PAL needs help

Philippine  Airlines (PAL), the country’s erstwhile flagship carrier, needs help very badly. Recent events have shown that PAL has well-trained pilots who have saved lives because they were not afraid of making  crucial decisions. Last week, the right engine of a  PAL Boeing 777 spewed flames soon after it took off from the Los Angeles International Airport; the pilot deftly maneuvered an about face  and made an emergency landing , saving crew members and 342 passengers. That PAL plane could have become a deadly fire ball in mid-air, if it were not for  Captain Simeon.

The second mishap was last 30 November. Flight  PR 2774, an Airbus 321,  took off at 11:10 from Panglao, Bohol, destined for Manila International Airport.  I was in seat 2C. The gracious stewardess had just asked what I wanted for lunch — chicken or pasta with tinapa.   A few minutes later, there was a frightfully loud sound.  I did not  use the word “explosion” when I reported this to family and friends because of the  dire connotation of that word.  It brought to mind what had just occurred  to a PAL flight at  the L.A. airport; there were reports of two “loud sounds” before the plane caught fire.  I looked out of the window dreading the sight of flames, there were none, fortunately.  Yet, the plane was obviously losing altitude, and It was not just my imagination We heard the captain saying that due to a “technical problem,” we would have  to make an emergency landing in the Mactan International Airport. Oh, my God, I thought, I hope we get to  Mactan in one piece! Should I start putting on the life vest?

Notwithstanding the  technical problem, the pilot was considerate enough to make a very  gentle landing that  soothed our frayed nerves. However,  none of us were  prepared  for the collective misadventure that followed. Philippine Airlines today has very obviously  no contingency plan for these emergencies. The ground staff, especially those behind the  counters, are sphinxes incapable of answering the simplest questions that weary passengers usually ask.  There were routine apologies, excuses, but not a single smile or a word of comfort. There was no sense of urgency either. We the passengers felt that we were left to our own devices as we got no answers, only evasions.

I just came across a brief ABS-CBN on-line report about Flight PR 2774 which stated that PAL spokesperson, a Ms.  Cielo Villaluna, said that no emergency landing was declared and that “an investigation is underway to determine why the flight was diverted.” Not true, Ms. Villaluna. All the passengers distinctly heard the pilot declaring a “technical problem” and an “emergency landing” at Mactan. After that deafening sound from the left wing. In fact, we were not allowed to deplane for about half an hour. From the window, I saw mechanics opening the cowl of the left motor that had emitted that terrifying noise.

Yes, the 150 passengers were safely disembarked and led to one of the departure counters. Then a man with phosphorus bands on a plastic vest said that after half an hour, we would be told whether it is “a go or a no-go,” whatever that meant.  So, after half an hour, it was “a no-go.” We could not take the same plane back to Manila. We were sent to a PAL counter on a higher floor,  but it was   empty  and no one with authority was  in charge. There was a policewoman at a far corner, an assortment of male characters in different uniforms coming in and out of a small office and a young lady in a dark-blue uniform grasping a hand-held radio. “The systems are down”, she kept muttering  while conversing with a male voice emitted by the radio.We were hanging  around not knowing if there were   flights available immediately, if we were  going to be served lunch, offered water, chairs. There were disabled passengers,  truly aged senior, some were going to Manila for medical care. There were families with children of all ages, foreign and domestic tourists, business people who were sending frantic messages on their cell phones, cancelling appointments and re-booking lost connections. People were sitting on the floor,on their hand-carried backpacks or leaning against the wall.

I asked the young lady if she was talking to her boss on the radio and she said yes, he was at the Jollibee outlet ordering food. Tell him to come here and face us, I insisted, why is he hiding? I think you’d do a better job ordering food,  he probably doesn’t even know what to order.  Don’t you have chairs for the elderly and the sick people? I was not the only one asking, the other passengers were clamoring for water, at least.

Finally, someone from that small office came out and distributed  Absolut in tiny single-use plastic bottles. A few mono blocs were distributed. The Jollibee orders materialized at around 2 pm, a brown carton box with  a scoop of cold rice and two dehydrated pieces of chicken.But no manager in sight. I declined and went to a nearby café to have a late lunch.

Finally, the radio voice had a face,  the manager/supervisor  appeared with arms akimbo, sometimes gesticulating as he gave orders.  “First come, first served” for the two flights back to Manila. In the meantime, we were finally sent to a downtown hotel,  were given rooms and  offered lunch and dinner coupons. One begs the question: Did it have to take that long, from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., to get us on flights back home? In the meantime, couldn’t the PAL ground staff have been more solicitous to their passengers? PAL needs a  contingency  plan badly. I  was fortunate to get on the 8:45 flight back to Manila; the second flight was at 10:45. Be that as it may, with the horrendous traffic and all, I got home at past midnight and needed 2 days to recover.