Job Very Well Done: Philippine Airlines (A350-900) in Business Class From Manila to JFK
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Not long ago, an 8,519-mile nonstop flight would have easily taken the crown for longest in the world. These days, the Philippine Airlines service from Manila to New York merely ranks as the eighth-longest nonstop. No. 1 is the unbeatable (with current technology) Singapore-Newark monster flown by Singapore Airlines on the ultralong-range version of the Airbus A350. But the Manila service, introduced in October, still earns the respectable title of longest flight into JFK. It’s flown by a standard A350 sporting a business class with all seats offering aisle access — the latest-model long-haul jet, with the latest-model biz seat. That was enough for us at TPG to want to try it out, so we booked it as the return leg of a trip to Southeast Asia from New York in early December, from Jakarta, Indonesia, to New York via Manila.
Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay Miles loyalty program does not have US transfer partners, nor does it have airline partners in the US — it only partners with All Nippon Airways and Etihad. Our only option was paying with cash. We put the $2,773.83 fare on the Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 5x points on airfare booked directly with the airline for a total haul of 13,870 Membership Rewards points, worth $277 at current TPG valuations.
I opened a Mabuhay account for this flight, and I’m now at 15,357 miles. With 50,000 more, I’ll have enough for a one-way award ticket in the same class and on the same flight, per the Mabuhay award chart.
After arriving the previous day on a gleaming Airbus A321neo from Jakarta and overnighting in Manila, I was well-disposed toward the flag carrier of the Philippines. The A321 was a brand-new machine, just four months old, sporting lie-flat beds in business class — the same seat and 2-2 layout American Airlines flies on its coast-to-coast A321s in biz. On the three-hour hop from Indonesia, I had been treated and fed very nicely.
Unfortunately, Terminal 2 at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) was a letdown from that, and not a good introduction for the ultralong-haul flight to follow.
I arrived before 6pm for a 9pm departure. Check-in lines were uncrowded but slow. Narrow, dim spaces, with storefronts and gates close together, and chipped white and gray tiles on the floor did not create a pleasant feeling.
To my surprise, my boarding pass carried the dreaded SSSS code. This was my first experience with Special Secondary Security Screening, an extra inspection reserved for people flagged as suspicious. I may have been singled out because I was on a one-way ticket, despite being enrolled in the US Trusted Traveler Program.
That SSSS turned out to just a mild annoyance. At the first security screening, after check-in, the agents all but ignored it. At the second, positioned at the entrance to the gates for US-bound flights, I got pulled aside for a few questions — how long I’d stayed in the country, where I came from, the purpose of my visit — and an extra close look at my bags. Total time lost: maybe four minutes. (Our readers have had varying experiences with it.)
Before that, an hour spent in the Mabuhay lounge did not measure up to the ambitions of the airline that ran it. Essentially windowless, it smelled of humidity and stuffy air. The tiny bathroom was not adequate for the capacity of the lounge. Air conditioning was either too low or, if you were sitting near the vents, freezing. Many pieces of furniture were scuffed or dented.
The buffet and drinks station were firmly in the middling, at best, to low end of the quality spectrum.
At least it was easy to plug in and charge devices. Outlets were plentiful, and no adapter is required in the Philippines for US electronics. The Wi-Fi was really fast, with a blazing 80 Mbps download speed but an unfortunate tendency to disconnect.
A reviewer on the Loungebuddy app called this the worst lounge they’d ever seen. It was not the worst I had ever seen, not by a long shot, but if Philippine Airlines wants to make the ground experience as top-notch as its new Airbus jets, it needs to fix this.
At the gate, after going through my anticlimactic SSSS screening, I found a lot of unoccupied seats — the flight turned out to be near-empty — and poor signage, leaving it a bit unclear where the JFK passengers would board from. Flight PR126 to New York and the airline’s other nonstops to Los Angeles and San Francisco departed from the same cluster of gates at roughly the same time, leading to some confusion. Boarding began 25 minutes after the scheduled 8:15pm time. Seven passengers in wheelchairs, an unusually high number, were accompanied aboard ahead of everybody else.
At 8:40pm, I walked onto a shiny A350-900, welcomed by the cheeky raccoon mask around the cockpit windows and unmistakable sloping nose of all A350s. Its Filipino registration, RP-C-3501, identified it as the first to be delivered of the six A350s ordered by the airline. It had left the factory in Toulouse only in June — just six months old.
Cabin and Seat
Business class on the Philippine Airlines A350 is all in a single cabin of 30 seats, with four per row laid out 1-2-1, and it makes an excellent first impression — elegant and understated, if maybe a touch cold. Its Thompson Vantage XL seats are the same we have flown, and liked very much, on airlines including Scandinavian Airlines and Rwandair.
Note the car-style, over-the-shoulder seat belt. Also note that the window seats come in two variants. One has a huge armrest between seat and aisle, enhancing privacy; you’ll find it in odd-numbered rows. The other has the armrest on the window side, leaving you more exposed to aisle traffic and making it harder to see out the window. So, if you’re traveling solo, try to select seats A and K in rows 3, 5 and 7. Below is my seat, 7A, which made for a delightfully cozy little fort over the 15 hours I would spend in it.
Window seats in even-numbered rows aren’t bad at all, but you’re just an inch away from the aisle. Those are seats A and K in rows 2, 4, 6 and 8.
Pick the center blocks of two, seats D and G, if you’re traveling as a couple. D has the armrest on the aisle side and G is the more exposed one.
Regardless of where it is, every seat turns into a 78-inch flat bed. In the up position, there’s all the legroom you want.
The Vantage XL is great for open storage of small objects; the ledge to my right held phone, chargers, headphones, books and assorted knick-knacks. There’s no closed storage, though, and no place to put larger objects like a laptop.
Everything I needed to charge my devices and control the seat and monitor was clustered to my right: wired remote, headphone outlet with USB powered port, universal power outlet, an orientable reading light with three settings and a very intuitive control pad for the seat, mood light and massage function. The mood light is a great touch, illuminating the storage area and footwell; no more frantic feeling around on the floor for dropped objects. Turn on the mood light and voilà, you can see easily where your phone or wallet fell. As for the massage function, it’s really more of a gimmick. Just get up and stretch instead — the 1-2-1 layout makes it easy. You’re not disturbing anyone.
A subset of the seat controls is replicated on the armrest and easily accessible from the flat-bed position. Next to it, a button extends smoothly a tray table big enough to work on a laptop comfortably.
Literature is stored in two pouches, one at floor level and another by the monitor.
Philippine Airlines also opted for no overhead luggage bins over the center row in biz class, which creates a feeling of spaciousness.
On this flight, there were Filipino newspapers and the international edition of the New York Times in a pouch at the back of the biz cabin.
Philippine Airlines configures its A350s with 295 seats spread across business, premium economy and coach — a relatively low number. Besides the 30 flat beds in biz, there are 24 seats in premium economy in three rows of 2-4-2 and 241 in coach arranged in the 3-3-3 layout of most A350s.
By my count during the flight, we had an extremely light passenger load with 14 people in biz, six in premium and a few dozen in coach. It might have been because of the day of the week. According to a flight attendant, the newly-introduced Wednesday service — the flight operates five days a week now and will go daily from March 31, 2019 — is not very crowded. Fantastic for us passengers, not great for the airline. In coach, pretty much everybody had their own row.
At 9pm, with boarding complete, Captain Ike Bernad introduced himself over the PA and welcomed us aboard, announcing that our flight time would be an exceptionally short 14 hours, 30 minutes. This was followed by a personal introduction from the flight attendant who would take care of me throughout the flight. “Welcome aboard, Mr Riva,” she said, “my name is Sarah. Please have at look at the menu. You can order your meals anytime you want.” Philippine Airlines doesn’t offer pre-selection of your meal, à la Singapore Airlines or EVA Air, but my flight did feature dine on demand, as found on far more celebrated carriers: I could eat whenever I wanted, and get my food in 10 to 20 minutes from ordering.
The purser then introduced herself over the loudspeakers as Josie, apologized for the delay due to a late arrival of the incoming aircraft, and explained we had two captains and two first officers on board. Standard practice on flights this long, which go far beyond the maximum hours allowable on duty for a flight crew: two people rest in the crew bunks, while the other two fly the plane. Philippine Airlines was doing things right from a customer-facing standpoint. Within the first few minutes on board, its front-line personnel had established a personal connection and kept passengers well informed.
The safety video, a beautifully produced affair showcasing tourist destinations in the Philippines, reinforced the positive impression. So did a visit at my seat by Josie, who introduced herself again, but in person.
We took off at 9:40pm, with downtown Manila offering a glorious spectacle out of my two windows. I could see, but barely hear, one of the two Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines. The A350 is an exceptionally quiet jet.
The quiet cabin was a huge plus when sleeping. With the seat in lie-flat position, a cozy but not heavy blanket and an extra pillow taken from an unoccupied seat, I had no trouble getting a total of about six hours of real, restful sleep. Over-the-shoulder seat belts aren’t very comfortable when lying down. There was an option to unfasten the over-the-shoulder part and keep only the lap belt fastened during cruise, though. (Keeping your seat belt unfastened altgoether is absolutely not an option, though. Just like the captain always does, we recommend keeping your seat belt fastened at all times when seated — turbulence can hit unexpectedly.)
Some passengers complain that the footwell is too narrow on Vantage XL seats. If you’re the kind of sleeper who tosses and turns, you will probably agree.
The biz-class cabin has two reserved bathrooms at the front, with dark countertops to distinguish them from the other onboard lavatories. They offered mouthwash, hand lotion and cologne with the airline’s own branding and hand soap from L’Occitane.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Service began on the ground, 15 minutes after I was seated, with a flute of Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, a mid-range ($60 at US retail) champagne whose complex, elegant texture and wonderfully nutty finish helped, together with the crew’s warm welcome, to put me in a good mood.
While taxiing, Sarah came to take my meal orders — dinner, midflight meal, and breakfast, although the latter would be served at dinnertime in New York on the same day of our departure. (Thanks to the International Date Line we landed 90 minutes after taking off, in local times.)
Created in cooperation with the New York restaurant Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, the menu offered a balanced mix of Filipino, Asian and Western dishes. I went mostly with the Filipino options, starting with pork sisig, a dish Anthony Bourdain predicted would be the next international sensation. To start with, I ordered an onion soup from the Wolfgang’s Steakhouse side of the menu, plus a glass of Hardy’s Stamp 2016 Australian riesling / Gewürztraminer blend to go with dinner. For the midflight snack, I ordered a more generically Asian dish, a prawn cake sate with nasi goreng, an Indonesian stir-fried rice; I would then finish up with another Filipino dish, beef tapa — pan-fried marinated slices of Black Angus meat.
The wine list included three whites and three reds besides the champagne. The whites were a chardonnay from California, my riesling and a sauvignon blanc / sémillon / muscadelle blend from France. The reds were an Australian shiraz / cabernet sauvignon and two Bordeaux reds, one a merlot / cabernet sauvignon / malbec blend and the other a merlot / cabernet sauvignon / cabernet franc. Overall a pretty classic wine list with no surprises.
Just 20 minutes after takeoff, we were served an amuse-bouche of adobo flakes and tomato mousse. Things were off to a very good start.
The onion soup was a bit weak, but the pork sisig that followed was a knockout. Accompanied with olive-and-rosemary bread and the riesling, it was an international delight: a classic Filipino dish, with a very Mediterranean bread and an Australian wine made from typically German and Austrian grapes. The presentation was simple and unobtrusive, with a napkin ring whose decoration matched the menu’s.
The cheese platter I ordered for dessert (ice cream and cheesecake were also available) included two Filipino cheeses: a mild kesong puti with herbs and a Mango Sublime, or goat cheese with mango bits — an interesting, not unpleasant experiment. A cup of green tea completed the meal, before going to sleep.
I woke at 3am Manila time, after three and a half hours of great flat-bed sleep. A check of the flight data told me we were in the middle of the Pacific and being pushed by jetstream winds from the west to a remarkable speed of 731 mph. According to the flight-tracking site Flightaware, we reached 761 mph, close to the highest ground speed ever reported for an A350.
As we raced eastbound to meet the sun, it was broad daylight already when I looked outside at 3:45am Manila time.
When Sarah saw I was awake, she came to inquire if I wanted anything. After bringing me a green tea, she reminded me that if I was hungry I could ask for my second meal to be brought at any time. I could also have snacks and water from the impromptu snack bar set up in the galley between business and premium economy. After the tea, I asked for the prawns.
25 minutes later the prawns came, without tablecloth but on a elegant black tray. It took a little longer than I had been told, but I didn’t really care: on an ultra-long-haul flight, time can become a weird entity. We’d been in the air six hours already, and had more than eight to go.
The prawns were outstanding. They came in perfect little balls, pan-fried and not heavy at all, bursting with taste that would have been worthy of praise at a good restaurant on the ground. Very flavorful cantaloupe slices, watermelon and a bar of mango chocolate completed the tray. Even after detracting a few points for slightly sticky rice and the lack of discernible mango taste in the chocolate, this meal was an absolute winner.
One hour later, with the cabin still dark and window shades down, Sarah brought out a basket of snacks. I got a tablet of Filipino dark, coffee-flavored chocolate. The airline was definitely making an effort to showcase its homeland’s products.
The snack basket came back about four hours out of JFK, above the Canadian Rockies, when Sarah noticed I was up again and texting on my phone after another couple hours of sleep. I skipped it, knowing I could have a real meal soon. Meanwhile, Josie took it upon herself to walk down the aisle checking on her passengers, and asking me how I was doing and if I wanted something to drink. Not all pursers are this engaged.
With two hours to go, 10:15am on Thursday Manila time and Wednesday evening over the Midwest, she took to the PA to wish us a good morning and tell us that the final meal would be served shortly and that we may want to freshen up for arrival. As the cabin lights came on, Sarah brought me a hot towel. “How was your sleep?” she asked, before bringing me my choice of cranberry or orange juice. With business class half empty, the cabin crew had time to linger. One row ahead, she knelt by a seat to play with a boy of about three, who clearly loved the attention.
The coffee was better than the airline average, and so was the way it was served.
To keep the Filipino food theme going, I said yes to the offer of two unusual appetizers: tuyo, a salted dried herring, and bangus, known in English as milkfish. The tuyo had a really strong taste — Philippine Airlines was clearly unafraid of giving its passengers real Filipino street food. The bangus was a melt-in-your-mouth delight. If there was a concept uniting the various meals on this flight, it was umami — the “fifth flavor” besides sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The beef tapa, preceded by a beautifully presented fruit plate, was another great example of it, with a spicy vinegar dip that provided a sharp high note.
At 12:13pm Manila time, we made the last turn for final approach to JFK’s runway 31R, dropped the landing gear and touched down three minutes later. It was 11:16pm in New York, and we had spent 14 hours and 36 minutes in the air.
Amenities and IFE
Amenity kits from L’Occitane were distributed 10 minutes after takeoff, with slippers. The kit contained the bare essentials for a long flight: toothpaste and toothbrush, comb, eau de toilette, body lotion, socks and eye mask.
It was a bit bare-bones, and on a flight that can last well over 15 hours, pajamas to change into would have been wonderful. (Among the other smaller Asian carriers that fly to the US, EVA Air provides them, for example.)
The inflight entertainment featured a big, bright 18.5 inch screen easily controlled by touch or remote. The airline promises over 300 hours of entertainment on its IFE, including 132 movies handily divided into various categories. Children’s movies were grouped with an adorably clever pun, “Little PALs”, a reference to the airline’s three-letter ICAO code, which is also used as a common abbreviation in the airline’s communication with the public. James Bond fans would have been delighted by the no fewer than 25 Bond movies featured — by my count, all but one of the 007 movies ever made.
The movie and tv show sections offered filtering for languages, either Tagalog or English, a feature that should be in every IFE. Captured by the plenty of Bond movies, I ignored the tv show section and watched 007 flicks, plus a documentary on Filipino nature, when I was not on the Wi-Fi.
Overall, the IFE wasn’t at the top of the field when it came to content choices, but the beautiful screen made up for it somewhat. The map didn’t allow pinch-and-zoom, a minor drawback, but had plenty of views to choose from — yet I could not find the outside cameras that the A350 is known for.
The highlight was free Wi-Fi throughout the flight. It may not have been very fast — I was unable to load a Speedtest — but it was stable, and allowed me to text and use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Gmail with nary a hiccup all the way from the Western Pacific Ocean to New Jersey. PAL provided headphones offering a serviceable, not outstanding, sound quality.
The IFE allows pairing with remote devices via an app, so you can watch a movie on the main display, for example, and have the inflight map up on your phone. I didn’t test it; my phone was kept plenty busy by the rock-solid Wi-Fi. Another cool touch is a display on the remote showing the remaining flight time.
As I exited the plane in New York, flight attendants bid me a smiling goodbye, using my name. The next day, Philippine Airlines closed out its interaction with me by emailing a detailed survey — it greeted me with a Mabuhay!, the Tagalog expression that I’d heard used all through the flight to welcome passengers — which even invited me to indicate the names of any employees I might want to single out for particulary good service.
Flight-tracking site Flightaware showed we had flown 9,253 miles, far more than the shortest possible routing at 8,500, in order to follow the jetstream and save fuel thanks to the push by the wind. Singapore Airlines’ nonstop to New York is 9,500 miles. We had come close to equaling the longest scheduled flight in the world.
Simply put, Philippine Airlines greatly exceeded my expectations. This was due in large part to the exceptional attitude of the crew, with a smiling, solicitous yet never intrusive approach. From the moment I stepped aboard to when I walked out, I was treated exemplarily, by people who were visibly proud of their company and happy to be doing their jobs. The PAL employees I interacted with on the plane were calmly professional. So was the crew of my previous Philippine Airlines flight, from Jakarta to Manila. On the ground, interactions with lounge and check-in personnel were a bit more perfunctory, but overall service still qualified as outstanding.
A flight of almost 15 hours went by very, very pleasantly. With the latest products from Boeing and Airbus, great premium seats plus cabin crews and food that do justice to the Filipino tradition of hospitality, PAL could and should be a contender despite its small fleet size.
Especially at prices like these — $2,700 for flat-bed seats and great service all the way from Indonesia to New York is relatively cheap — I would love to recommend the airline, but the lack of mileage-earning options with a major US or European partner is daunting. To play with the big boys, Philippine Airlines needs to do two things: It must improve the ground experience at its home base, and join an airline alliance or at least broaden the scope of its mileage partnerships. That would make it an appealing choice for points and miles travelers looking to get to Southeast Asia from the US with a seat and service worthy of a big points redemption.
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