The Friendly Skies: A Review of Philippine Airlines’ A350 in Economy From Manila to New York
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I recently experienced my first Philippine Airlines flight, just a few short weeks after TPG managing editor Alberto Riva reviewed the same airline in business class. The flag carrier of the Philippines carries the ICAO code abbreviation PAL — an apt moniker for one of the friendliest nations I’ve ever been in. The in-flight experience, as you’ll see, was solid, but a near-total disregard for timeliness, coupled with an intense amount of chaos surrounding the airport experience, left a bittersweet impression.
Comfortable seats, impeccable service, unique food and great IFE screens.
Chaotic airport experience and tardy departure, traffic jam for lavatories, poor headphones.
Since Philippine Airlines isn’t affiliated with any major airline alliance, I didn’t have the option of booking an award flight directly through the airline or other partner carriers. (I don’t have enough miles with either All Nippon Airways or Etihad, the airline’s only partners.) If I had wanted to pay for this flight using points, the Chase portal would have allowed me to redeem the Ultimate Rewards points earned through my Chase Sapphire Reserve at a value of 1.5 cents apiece.
However, I chose to save my points and pay for the flight in cash instead, earning 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar for charging the cost to my Sapphire Reserve. The flight cost me $1,037 and earned me 3,112 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, worth $62.25 by current TPG valuations.
I could have credited my earned miles to the airline’s proprietary Mabuhay Miles loyalty program or to ANA or Etihad. Since I wasn’t certain that I would fly Philippine Airlines any time soon, I credited my miles to Etihad. My “Economy Value” class ticket earned 75% mileage, a total of 6,380 miles, according to the accrual chart.
As soon as my ticket was booked, I could log in on the Philippines Airlines website to manage my booking. Seat selection was free but limited to about 40% of the available coach cabin. The “choice seats” ranged from $12 to $100, with a middle tier of $50 for aisle seats a little farther toward the center.
I chose a free seat toward the very tail of the plane: 64H. I meant to look for a better, free seat later on at check-in, but every single seat not in the middle row was taken by the time I checked in, about 12 hours before my flight.
I’ll just say it up front: I’m not a fan of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL). When I first landed at MNL from Taipei (TSA), it took me more than 45 minutes to get through immigration. The crowded, chaotic free-for-all with no distinct queues would’ve taken another 20 minutes had an official not flagged me over to a line reserved for flight crews and diplomats.
Leaving the country 30 hours later was an even more painful process. My taxi driver dropped me off at Terminal 3 instead of Terminal 2. The terminals at MNL did not connect. The airport had shuttle buses that offered the sole free connection between all four terminals, ostensibly, every 15 minutes, but even the airport website warned that the times were dependent on traffic. So that meant I needed another taxi to help me cross the 4 miles between terminals.
When I finally made it to Terminal 2, I found it just as chaotic and crowded as Terminal 3. The line just to get through the terminal door for security scanning was multiple rows deep, snaking back and forth. I waited in line for about 10 minutes before I made it into the building. I wasn’t able to discern if the security measures were increased in light of recent unrest in other regions, or if this was simply the standard for departing Manila.
Inside the airport, the madness was even worse. With multiple long-haul flights departing Manila for New York, San Francisco and Guam all around the same time, the signage was nearly impossible to see. I ended up sliding into a line and hoping for the best. After a minute or two, a couple kind employees walked by and directed me to the right queue.
After a few more minutes, I finally made it through security and immigration … only to find myself facing yet another queue. Yes, we had to go through a third set of security checks at the gate in order to board our plane. This one was much less invasive and involved document checks. But still, the line was more than four dozen people long 30 minutes before boarding time.
I usually pick up a small snack in the airport to tide me over before long flights, so I wandered down to the other end of the building, trying to see what was available. Unfortunately, there were just a couple of small kiosks serving cakes, coffee and Middle Eastern food to supplement the little booths offering local snacks, Western cosmetics and other small goods.
After waiting in yet another line to order food at the Middle Eastern kiosk, I was informed that the shop was entirely sold out of rice and could only offer me one of two protein wraps. As I watched them make my food, I couldn’t help but notice that the veggies they did have available — onions, cucumbers and tomatoes — were almost entirely sold out as well. Considering it was only 8:30pm and several flights had yet to depart, it didn’t seem like this shop was prepared for business.
Despite the overall chaos of the airport, each of the elderly travelers in wheelchairs near the gate seemed to have at least one dedicated employee who would come back to check on them once in a while.
We finally boarded about five minutes late. As I had suspected, the flight didn’t actually seem to be full, and flight attendants let me shift one row back to 65H, the aisle seat of the rearmost row, which was fully empty. (Another passenger took the window seat later, though.) Right then, the captain came on the intercom and said we were waiting on a number of passengers who had been stuck in the immigration queue.
The final few passengers eventually boarded the plane, and we pulled back from the gate a full hour behind schedule. There were still more than 25 empty seats in the back cabin.
Getting through (and to) Manila’s Terminal 2 was one of the sloppiest boarding experiences I’ve had in the last decade. However, I was pleasantly surprised by helpful attitudes from airport employees across the board.
Cabin and Seat
Everything in this Airbus A350, with registration RP-C3504, felt sparkly and new, despite the fact that this plane featured no AC power outlets in economy class. It was delivered brand-new to PAL in July 2018, so it was less than half a year old when I flew it.
The beautiful, oversized screens felt luxurious for coach class, and prominently displayed the row and seat letter in the top left corner, which made it easy to find the right seat when walking up and down dim aisles.
Each screen tilted forward and had a powered USB port and a single-prong audio jack for headphones. There was no separate remote control, but the touchscreens were responsive and intuitive (passing the Dorsey Test), with controls for volume, screen brightness, overhead light, call button and power.
The bathrooms featured tissue paper for paper towels, and small bottles of facial and body lotion, although bottles in both of the lavatories I checked had lost their tiny caps by the time I got there.
When it was time to sleep, the cabin dimmed to indigo.
I loved that Philippine Airlines still handed out amenity kits and paper menus to travelers in coach, like most airlines did 10 or 20 years ago. Soon after takeoff, flight attendants walked up and down the aisles handing out little, blue, plastic-wrapped pouches printed with traditional tribal patterns containing socks, an eye mask and a toothbrush with plastic cover and toothpaste. Everything was of basic quality, but the gesture already was more than I expected.
The standard single-fold trays were of adequate but unremarkable size and quality, holding a food tray and a couple of drinks on the side with a small margin along the edges. A single magazine pouch on the seatback was the only available storage.
All told, the seats were more than adequate, perhaps little bit more on the bare-bones side, although the IFE screens were surprisingly luxurious compared to the seats themselves.
Amenities and IFE
The pillows and blankets were of standard quality as well, with disposable pillowcases. The pillows were a little bit larger and plumper than what you’d find on, say, United Airlines’ long-haul flights. The over-ear headphones were nicely packaged in sterilized plastic bags that sported the same festive tribal patterns.
The headphones were of terrible quality, though: I couldn’t even get them to fit onto my head properly, and my seatmate broke two pairs trying to put his on. On the bright side, the headphones operated on a single prong audio port, so I could use my own noise-isolating earbuds.
The inflight entertainment visuals more than made up for the crappy headphone situation, however. The 15.25-inch screen felt almost decadent for coach class, and the crisp, color-rich displays only enhanced that impression.
I ended up not sleeping much on this flight, so I managed to catch up on four complete movies that I’d missed in theaters last year: “Mile 22,” “Venom,” “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” and “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Audio quality was fine once I subbed in my own earphones, and the visual quality, both in crispness as well as brightness, was truly impressive for coach class: I didn’t miss a single fight scene. And, boy, were there a lot of those in the movies I chose.
A separate section of video travelogues featured two- or three-minute clips highlighting destinations served by Philippine Airlines, including Boracay, Cebu, Guam and Dubai, as well as more mainstream destinations like New York, Osaka and Tokyo.
The plane did not feature a tailcam or live TV, but did provide fairly standard information regarding our progress between continents, complete with visuals. Even basic stats looked better in vivid color.
Finally, Wi-Fi was not only available on this flight — in stark contrast to my inbound flight to Asia on Cathay Pacific — but also cost exactly zero dollars. It took about an hour for the Wi-Fi to kick in after takeoff, and service was intermittent throughout the flight, but when it worked, it worked quite well. I not only managed to complete a speed test while in midair, I even uploaded this screenshot to WordPress from 39,000 feet — just because I could. I couldn’t help but compare my connectivity to my recent, very expensive, very ineffectual Wi-Fi experience on board Swiss Air.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Meals for Purchase
I could choose between Filipino/Asian and Western cuisines for each of my three meals: dinner and breakfast, as well as a hot midnight snack that basically turned out to be a full meal with a chocolate bar in lieu of the usual side dishes.
Dinner service took place about 75 minutes into the flight, a little bit later than typical on most long-haul international flights. The lag was partially due to our delayed takeoff, but the other part just seemed to be the more leisurely pace at which the flight crew operated. By the time my meal reached my tray around 11:15pm Manila time, I was quite hungry.
For my first meal, I opted for the Filipino option: pork belly with fried rice and pickled papaya. The entree came with a package of dried mangoes, a sweet roll, rice-noodle salad and a coconut-tapioca pudding. The vinegar-marinated pork belly was tough, and I had to wash it down with the house red wine. (Economy-class passengers only appeared to have one generic red and one generic white wine available.)
The hot snack actually offered as much food as a standard entree typically would, if not more. I opted for the chicken bulgogi and jap chae. It was probably my favorite meal out of the three. It came with a generously sized chocolate bar made from Filipino cacao beans, as the label proudly proclaimed.
Finally, “breakfast” was served about two hours before touchdown, at 9:30pm Eastern time. I got panfried milkfish marinated in coconut vinegar and other traditional seasonings, as well as scrambled eggs and salted egg. Unfortunately, this meal “was a no for me”, as Gordon Ramsay would say. The fish was overcooked and had a fairly strong smell, thanks to the marinade smell that began wafting about the cabin from the galley 45 minutes before the meal. Fortunately, the roll was excellent, and I enjoyed the watermelon for dessert, for hydration, if nothing else.
I was offered a standard selection of juices, tea, coffee, sodas and water to go with all three meals, and a cart was set up in the back galley with many bottles of water, as well as a bottle of red wine, for passengers to help themselves throughout the flight.
The flight crew was unfailingly polite and kind, although they didn't proactively offer water.
My takeaway from my first visit to the Philippines is that everyone is SO NICE. Yes, it calls for all caps. From the workers in the chaotic airport to the flight attendants who escorted me back to the US, I can’t really recall a single face that didn’t smile at me even when it was saying “no.”
There were a couple of small snafus which led to a less-than-perfect rating in this category: The service, while impeccably polite, could occasionally be scatterbrained. There seemed to be a lot of walking up and down the aisles for tasks that could have been combined for efficiency, as well as a little hint of “island time” lack of urgency, which, while very calming, could also be frustrating in situations such as the dilatory dinner service. They also didn’t proactively offer passengers water during the flight, although that could have taken place during the two-plus hours I was asleep. The crew did, however, have a water station set up in the back of the plane, so anyone who bothered getting up to stretch their legs would easily have been able to serve themselves.
Although my seat at the very back of the plane was an easy walk to the rear galley, I used my call button to hail a flight attendant twice during the flight. just to test out the response time. Both times, I wanted to ask for more water. The first time, about two hours after dinner service, the flight attendant was by my side within seconds and brought back my drink with equal promptness. But the second time I rang, right after my midnight snack (i.e., third meal) was served, I’m not sure the flight attendants even noticed the call button. After more than a minute, I looked up and realized that several flight attendants were already proactively offering drinks to passengers farther up the aisle. So perhaps I just happened to have poor timing — and I was very close to the back galley and, with my aisle seat access, could easily have helped myself to water. But I could tell that at least one other flight attendant was still in the back galley when I rang, so I was surprised that I didn’t at least get a quick acknowledgement from a staff member for my request.
I actually enjoyed my flight itself not a little, and I completely fell in love with Manila. But the airport experience, coupled with the overall disregard for a timely departure, left a bad impression on me. Alberto also mentioned his ground experience in his recent business-class review, and also suggested that the airline would do well to join an airline alliance or expand its mileage partnerships in order for more travelers to be able to experience what the airline has to offer without paying cash for the product. I strongly agree, and would also add that a carrier with the tagline “The Heart of the Filipino” should work harder on ensuring that their overall customer experience in MNL’s Terminal 2 truly represents what they want their slogan to say.
All images by the author for The Points Guy.