, I don't take the Philippine Air Lines (PAL), it's expensive. I take Cebu Pacific (CP), it's cheap and has plenty of new airplanes too. Recently, CP has formally turned itself into a budget airline, meaning fares are really low, but there are no more free food and drinks in flight. One has to buy these from the flight stewards/stewardesses. No problem, I think. Most domestic flights in the country are less than 1 hour long. So when you eat from your house or office before going to the airport, by the time you get hungry, you already reach your destination city or municipality. Or just buy at the food shops inside the departure lounge, or bring your own "baon".

Somehow CP's budget airline services are still good. Passengers are given their seat numbers when they check in. In another budget airline that I have taken, Air Asia, which flies from Clark to Kuala Lumpur, it's free seating. At the departure lounge, only the aged and those carrying babies and children are allowed to be in the front. Once this group of passengers have walked ahead, the other passengers walk very fast and try to overtake the former so they can get their preferred seats in the plane. In addition, these foreign budget airlines don't keep any office in the country. Payment by credit card only. And if you have any question, inquiries by email or long-distance call to Malaysia only.

Last May, I had the chance to go to Honolulu, Hawaii, to attend a conference. This time, I had to take PAL because it seems to be the only international airline that flies direct from Manila to Honolulu and back. The last time I took PAL was about 6 years ago, when I went to HK with friends, I think. So after those years, I finally went back to NAIA terminal 2, aka PAL terminal.

On my flight to Honolulu last May 22, the check-in procedure was very disappointing. I waited in line for about 1 hour and 20 minutes just to check-in! I asked myself what's on the mind of PAL corporate bureaucrats why they could punish their passengers with this kind of inefficiency? I learned later that PAL over-booked its passengers for that flight, and so they are asking for volunteers among the passengers who check-in, who are willing to postpone their trip by 1 or 2 days. They will give free 2-way tickets (Manila-Honolulu-Manila) plus free hotel accommodation while waiting for the rescheduled flight. PAL guys asked the passengers in front of me, and me too when my turn came. We said No. And still it took them a long time to allow us to check in! They're a bunch of bull.... dung! :-)

I thought then that if PAL can be this inefficient with some competing airlines around, how lousy can this airline be if it remains a monopoly? Maybe passengers will wait in line for 2 hours or more at the check-in counter for situations like this? Cases like this make me an unrepentant believer of economic competition, and I continue to despise monopolistic or oligopolistic market structures.

On my flight back to Manila 5 days after, I was lucky that I did not experience the same hassle. Well, the plane seats were only about 75 percent occupied, that's why.

Oh, about NAIA terminal 2, PAL is really a favored company by the government. It has the entire terminal only for itself and its sister budget airline, Air Philippines. I forget now the reason how Lucio Tan got this kind of favor from the state.

In Bacolod (Neg. Occ.) airport, CP and PAL have about 4-5 Bacolod-Manila flights each everyday. So they could be competing neck and neck, just like in many other major cities. The only difference is that PAL and its budget airline cousin (also owned by the PAL owner), Air Philippines, are using the main (and wide) terminal, while CP is relegated to a separate, smaller and farther terminal. So its passengers have to board a CP bus that will take them to the plane. The same procedure when they disembark from a CP plane, go to the arrival area of that smaller terminal.

I wondered what happened there. Maybe PAL bought the main terminal and kicked CP away, so the latter has to use that smaller terminal? Or if a provincial airport and terminal is owned by the government and cannot be owned by one specific airline, did PAL pay bigger rent, or whatever?