In today’s report, we’ll see what it’s like to fly with the Philippine flag carrier on one of its busy Japan routes: a journey that will take us from Manila to Fukuoka in less than four hours.
Welcome aboard PR426.
Note: Schedule/route information, equipment type, pricing, and other details are accurate only for the specific flight 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.
This report covers the first leg (PR426/MNL-FUK) of a MNL-FUK-MNL round trip. Click here to read my separate review of the return leg (PR425/FUK-MNL). I’ve also flown before with the same airline on the same route – click here to read a report of that previous experience.
For the sake of brevity, I’ve used the airline’s IATA code (PR) throughout this report, instead of the full name “Philippine Airlines”.
Note: All times are local. Please note that Manila, Philippines (GMT+8) is one hour behind Fukuoka, Japan (GMT+9).
Airline and flight number : Philippine Airlines (PR) 426
Route : Manila, Philippines (IATA code: MNL) to Fukuoka, Japan (IATA code: FUK)
Date : Saturday, 22 September 2018
Scheduled departure time : 0945
Actual departure time : 1007
Scheduled arrival time : 1430
Actual arrival time : 1407
EQUIPMENT AND CABIN
Aircraft : Airbus A321-200
Manufacturer : Airbus
Registration number : RP-C9919
Passenger capacity : 12 Business Class and 187 Economy Class = 199 total
Cabin configuration (seat maps) : Official Site
Travel class flown : Economy
I don’t have any external pictures of RP-C9919, though it would have looked virtually identical to the A321 I flew on for the return leg (RP-C9916). Here’s a shot of the latter aeroplane on the tarmac at FUK prior to my homeward flight.
Delivered in 2015, RP-C9919 is one of PR’s newer jets at less than 4 years of age. It certainly shows in the relatively good state of the cabin interior, with no obvious physical damage or signs of wear. That said, this aeroplane owes its configuration and installed equipment to the airline’s previous management, who were perhaps a little less forward-looking than they should have been over the type of seats and IFE system to put on their metal. We’ll have more to say about this later when we discuss seating and onboard entertainment.
Our departure was slightly delayed – a frequent occurrence at MNL for any airline (not just PR), given the congestion plaguing this extremely overtaxed airport. Nonetheless, our arrival was ahead of schedule so all’s well that ends well.
I paid USD 276.20 for the round-trip MNL-FUK-MNL flight, which breaks down as follows:
– Base fare = USD 199.00
– Surcharge = USD 15.00
– Passenger service charge (FUK) = USD 8.90
– Passenger service charge (MNL) = USD 10.50
– Travel tax = USD 30.80
– Ticketing service charge = USD 12.00
The total price includes the PHP 1,620.00 “Travel Tax” that Filipino citizens (with certain exceptions) must pay when flying out of the country, converted to USD 30.80 at the then-current rate. Although the tax is mandatory, it doesn’t have to be paid at the point of booking: passengers can settle the tariff at the TIEZA counters in MNL’s international terminals. That said, I’d generally recommend paying the tax right away when purchasing a ticket online (if the airline offers you the option to do so), as this means one less queue to deal with at the airport.
On this route (MNL-FUK), Economy Class passengers are entitled to a free check-in baggage allowance of up to 2 pieces, weighing 23 kg/50 lb each. The carry-on allowance is 1 piece weighing no more than 7 kg/15 lb, plus 2 additional small items such as a handbag or laptop with case. There are also limits on the dimensions of each piece of luggage, whether checked or carry-on.
Batteries (including power banks) and electronic devices containing batteries are not permitted in checked luggage, and must be transported on board in your carry-on bags.
For the fine print and other details, read the guidelines for checked luggage and carry-on luggage on PR’s official website.
AIRPORT, CHECK-IN, AND BOARDING
PR426 departed from Terminal 2 (T2) of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA code: MNL). Whilst there are plans to transform T2 into an all-domestic facility – which is consistent with its original design – to be shared with PR’s rival airline Cebu Pacific, at the moment it serves only PR flights and handles both domestic and international routes.
Click here to read a more detailed report about (and see additional pictures of) the terminal. I’ll sprinkle this section with a few pictures to help set the scene – you can find even more in that report.
PR flights bound for different destinations often share the same check-in counters at T2, with passengers under various flight numbers mixed into the same queue. Don’t be alarmed if the chap ahead of you says that he’s going to ABC when you’re checking in for XYZ: you’ll be fine as long as you’re at the correct set of counters assigned to serve your flight (as shown on the large flight information display above the middle of the check-in lobby).
Special lanes are available for Business Class and online check-in…
…but I was qualified for neither and had to use the normal Economy Class lanes. Fortunately, I’d arrived early in the morning and there were hardly any queues to speak of.
Having completed the formalities, I ploughed straight through immigration into the airside zone to, well, wait. There really isn’t much to do in MNL T2 but wait (as described in my post covering the facility), as it’s rather short on options for shopping, dining, and entertainment. That said, I’m madly in love with the simple, airy architecture of this vast building.
Boarding was done in groups, with each Economy Class passenger assigned a group letter on their boarding pass (corresponding to row locations on the plane). As per usual, the rear sections of the plane were populated first, then forwards to the front of the cabin. Business Class and high-tier Mabuhay Miles loyalty club members – as well as passengers requiring special assistance – were given separate lanes and invited to board first.
Down the bridge we go, and straight into the plane. T2’s gates are equipped with single aerobridges, so all passengers march through the same door (regardless of class or the size of their aircraft).
SEATING AND CABIN INTERIOR
I wasn’t able to take a lot of interior shots on this flight. Please note that some of the pictures used here – especially of the seats – are from the return leg (PR425), which employed the same type of aircraft with an identical cabin configuration.
PR’s previous-generation A321-200 aeroplanes – including this one – are fitted with 12 Business Class seats. (For a more detailed look at this part of the cabin, click here and read the report I wrote describing another PR flight where I travelled in Business on the same type of aircraft.)
Further aft are 187 Economy Class seats. 18 of those sit right behind the Business Class cabin and are marketed as Economy Plus, with grey upholstery to distinguish them from the regular Economy rows behind. For an additional fee (USD 30.00 one-way in the case of the MNL-FUK route), passengers can choose to be seated here and benefit from being closer to the front, as well as a sliver of extra legroom.
Back when PR was under its previous management, these seats (as well as similar rows on their then-new Airbus A330-300 planes) were marketed as full Premium Economy, despite their only advantages being the forward position and slightly better leg space. Service was no better than in standard Economy, and seat width was exactly the same as in the normal rows behind. PR’s new management are now installing proper Premium Economy sections on their latest aircraft – such as on their recently delivered Airbus A350-900 jets – which feature fewer seats per row (and therefore more width per seat) as well as larger personal TV screens than in standard Economy, along with being up front and enjoying more legroom and recline.
As for the older, faux-“Premium Economy” on the previous-generation A321s and A330s, these are now simply sold as Economy Plus, which better fits what they actually are and better describes what passengers can expect to get in return for paying slightly more.
The remaining 169 seats are standard regional Economy Class.
Here’s a wider shot of the cabin, taken on my return flight PR425 from further back (row 44) than I was on PR426 (row 31). Note that all curtains are drawn open in preparation for take-off.
Another shot taken later during the flight, after the full-length curtains screening the Business Class cabin had been pulled shut for privacy. The smaller curtains between Economy Plus and main Economy were never drawn.
My seat on PR426 was 31A, along the first row of the main Economy cabin and just behind the last row of Economy Plus. This explains why the seat in front of me was upholstered grey (even though mine and the others behind were in blue), and it also explains the presence of the small curtain at eye level.
The curtain is probably a legacy of the time when that section was sold as “Premium Economy”. I’d known about the curtain in advance (having flown on other PR flights using the A321-200) and was slightly apprehensive about it when I selected this row, thinking that it might flip back and fly about in my face whilst the plane is angled during take-off. I needn’t have worried: whether by the stiffness of the fabric or the way it was mounted, the curtain remained more or less stationary all throughout.
Overall, row 31 is a good place to be. This is as far forwards as I could sit without paying extra for Economy Plus, which meant that I’d disembark ahead of most passengers (a more important consideration for me than being able to board first). I was also sufficiently forward of the wings to enjoy unobstructed views during the flight, whether it be of MNL T2 before take-off…
…or of clouds and the azure sky above a glassy stretch of sea, sometime during the middle of the flight…
…or of the forested islands along the rugged coastline of Kyūshū, as we neared our destination…
…or of the marbled congestion of Fukuoka, as we came in on the final approach…
…or of the International Terminal of FUK itself, as we prepared to disembark after landing.
The views and forward position are probably the best things about this seat. Not much else to speak of, really. Decent legroom – just keep in mind that I’m not a large fellow – and there was enough space for my backpack under the seat in front. As you’ve seen in these pictures, the seat backs aren’t fitted with built-in IFE screens (more about that later), and the tray tables are nothing special. Rotating lock that doubles as a coat-hook; adjustable surface that can slide back a couple of inches. The tabletop is big enough for a typical meal tray, and has enough space for accessories like my portable keyboard and iPad…
…and my new mascot. That’s Angry Usagi, a stuffed toy I’m now field-testing for possible regular service as a symbolic “face” representing this travel blog. Due to privacy concerns, I’m determined not to post any photographs of my face on these pages, but I would like to add a personal touch by having something else stand in the role of front-man. He does vaguely resemble me, by the way – except for the bunny suit, of course.
Here’s Angry Usagi again, enjoying his first sight of Japan from this great vantage point – far higher up than any overpriced observation deck. It might not be apparent from his expression, but I can assure you that he’s quite pleased with the vista. (^_^)
Oh, and one other thing: the overhead panel. Just the usual bits and bobs – attendant call buttons, reading lights, adjustable air vents.
IN-FLIGHT SERVICE AND AMENITIES
By the time boarding commenced, every seat had already been furnished with a pillow and plastic-wrapped blanket. No amenity kits were supplied – but then again, one wouldn’t normally expect to receive an amenity kit in Economy Class on a regional flight.
The crew handed out disembarkation cards and customs forms shortly after take-off.
Newspapers were also distributed, with publications available in both Japanese and English. Lunch service began a short while later … but let’s save the details for further down in this post.
A duty free cart soon made its way down the aisle (credit cards accepted), after which the aeroplane settled into relative calm for the remainder of the cruise. “Relative”, of course, being the operative word: there were a couple of noisy children in my area of the cabin – one a chatter, the other a crier, both equally annoying – so catching forty winks presented something of a challenge.
As for service: now this is something I don’t usually have a lot to say about, as I tend not to interact much with the cabin crew on any flight. In any case, there’s much less scope for the attendants to offer highly personalised service back here in cattle class, as opposed to Business Class up front. That said, I’d rate the cabin crew’s performance as satisfactory, insofar as there’s nothing I can be bothered to complain about.
One last bit for this section – the contents of the seat pocket. Just the usual cast of suspects: in-flight magazine, duty free catalogue, air sickness bag, and safety briefing card.
And now we come to everyone’s favourite part: the food.
There were two mains on offer for Economy Class: chicken curry with rice, and beef with pasta (presumably filling the roles of Japanese and Western meal, respectively). Normally I’d take beef over poultry, but I was in the mood for rice and ended up choosing the curry.
Nice route-appropriate touch with the black bentō-style tray.
This was a relatively sauce-light curry, designed for consumption with chopsticks rather than with the usual spoon. The chicken was somewhat dry, though the curry sauce supplied a dash of rich juiciness that the meat itself lacked. The rice didn’t seem like true japonica, but it did possess the characteristic stickiness that allows one to easily lift up bite-sized clumps using chopsticks. By and large, a satisfactory main course.
Nothing remarkable (whether good or bad) about the salad, side dish, or fruit. If I were to nitpick, I’d say that the watermelon chunks were lacking in crunch, which suggests that they were slightly off from peak freshness. The dessert – labelled “Irish cream coffee” and consisting of jelly layered with cream – was likewise underwhelming in texture and taste.
Overall, a decent if forgettable meal, sufficient in terms of portion size to leave me feeling satisfied (even if the flavours weren’t quite on point).
Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were available, with hot tea and coffee served towards the end of service. My choice was sweet and simple: chilled apple juice chased down with water.
Despite being a relatively new bird at less than 4 years of age, RP-C9919 belongs firmly in the generation of A321-200s conceived and ordered under the previous management. I’m not entirely certain what species of herb they’d been smoking at the time, but these chaps had ill-advisedly chosen to “innovate” by dispensing with traditional built-in IFE in favour of a WiFi-based system – centred on their proprietary myPAL Player app – whereby audio and video content is streamed directly into passengers’ own devices. The app is free of charge, but must be installed before the flight for tablets or smartphones running iOS, although there’s an in-flight installation option for Android OS.
Now I don’t necessarily object to this type of system, provided that the essential support infrastructure is made available for those using it. First: hands-free holders to keep devices in place, specifically at the proper eye level for extended viewing. (Try holding a tablet aloft for more than a few minutes, or whilst eating an in-flight meal, and you’ll see why holders are necessary.) Second: in-seat power outlets to keep batteries charged up.
Cathay Dragon’s similarly equipped A320 is an example of how the set-up can be done right, with device holders and power points at every seat. Read my review of a recent flight with that airline to see how they’ve implemented the scheme.
Here’s the rub: PR installed neither of these two important elements when they rolled out the myPAL Player system on their A321-200 fleet. Not in Economy Class anyway, and even Business Class received USB charging ports but no holders. Fortunately, the new management are installing conventional built-in IFE with personal TV screens on their latest equipment (including PR’s A321neo, A350, and refurbished A330 planes), whilst continuing to operate the myPAL Player system alongside it.
Too late for RP-C9919 unfortunately, and refitting it with a proper IFE system might not make business sense (at least until it’s due for a major overhaul). In any case, it appears that PR only uses these A321-200 jets on domestic or regional routes, so most passengers probably wouldn’t be aloft long enough to complain.
That said, I decided to give the system a go and installed the myPAL Player app on an iPad before leaving for the airport. The system is available after the seat-belt lights have been switched off, at which point one simply needs to enable WiFi access and connect to the IFE network. Launch the app, and we’re good to go.
Tapping on the triple bar icon launches the navigation menu, from which one can then access the different categories of content available.
Detailed instructions are available in the in-flight magazine. There’s also an instructional video on PR’s official website that demonstrates how Android OS users can download and install the app once airborne.
My initial scepticism aside, the system worked well for the most part. Clean, simple, and generally user-friendly interface. Reasonably large selection. The content streamed smoothly and sharply, or at least sharply enough for stress-free viewing.
Be that as it may, this set-up was both ill-conceived and badly implemented, so the present management’s move towards traditional IFE (with myPAL Player as an added option) is a step in the right direction.
Allow me a brief digression to describe some of the other aeroplanes I encountered before and after the flight.
Whilst waiting to board at MNL, I spotted one of PR’s brand-new Airbus A350-900 jets waiting on the tarmac next to where my own plane was to park. This particular specimen is RP-C3501, delivered just this year.
More shots of RP-C3501, taken from the boarding bridge and from my seat on board the plane. Support vehicles have now clustered around the A350, with MNL ground crew getting her ready for flight PR112 bound for LAX (due to depart at 1125).
As my plane drew towards its assigned berth at FUK after landing, I caught sight of HL8242 some distance away. This Boeing 737-800, still fairly young at less than 7 years old, is operated by Korean low-cost carrier Jin Air. HL8242 was getting ready to depart as flight LJ224 bound for ICN (scheduled departure 1420) at the time I spotted her.
Right, planespotting interlude over. Let’s finish off the flight report with my general assessment of the experience.
With significant investments in new equipment and the opening of new routes, PR has clearly shown its determination to climb up the ratings ladder and become a major player amongst airlines in the region. Even so, the hiccups I’ve seen on this flight – mainly around their home terminal (which falls far short of standards) and the aeroplane used – demonstrate just as clearly that they’ve got a very long way to go.
Nonetheless, I emerged from this journey feeling quite satisfied with the experience. The equipment, for all its shortcomings, was fresh and well-maintained. The onboard meal was filling, and the cabin service pleasant. The price, whilst higher than budget-carrier levels, was more affordable than fares charged by the major regional carriers. Most importantly, the advertised schedule was more than adhered to with a slightly early arrival.
Even if the PR experience is less polished than that offered by some of the biggest aviation names in this part of the world, it’s an experience I’d be happy to relive on a future flight along the same route. (For the right price and schedule, of course.)