This wasn’t my first time flying with Philippine Airlines (IATA code: PR) between Manila and one of its several destination cities in Japan. Despite shortcomings in various aspects of the experience, I think it’s safe to say that it probably won’t be the last time.
Note: Schedule/route information, equipment type, and other details are accurate only for the specific flights reviewed here. This information may not necessarily apply to previous or future flights, even by the same airline under the same route and flight number.
OVERALL COST AND FARE TYPE
Unless otherwise indicated, all figures are in US Dollars (USD).
This was an internet reservation based on promotional rates, with a fare significantly cheaper than one would pay on this route when purchasing a full-price ticket. The total cost for the round-trip Economy Class journey was USD 238.40 per person, broken down as follows:
Fare : 205.00
Passenger Service Charge (International) : 12.20
Passenger Service Facilities Charge : 17.00
Passenger Security Service Charge : 4.20
The price doesn’t include a PHP 1,620.00 travel tax imposed on all Filipino nationals (with some exceptions), which can be paid either at the point of booking or at the terminal before check-in. We would have wanted to settle this online whilst purchasing our tickets, but there was a spot of trouble with the airline’s website and we ended up having to queue at the airport tax counter.
Our tickets were booked under the Budget Economy fare class, the least expensive option. Ignoring the finest of the fine print – too complex for a non-specialist like myself to bother with, anyway – this fare class is, in practice, all but identical to Regular Economy (the next higher level), with complimentary meals and a free checked baggage allowance to/from Japan of 2 pieces weighing 23 kg each. The fare class difference will only become an issue when one needs to cancel the booking: Budget Economy fares are non-refundable, whereas Regular Economy tickets (if fully unused) are refundable for a fee.
Schedules in bold denote the flights covered in this review.
PR also operates flights in and out of Tōkyō’s Haneda Airport, but let’s leave those out of the equation.
Taking both time and cost into account, my ideal combination – based on an early arrival and late departure (thus maximising one’s available sightseeing time) – consists of PR 428 for the outbound leg and PR 427 for the return. The ANA-operated codeshare flights tend to be priced significantly higher, which puts them out of the running.
Alas, during the seat sale that was running when we arranged our family holiday, the unfavourably timed PR 432 and PR 431 were subjected to the deepest discounts (perhaps because fewer people would take them?). Since our parents were paying for the tickets, and because the lower price was a major consideration for them, we ultimately settled on the less-than-ideal combination of a late arrival and early departure.
Because of the near-identical equipment, service, seating, and so forth on both legs, I’ve put together a consolidated review covering the entire round trip (rather than having separate sections per flight).
OUTBOUND FLIGHT DETAILS
Airline and flight number : Philippine Airlines (PR) 432
Route : Manila (MNL) to Tōkyō-Narita (NRT)
Date : Wednesday, 09 March 2016
Scheduled departure time : 1450
Actual departure time : 1619 (source – Flightaware)
Scheduled arrival time : 2010
Actual arrival time : 2056 (source – Flightaware)
RETURN FLIGHT DETAILS
Airline and flight number : Philippine Airlines (PR) 431
Route : Tōkyō-Narita (NRT) to Manila (MNL)
Date : Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Scheduled departure time : 0930
Actual departure time : 0936 (source – airline)
Scheduled arrival time : 1345
Actual arrival time : 1332 (source – airline)
EQUIPMENT AND CABIN
Aircraft : A330-300
Manufacturer : Airbus
Passenger capacity : 368 – 18 Business, 27 Premium Economy, 323 Economy
Cabin configuration (seat maps) : PR’s official site / SeatGuru
Travel class flown : Economy
Except for a number of domestic routes operated by its low-cost subsidiary (based in Terminal 3), most Philippine Airlines flights depart from Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s Terminal 2, which is utilised exclusively by this airline.
Despite having just one tenant, Terminal 2 – which was originally designed by Aéroports de Paris to host only domestic routes – is clearly far too small to comfortably house all flights run by one of the country’s largest airlines. This fact was made painfully evident by long queues, inadequate seating, cramped boarding areas, and extremely limited options for shopping and dining.
That said, I do like the terminal’s airy architecture and lofty interior spaces filled with natural light. If it had remained an all-domestic gateway (as first planned), it might now be suffering from far less congestion and may even rank as the best of NAIA’s terminals.
With the older Terminal 1 having recently undergone a major renovation, and the newer Terminal 3 still not quite worn out (although it’s getting there fast), Terminal 2 now seems like the laggard in more ways than one. Space-related problems I’ve already mentioned, and add to them the antiquated equipment at the boarding gate.
One would think that they’d at least make sure the LCD screen was working, but I suppose the passenger service charge doesn’t stretch that far. Oh, well, let’s look on the bright side: at least we get to see old-fashioned signboards with the destination and flight number printed on them, much like in the days of yore (before aeroplanes and flush toilets were invented).
Sarcasm to the winds now. Off we go to have a quick look at our aircraft – an A330-300.
All aboard! A single aerobridge was used for both classes, feeding into the aircraft’s second door.
Boarding was completed more or less on time, but take-off was delayed by well over an hour due to ground congestion at the airport. This led to quite a bit of trouble upon landing as we had to run quickly to catch the last JR Narita Express service bound for downtown Tōkyō (the later alternative being a much slower and far less comfortable train). A rival express train plying a different route from the airport, the Keisei Skyliner, offered additional late-night schedules but was far less convenient for accessing the specific area we were staying in.
Now for the return leg. I didn’t snap any images of Narita International Airport’s sprawling Terminal 2…
…but let’s just say that it’s not the best welcome a foreign visitor can receive in Japan. Far larger, far better equipped, and in virtually every respect far nicer than NAIA – though it’s clearly showing its age and could benefit from a major overhaul. (For the Tōkyō area, Haneda is a far more pleasant gateway to pass through.)
At least we managed to leave roughly on time, and ultimately arrived a little early.
The homeward ride was also on an A330-300. I neglected to take note of the two aeroplanes’ registration numbers, but it was obvious from a few small interior details (stickers, damage to equipment, etc.) that we were using different birds. Here’s a shot of the second, taken after landing.
By and large, the actual hardware was all but identical…
…so this section – focusing on the aircraft’s seating arrangements – will consist of a mix of photos taken during both flights. (If you feel the need to determine which flight a given image was taken on, click on the picture and check the details in the file name.)
PR currently operates two types of A330-300: eight with a 414-seat all-economy layout, and seven with a 368-seat two-class cabin (or three-class if one counts Premium Economy separately from standard Economy). The aircraft used on both of our flights were of the second type.
Boarding arrangements weren’t ideal on either leg, so I couldn’t take proper photos – but I hope these will give at least a rough idea of the interiors.
We were assigned to row 44 on both flights, near the front of the 323-seat Economy Class section. Seats were arranged nine abreast, as opposed to the more comfortable (one might even say more humane) eight per row on A330 aircraft flown by PR’s regional competitors CX and SQ. An expensive cabin reconfiguration is apparently in the pipeline – under which the capacity of at least some of PR’s A330s could be downsized to a markedly less congested 311 seats – so there’s reason to hope for a little more width per passenger in the not-too-distant future.
No major issues with the legroom, though. A little cramped, sure, but adequate for my needs. Taller folk may find it a bit of a squeeze, so it might be worth investing in exit row seats or a class upgrade.
The tray tables were equipped with fold-down cup holders, convenient for keeping beverages in place outside of mealtimes – but only if you’re absolutely certain that the chap in front won’t recline their seat. (I shudder to think of what would happen if they tilt back with a sharp jerk right after you’ve deposited a cup of piping-hot coffee.)
The seats also featured individual power ports, though I never used them and can’t comment on their reliability.
Every seat was furnished with a small pillow prior to boarding, with blankets either handed out after we were seated (outbound) or laid on the cushion together with the pillow beforehand (return).
Let’s take a quick peek at the front part of the plane. Sandwiched between the forward and main cabins was a small area containing a couple of Economy Class rows, as well as 27 Premium Economy Class seats.
Up here, passengers can enjoy a couple more inches of seat pitch, but seat width seems no better than in standard Economy. If PR are determined to offer a true Premium Economy experience, it might be advisable to reduce each row by 1 seat and slightly widen the rest, similar to what CX have done in their A330-300. (UPDATE [02 April 2016]: According to one recent report, a proper premium economy product is indeed in the works for PR’s planes.)
Further on towards the pointy end were 18 Business Class seats. I’ve read some pretty critical comments about various elements of their design – lack of built-in IFE, overlapping levels when fully reclined, etc. – so I hope these will be amongst the first items thrown out the door if/when PR reconfigures its A330s.
Now then, let’s have a chat about the onboard IFE.
PR’s new managers are keen on achieving a 4-star Skytrax rating by 2017, and a 5-star badge within 5 years. To do this, they’ll need to reverse some of the less-than-stellar decisions made by the airline’s previous owners, amongst which are the over-packed, undersized seats…
…which, as you may have observed from the images posted earlier, lack any sort of built-in IFE. (Unless you count staring at a blank stretch of faux leather for hours on end as entertainment.)
This A330 – along with a substantial portion of PR’s newer fleet – was ordered under the former leadership, who had rather stupidly decided to “innovate” by dispensing with traditional IFE and moving towards an online system whereby content would be streamed into users’ own devices (or via tablets provided by the airline for Business Class passengers). As expected, the decision met with a lot of criticism, including from myself. After all, who wants to hold a device aloft at eye level for a long trip or during mealtimes … and who’d want to go through the trouble of installing PR’s media player app before being able to access the stream? These two flights were no different, since I couldn’t use either my iPad (an app needs to be pre-installed on the ground for iOS) or my smartphone (the app can, in theory, be installed onboard for Android but I couldn’t get it done even with help from a cabin attendant).
Count me in as one of those looking forward to the new ownership’s proposed upgrades. Until then, I’d suggest bringing your own devices pre-loaded with your choice of entertainment when flying on one of PR’s IFE-free planes.
As for reading material, the usual inflight magazine was supplied in every seat pocket, and newspapers (from both Japan and the Philippines) were distributed to those who desired them.
Catering and Service
The seats and the IFE might have been less than satisfactory, but I was quite pleased with the onboard dining experience. I can’t say what the folks up in the Business Class section were feasting on – this might give you an idea – but here in cattle class, passengers were offered a choice between a Japanese and a Western/Filipino dish, accompanied by a reasonably wide selection of beverages.
Chicken and beef were the options on the outbound flight. I selected the Japanese meal which included a serving of oyakodon, presented in a black bentō tray with side dishes and a dessert.
Everything on the tray turned out to be pretty good, with the scrumptious dessert – a cup of panna cotta made with matcha – emerging as the surprise star of the meal.
One of the people I was travelling with decided to order the beef dish. I can’t recall the name, but it appeared to consist of stir-fried meat in peppercorn sauce.
She wasn’t in the mood to eat, so I managed to have a taste of everything on the tray. The main course was decent enough, though the dessert that came with it wasn’t quite as stellar as the matcha panna cotta (not bad though).
The return flight featured chicken and pork. I went with the Japanese option a second time and was served some chicken curry rice – simple yet delicious comfort food.
As with the outbound meal, I enjoyed all of the tray’s contents, from the salad to the dessert. It won’t pass muster with a gourmet critic, but then again, I’m not a gourmet critic so the meal easily earns a nod of approval from me.
I neglected to take pictures of the pork dish, which received mixed reviews from some of those in our party who chose it.
Coffee and tea were poured out after the meal, and the cabin attendants were happy to bring out more (upon request) later during the flight.
Now then, let’s talk about the onboard service. PR’s hardware is significantly lacking in many respects, but they’ve been consistently strong on the soft side of things, and I was quite pleased with the cabin attendants’ performance during both of these flights. Unfailingly polite, prompt, and happy to fulfil requests whenever called upon to do so, their level of service really helped make up for some of the shortcomings in PR’s equipment.
I should, of course, point out that even though I’ve flown with PR several times in recent years, most of those experiences were on their Japan routes (where one might expect any airline to be on their toes when it comes to service). I’ve read reports of less-than-stellar cabin service on other flights, which highlights a possible area of inconsistency that should be addressed decisively by management if they are to maintain any hope of achieving improved customer ratings.
At least one Japanese-speaking staff member was on duty during each flight, helping to ensure that the needs of passengers from both points of the journey were well catered for. Whether this – along with the excellent cabin service and quite decent catering – was a result (or even a precondition?) of PR’s strategic partnership with the more highly-rated All Nippon Airways, or something that PR would have done even without the codesharing agreement, isn’t entirely clear. But whatever the impetus, it’s a feature that the airline would do well to maintain (for this market, anyway).
PR won’t break any records for comfort or punctuality anytime soon – unless it’s the negative kind of record – but for the price we paid and the excellent service we received, I’d rate both flights a moderate success. I will probably travel with this airline again on the same route, especially if their planes eventually receive the upgrades they so desperately need (particularly as regards the seats and the IFE system).