The Race to the Bottom in Domestic Philippines Air Travel

If the Philippines economy is opened up to allow higher levels of foreign business ownership then the local airlines should be worried. They will be amongst the first to fall when a sniff of sophisticated competition enters the market.

Too often after flying with one of the major carriers – Cebu Pacific, Air Asia (Zest Air) and Philippines Airlines – I have said to myself that I will never fly with that airline again! Only to have a similar or worse experience with one of the other airlines. It seemed like an endless race to the bottom for who can scrape more from the bottom of the barrel. 

There are really only two things for me that they get so wrong. Both can be fixed.

Expect to be late

I am not a very fussy traveller. I don’t expect much in terms of service or comfort on a plane, or in airports for that matter. As long as I have my laptop with me I will be ok waiting it out pretty much anywhere… a decent coffee also helps. 

The one thing that I do expect in a travel experience is to arrive at my destination in a reasonable time frame. I never expect to be anywhere perfectly on time, but within an hour or so is a fair expectation. In the Philippines this is not so.

Frequently I have experienced delays that start at an hour, then become two, then three. Always with surprise announcements after the amended departure time had passed. Twice I have had delays in excess of six hours.

So many airlines around the world value their customer service above all else. The domestic airlines in the Philippines do not. Announcements for a late running service usually come with an (unnecessary) excuse as to why the delay is not their fault. The most common being:

  • This flight was delayed due to traffic at the previous destination’s airport.
  • We are awaiting some documents from the airport officials before we can take off (sometimes for hours).

The passengers do not care what the reason for the delay is, or who’s fault it is. Shifting the blame in my opinion just highlights an inability for them to manage their operating environment. This is assuming the reasons given are actually true.

NAIA is the central hub for most flights that I have been on. It operates above capacity and there will continue to be excess traffic here for decades to come. So I don’t buy traffic as an excuse for lateness. It is just poor planning for what should be expected, not a daily surprise.

It could be argued that by cramming as many flights into a day as possible this would keep the costs low. I am not sure that the scheduling that only costs the customer time actually makes this any better though. Ambitious scheduling doesn’t make more flights leave the ground.

A foreign company will figure this out and will run a leaner operation, with less frustration for the customer. On this point alone the local companies will lose out. 

Payment Options

For anyone who has used the Cebu Pacific website no doubt you have experienced some difficulty actually paying them. I remain stunned that a company can stay in business when they make it so difficult to give them money!

Yes, they have a Credit Card option. This is great when it works. Unfortunately it breaks down all the time.

There are the highly inconvenient options of going into a bank or other payment centre to hand over cash. This is not such a bad option when you are in regular business hours. The major stumbling block is that your booking will lapse at midnight if not paid. So if nothing is open you cannot physically pay anywhere.

I have (stupidly) phoned the customer service line to ask what my options would be to get the payment made before midnight for a booking made at about 7pm in the evening. The conversation went something like this:

  • Me: The website is only giving me options to pay at the bank. They are all closed now. Is there anywhere else I can pay?
  • CebuPac: You must make the payment at your closest branch of XYZ bank.
  • Me: Yes I know this, but they are all closed. Is it possible to extend the deadline so I can pay in the morning when they open?
  • CP: No sir, you must make the payment by midnight.
  • Me: No problem, where can I pay it?
  • CP: You must make the payment at your closest branch of XYZ bank.
  • Me: They are all closed. Are there any other options?
  • CP: You can only make the payment at your closest branch of XYZ bank.
  • Me: How am I supposed to do this when they are closed?
  • CP: Perhaps you can go when they are open?
  • Me: But the booking will have expired by then.
  • CP: Yes you have to make the payment by midnight.

cebupacific customer service frustration

As you can see this conversation was not going anywhere. I also asked if I could just pay over the phone with CC. They said no and they would have to cancel the booking and create a new one. I was new to the country at the time and thought this would be easier given that I am already on the phone.

Well, getting to the point of making the payment took 40 minutes. Over the phone my accent was very hard for the Cebu Pacific rep to understand. This is my doing and not the cause for frustration – although going through name and address details over the phone one letter at a time takes a really, really long time and much repetition. Where I did lose my cool was at the point of payment.

I was attempting to pay by Visa, as I had done before on the website before it crashed. They took all the normal details, and then asked who the issuer of the card was. This was a small credit union in Australia which they obviously would never have heard of. After being on hold for an eternity they came back and said they cannot accept the payment because they are not familiar with the issuer. As you can tell from the earlier conversation example my attempts to reason with this ridiculous logic went nowhere. So I was 90 minutes down and still had not ticket to show for my efforts.

How can a business that makes it so hard for willing customers to hand over their money stay in business? The answer is that there is nowhere else to go. This will change if these laws are relaxed.

Each airline has their own little quirks with their payment systems. By far the easiest is to either go directly to a ticket office if there is one nearby, or go with the option of paying at 7/11. They are everywhere!! Although I think it is only PAL who offer this.

Certain banks will allow payment to be done on an ATM – not an online transfer, but physically at an ATM… Yeah I know, this makes no sense either. Takes some work to set this up with your bank but can save a lot of hassle if you plan on staying in the Philippines long term. 

Oh, and if you ever have to call them (for the love of god!) ask a Filipino to help you do this. It will take a quarter of the time.

The Cabin Crew

There had to be a perk somewhere along the line here. The air hostesses would have to be among the most friendly and good looking you will find anywhere in the world! It is a tough job and they always do it with a smile. Compare that to Qantas, where the staff are often old and miserable. It can be a breath of fresh air.

The CebuPac uniforms don’t really do much for me, but the Air Asia girls are simply stunning! I have always wanted to date an Air Asia girl for that very reason.

On one of my six hour delays I went and found a quiet spot in the airport near a power point and sat on the floor. Not long after doing this a big group of girls travelling jumped into the empty space around me. I noticed after a while that out of the 20 girls nearly all of them were 10 out of 10 beautiful girls.  After speaking to one of them they said they were all Air Asia staff and were heading to KL for a few days of training. This was my big chance!

air asia girlsAt the time I was not exactly available though, so this opportunity of a lifetime I had to let slip by. Having said that I am not known for my prowess in talking to 10 out of 10 women anyway. If I managed to remember my own name, I am sure that I would have managed to make myself look like an idiot somehow in a nervous attempt to introduce myself.

The Alternative

No matter how troublesome a flight experience can be it will always be a thousand times better than going by land. A 12 hour bus trip on a windy road with a questionable surface will make for a slow and sleepless journey.

This is assuming that land travel is an option. The dreaded land -> boat -> land trip can take days to get to some parts of the country. So best to just suck it up and stick to the airlines.

As with most things in the Philippines you have to approach things with a level of acceptance and tolerance for the way things are. That doesn’t mean we can’t hope for better one day, and some more competition in what is a fairly small market could be a game changer for the customers.

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