Flight Report:  FUK-MNL on Philippine Airlines Flight PR425 (26 September 2018)

The chaps running Philippine Airlines (PR) have shown time and again that they are capable of delivering a pleasant experience in the air. However, the serious shortcomings of PR’s home airport threaten to stymie its plans for growth, and destroy any goodwill that their decent onboard service might build up amongst passengers on each arriving flight. In this report, we’ll have a look at the PR experience from airport to airport – and in the sky between the two – on a journey from Fukuoka to Manila.

Welcome aboard PR425.

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 return leg (PR425/FUK-MNL) of a MNL-FUK-MNL round trip. Click here to read my report on the outbound leg (PR426/MNL-FUK). I’ve also flown before with the same airline on the same route – click here to read my review 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”.

ROUTE MAP

OVERVIEW

Note: All times are local. Fukuoka, Japan (GMT+9) is one hour ahead of Manila, Philippines (GMT+8).

Airline and flight number : Philippine Airlines (PR) 425
Route : Fukuoka, Japan (IATA code: FUK) to Manila, Philippines (IATA code: MNL)
Date : Wednesday, 26 September 2018
Scheduled departure time : 1530
Actual departure time : 1533
Scheduled arrival time : 1825
Actual arrival time : 1749

EQUIPMENT AND CABIN
Aircraft : Airbus A321-200
Manufacturer : Airbus
Registration number : RP-C9916
Passenger capacity : 12 Business Class and 187 Economy Class = 199 total
Cabin configuration (seat maps) : Official Site
Travel class flown : Economy

Here’s RP-C9916 on the tarmac at FUK prior to my homeward flight…

…and at MNL’s Terminal 2, parked at a gate after our arrival that same evening.

Delivered in November 2014, RP-C9916 is one of PR’s newer jets at 4 years of age. It certainly shows in the relatively good state of the cabin interior, with no obvious physical damage and few signs of significant 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.

Interestingly, this wasn’t my first flight on RP-C9916. The aeroplane and I have met before – although on that occasion, more than a year ago (03 June 2017 to be precise), it was working the MNL-ICN route as PR466.

PRICE

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.

BAGGAGE

On this route (FUK-MNL), 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

PR425 departed from the International Terminal of Fukuoka Airport (IATA code: FUK). I won’t go into too much detail regarding the airport here – instead, I invite you to read the separate detailed report I’ve written regarding the terminal and its facilities.

That said, I’ll sprinkle this section with a few pictures from that report to help set the scene, starting with the main check-in lobby.

As described in my article about FUK, there was an initial security screening even before I reached the counters, although this was meant only for check-in baggage. (Carry-on luggage and passengers themselves weren’t inspected at this stage.) The rest of the process was fairly straightforward, and not much different from what one might experience in any other major airport.

Two counters were provided for Business Class passengers and high-tier Mabuhay Miles loyalty club members. One counter was meant for those who had already checked in online, and five others were made available for all other Economy Class customers.

Boarding pass in hand, I made my way through security and immigration to the airside zone. The usual dining and shopping facilities were available – read my airport review for details – but I was content merely to wander about and explore.

Boarding was done in the usual way. Business Class and elite Mabuhay Miles club members first, along with passengers requiring special assistance. Then all the rest, myself included, group by group according to our row numbers (starting with the back of the plane and moving forwards).

The gate was fitted with a single aerobridge, so all passengers marched on board through the same door regardless of travel class. That said, given the relatively small size of our A321-200, it’s likely that only one aerobridge would have been deployed even if the gate had been equipped with two.

SEATING AND CABIN INTERIOR

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 FUK-MNL 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 from my seat on row 44. 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.

44A wasn’t such a bad place to be, even though it was set a few rows back from my place on the outbound flight (31A). The seat was close enough to the front to position me for disembarkation ahead of most passengers, which is more important to me than being able to board first.

Now for the views. I was further aft this time around than on PR426, but the wing was still sufficiently behind of me not to block out the sight of FUK’s international terminal before our push-back from the gate…

…or of white clouds below and the deep blue sky above, during the middle of the flight…

…or of MNL’s Terminal 2, bathed in the pale golden glow of an overcast sunset.

And on the flip side, the wing was close enough that I could simply turn my head or angle my phone camera lens back to catch sight of it, whenever I wished to do so.

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.

Now for a shot of the overhead panel. Just the usual bits and bobs – attendant call buttons, reading lights, adjustable air vents.

IN-FLIGHT SERVICE AND AMENITIES

Economy Class seats were furnished only with pillows prior to boarding. Plastic-wrapped blankets were distributed later, after boarding was mostly complete and the flight attendants could freely walk up and down the aisle. This differs from the procedure on our outbound leg, where both pillows and blankets were placed on every seat in advance.

Newspapers were offered before take-off, with publications available in both Japanese and English.

No amenity kits were supplied. 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 after take-off. I received only a customs declaration, as Filipino passport holders are no longer required to fill out an arrival slip.

I’m not sure if they’re using older stock, or if the forms haven’t been updated at all, but that bit regarding local currency is out of date: the limit was raised from PHP 10,000.00 to PHP 50,000.00 in 2016. The information boards set up on the baggage claim carousels at MNL do reflect the rule change.

Lunch service began afterwards – we’ll lay out all the juicy details about that in the next section of this post.

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. The usual cast of suspects is all present and correct: in-flight magazine, duty free catalogue, air sickness bag, and safety briefing card.

So much for the preliminaries. Now for the really important bit: the food.

CATERING

The cabin attendants showed a laminated menu to each passenger as they pushed the cart down the aisle. Better, in my view, than how things were done on PR426, where the choices were only verbally described.

Two options were available in Economy Class on PR425: beef in ankake sauce with steamed rice, and fish in tomato sauce with penne pasta (presumably filling the roles of Japanese and Western meal, respectively).

This was another benefit of being relatively close to the front: namely, being served first with the assurance that both alternatives were still available. As a chap who loathes seafood, I’d have probably passed on the meal entirely if the cart had come round with nothing but the fish course remaining.

Fortunately, the choice was still mine to make, and the outcome of the choice was obvious.

Nice route-appropriate touch with the black bentō-style tray.

The beef was absolutely scrumptious: tender, juicy, and dripping with flavourful sauce. The rice was well cooked and helped to balance out the rich taste of the meat. I’d have asked for more of both if it were possible, and if I had the gall to do so.

Amongst the side dishes, I particularly liked the potato salad, whilst the fruit was my least favourite (I’m a sworn enemy of grapefruit and could have done without it on my tray). The lemon custard tart was a simple but tasty dessert and a good finish to the meal.

My compliments to the chef, or rather to the industrial assembly line that put together this delicious tray. Better than the meal I enjoyed on the outbound MNL-FUK flight, which – to be fair – wasn’t even bad at all.

Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were available, with hot tea and coffee served towards the end of service. I went with my usual in-flight choice: chilled apple juice chased down with water.

IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT

Despite being a relatively new bird at about 4 years of age, RP-C9916 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-C9916 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 my outbound leg. 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.

The screencaps below were taken during my Japan-bound flight, PR426 (hence the date 22 September at the top).

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.

AFTER ARRIVAL

I don’t normally comment on what happens after a flight lands, but I shall try to get into the habit of doing so from now on. After all, a “flight”, broadly speaking, isn’t limited to the time spent airborne. It’s a complete experience, one that encompasses the parts spent on the ground before departure and after arrival.

We landed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA code: MNL), the Philippines’ largest airport and the main gateway to the Greater Manila area. Like most PR flights using MNL, PR425 docked at Terminal 2 (T2), which – for the time being – is used exclusively by this airline.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding T2 here, but I’ve written a separate report that explains what things are like in the departures area of this facility.

Off the plane and up the aerobridge into the terminal…

…then down a very long corridor to the escalator that will take us to the immigration counters. No travelators. Weak air-conditioning. The walk was made longer by the fact that we’d parked at the south wing, whereas immigration was at the very northern tip of the north wing.

As I’ve described in my detailed review of MNL T2, this building was originally designed as an all-domestic terminal – hence the layout and fittings don’t quite meet the standards one would normally hold an international airport to.

There was another set of stairs down to a bank of immigration counters much closer to our arrival gate, but it was cordoned off. (If memory serves, it was reserved for the use of transit passengers.) We had to keep walking past it, whilst ground staff barked barely comprehensible instructions at odd intervals. One would also run into passengers walking frantically back the other way, perhaps realising they should have gone down that other set of stairs. It was a madhouse, poorly organised in every respect, and an appalling welcome to show visitors entering the Philippines.

Immigration and baggage claim were hardly better. Since the terminal’s original all-domestic design didn’t call for a passport control zone, the immigration counters were shoehorned into a small area which rapidly filled up with people descending from the arrivals corridor. Then followed a long wait as baggage took forever to start getting spit out onto the belt. Then a really long wait at the taxi stand, which was located underneath an elevated viaduct which dripped rainwater onto those standing in the wrong place. No trains, and poor-to-nonexistent bus coverage (especially if you’re heading to the southern reaches of Greater Manila).

On the whole, the part after the flight was a complete embarrassment for the airline. It’s a shame to have to even remark upon this, after a satisfactory time in the air with PR, but it’s something that must be said in the hope that the appropriate remedies can be brought in place.

PLANESPOTTING INTERLUDE

Now then, a brief digression to describe some of the other aeroplanes I encountered before and after the flight.

Whilst waiting for departure on board my plane at FUK, I caught sight of HL7211 some distance away on the tarmac. This Air Busan Airbus A321-200, almost brand new at less than a year old, had just arrived about 20 minutes earlier as flight BX146 from PUS. About an hour after this, it was due to return to PUS as flight BX145.

After landing at MNL, our immediate neighbour was RP-C9921. An Airbus A321-200 operated by Philippine Airlines, its departure from CEB as flight PR2850 had been delayed by nearly four hours and it had docked only about half an hour or so ahead of us – even though it should have arrived before we were to take off from FUK.

A shot of our own A321-200, RP-C9916. And behind it, quite the photo-bomber: KLM’s bright blue Boeing 777-200ER PH-BQL, taxiing towards Terminal 3 just after landing from TPE as flight KL807. At more than 12 years old, this large bird is already a veteran compared to the other aeroplanes featured here.

And over here, we have one of PR’s shiny new Airbus A321neo aircraft. Unfortunately, I don’t know the registration number of this particular specimen, but it’s one of six in an initial batch that’s now being delivered to PR, with 15 more in a different layout to follow.

The A321neo features an updated cabin interior that – unlike the borderline-LCC ridiculousness of the older A321 I flew in today – actually stands a decent chance of setting PR on an even footing with its regional competitors, along with its refreshed A330-300 product and new A350-900 aircraft. It’s a shame that PR’s home base of MNL T2 is so badly hobbling its forward drive, but the massive improvement reflected in its latest hardware gives cause for cautious optimism.

Right, planespotting interlude over. Let’s finish off the flight report with my general assessment of the experience.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

My general assessment of PR425 is pretty much the same as that of PR426 – except that the departure airport and in-flight meal were better this time around – so I’ll quote the closing statements of my previous flight review here.

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.)

Unfortunately, the treatment we received after the flight was far, far, FAR short of standards. One realises that PR can’t do everything that needs doing, given the infrastructure constraints of T2 and (more broadly for MNL as a whole) the lack of decisive action from the government, but some things they can’t be excused from. The sight of those confused passengers in the arrival corridor, and indeed my own feelings of confusion and frustration – despite having used T2 on multiple occasions before – highlight the severe shortcomings on PR’s part for even the smaller things they should be able to make improvements on, such as signage and consistent announcements/guidance from ground staff.

All that said, I’d still recommend PR for this route, and I’ll fly with them again if the fares and timetables suit my plans. But one hopes – for their sake – that PR can get their act together on MNL T2, and not wait until after the planned terminal reassignments to improve the experience on the ground for their arriving passengers. (NB: One version of that plan has their international routes moving to the older, yet more suitably laid-out Terminal 1, which has its own serious limitations but could be an improvement in several respects.)

Cheerio.

3 responses to “Flight Report:  FUK-MNL on Philippine Airlines Flight PR425 (26 September 2018)

  1. Pingback: Flight Report:  MNL-FUK on Philippine Airlines Flight PR426 (22 September 2018) | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Flight Report: MNL-FUK-MNL on PR 426 and PR 425 | Within striking distance·

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