In this report, we’ll see what it’s like to fly with the Philippines’ largest low-cost carrier on the busy Manila-Tōkyō run – a route that I travel on regularly since Japan is my favourite holiday destination. Cheap this airline might be, but have they done well enough to woo me back the next time I take this four-hour hop?
Welcome aboard Cebu Pacific flight 5J 5054.
UPDATE: Click here to read a new report covering a later iteration of 5J 5054 (flight date 28 September 2019).
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 outbound leg (5J 5054 / MNL-NRT) of a MNL-NRT-MNL round trip. Click here to read my review of the return leg (5J 5057 / NRT-MNL).
For the sake of brevity, I’ve used the airline’s IATA code (5J) throughout this report, instead of the full name “Cebu Pacific”.
Note: All times are local. Please note that Manila, Philippines (GMT+8) is one hour behind Tōkyō, Japan (GMT+9).
Airline and flight number : Cebu Pacific (5J) 5054
Route : Manila, Philippines (IATA code: MNL) to Tōkyō-Narita, Japan (IATA code: NRT)
Date : Thursday, 15 November 2018
Scheduled departure time : 0615
Actual departure time : 0641
Scheduled arrival time : 1135
Actual arrival time : 1132
EQUIPMENT AND CABIN
Aircraft : Airbus A330-300
Manufacturer : Airbus
Registration number : RP-C3343
Passenger capacity : 436, all Economy Class
Cabin configuration (seat maps) : Official Site
Travel class flown : Economy
As of this writing, there are eight Airbus A330-300 planes in the 5J fleet. All are fitted with the same single-class, 436-seat cabin interior – more on this later – but only the two newest specimens, RP-3347 and RP-C3348, feature the redesigned livery introduced in 2016.
The bird I flew in today was RP-C3343, 5J’s third A330 (delivered in 2014). I don’t have any images of the aircraft’s exterior except for this picture of the nose, taken as I was rushing out of the plane after landing…
…but I can tell you that it was covered in the superseded livery centred on the 5J online brand, “CEBU PACIFIC AIR.COM”. Needless to say, this older decorative scheme placed a rather strong emphasis on the carrier’s LCC model by throwing the spotlight on their website: a piece of self-advertising, as opposed to a statement of identity. Thankfully, they’ve transitioned to a new and quite attractive livery design (albeit too late for today’s aircraft) as part of the run-up to their 20th anniversary in 2016.
For this particular route, 5J currently operates two round-trip flights: an earlier arrival/departure (usually served by an A330), and a later arrival/departure (utilising an A320 or A321). To maximise my sightseeing time, I booked the early arrival in NRT plus the later departure – essentially a hybrid round trip that takes one leg from each of the two service runs. We’ll touch on the return leg in a separate report, but for the outbound leg, a 20+ minute delay in our departure from MNL didn’t stop us from landing 3 minutes ahead of schedule at NRT. Given that I value my time on the ground when on holiday, 5J earns high praise from me for sticking to the advertised time.
I paid PHP 16,018.53 for the round-trip MNL-NRT-MNL flight, which breaks down as follows:
– Base fare = PHP 8,976.00
– Passenger service charge (PH) = PHP 550.00
– Passenger security fee (JP) = PHP 255.52
– Passenger service charge (JP) = PHP 1,027.01
– Administration fee = PHP 500.00
– Seat selection fee = PHP 460.00
– Travel insurance = PHP 400.00
– Baggage = PHP 1,450.00
– Meals = PHP 700.00
– Travel tax = PHP 1,620.00
– Travel tax handling fee = PHP 80.00
The total price includes the PHP 1,620.00 “Travel Tax” that residents of the Philippines (with certain exceptions) must pay when flying out of the country. 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. Just bear in mind that if you do decide to pre-pay the travel tax, 5J will charge an extra PHP 80.00 as a “handling fee”.
Passengers flying with 5J are not entitled to a complimentary checked baggage allowance. If you’ve got luggage to put in the hold, you’ll need to pay extra for the service.
Three weight allowances are offered: Standard (max 2 pieces totalling 20 kg), Large (max 3 pieces totalling 32 kg), and Extra Large (max 4 pieces totalling 40 kg). A 15 kg tier was also on the menu at the time I booked my ticket, but it appears that this is no longer available.
Rates vary by destination and by how far in advance the allowance is reserved. As of this writing, a 20 kg checked baggage allowance on an MNL-NRT flight starts at PHP 850.00, assuming it’s purchased with the ticket at initial booking. The price goes up to PHP 1,099.00 if it’s added later, 15 days or more before departure. If one waits until 14 days or less ahead of the flight date, the same 20 kg allowance will cost PHP 1,249. Further details are available on 5J’s official website.
The carry-on allowance is 1 piece weighing no more than 7 kg, plus 1 additional small item such as a handbag or laptop case. There are also limits on the dimensions of each piece of luggage.
For the fine print and other details, read the guidelines for checked luggage and carry-on luggage on 5J’s official website.
All 5J international flights out of Manila use Terminal 3 (T3) of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA code: MNL) – the largest and busiest airport in the Philippines.
Despite being the newest and largest of MNL’s three international terminals, T3 is the one I dislike the most. (I haven’t flown out of the all-domestic T4 in many years and can’t really comment on how things are like over there.) The sterile, soulless architecture of this place is better suited to a hospital than a transportation hub, and even now, there are obvious signs that the building was never properly completed in the first place. By comparison, the much older and smaller T1 has a compact efficiency and rather interesting retro character (harking back to the ‘80s and ‘90s) that I find somewhat endearing. As for T2 – about which I’ve written a detailed report here – it possesses a very limited footprint but does have the airy, soaring architecture one often associates with a major airport.
I didn’t take a lot of pictures before departing on 5J 5054, but we can gain a general impression of the place by assembling a gallery that includes images I snapped on previous occasions.
Here’s the main check-in hall (first picture taken in December 2014, the rest in November 2014). Not so bad hereabouts – though it’ll get worse the deeper into T3 we go.
The central zone after immigration (taken in May 2018). A few additional shops have opened since then, so there’s been some improvement in terms of the available options. That said, the awful lighting and dull decorative scheme remain woefully unchanged.
You’ll observe a glass-and-steel partition running down the centre of the building (also taken in May 2018). The purpose of this barrier is to divide T3 into international and domestic halves – a rather absurd arrangement, given that it was designed as a purely international terminal from the ground up. Plans for a terminal realignment are now being developed, which will see T2 (also serving both destination types) turned into an all-domestic facility and T3 all-international, consistent with their original designs.
Here’s the area near some of the boarding gates (taken before the present flight). Not bad – if I were in a state-run medical facility. For an airport, it’s a complete joke.
Let’s backtrack a bit and go through some of the pre-flight procedures.
There are security checkpoints at every entrance to T3, equipped with X-ray machines and body scanners. Note that this is in addition to, not in place of, the security barrier next to immigration. Bear in mind that non-passengers aren’t allowed close to the check-in counters – though I’ve been told they can enter to eat and shop in the retail zones – and guards posted at the main entrances will inspect your airline ticket (which can be either a printed copy or a digital version on your mobile device). This creates an additional choke-point and often leads to rather long queues, so do set aside some extra time just for getting into the building.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, if you’re subject to the national travel tax and haven’t settled this in advance, you’ll need to swing by the TIEZA counter and pay what’s owed before proceeding to the check-in counters.
CHECK-IN AND BOARDING
5J flights are operated as all-economy services, so there are no separate counters for Business Class. Dedicated lanes are provided for passengers with special needs, as well as for those who have already checked in online and need to drop off their luggage.
Passport and visa inspections are required for all international travellers – whether or not they’ve got luggage to check in – so you’ll need to queue up at a counter even if you’ve already checked in online.
Boarding was organised along the usual lines: back of the plane first, moving gradually towards the front rows.
Interestingly, the airline extended a last-minute offer to accept check-in bags right at the gate, free of charge. This was ostensibly to make things easier for passengers by allowing them to put bulky carry-ons in the hold, and not have to haul them around in the cabin or fight for the limited overhead bin space. Naturally, one suspects that 5J’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic – the offer is likely geared towards making embarkation and disembarkation quicker.
Only one aerobridge was deployed, with all passengers using the forward door.
SEATING AND CABIN INTERIOR
Each of 5J’s Airbus A330-300 aeroplanes has a single-class cabin divided into 3 sections, with a total of 436 economy seats. Of course, even in an all-economy cabin, not all seats are equal: 5J charges higher prices for certain seats depending on legroom and their position within the aircraft.
In the case of the A330, and specifically for the MNL-NRT route, 5J charges the following seat selection fees:
– Preferred: Exit row or bulkhead seats – PHP 650.
– Standard Plus: Aft section of the cabin – PHP 400.
– Standard: All other seats – PHP 230 on initial booking, PHP 280 if added later via the “Manage Booking” page.
Designating seats in the back of the plane as “Standard Plus” might seem like an odd move at first, but it makes sense after one consults the A330 deck plan on 5J’s official website. Note how the usual sets of 3 seats along the windows become pairs near the end, where the fuselage narrows as one approaches the tail. Although the seats themselves are presumably no different from the rest (physically speaking), the reduction in numbers makes this area a bit roomier along the aisles.
Here’s a shot of the middle 3 seats next to the forward bulkhead, snapped in haste as I was walking towards my place (to give you some idea of what to expect hereabouts).
I was seated in row 7A, part of the forward section and roughly where the Business Class cabin would be on a two- or three-class bird. Here’s a picture of the area, looking towards the front from my seat.
Although I only paid a “Standard” fee for 7A, it gave me some of the advantages one might expect from a Business Class seat. For one thing, I was close to both the forward and second doors, which are the ones normally used for boarding and disembarkation. This meant that I could expect a relatively short walk to my seat when getting on, and I’d be amongst the first to deplane after landing.
The other advantage? Better views, of course. Unobstructed, with no wing or engine to block out the vista, whether it be of the marbled congestion of Greater Manila on our ascent…
…or of the blue skies above and calm sea below – with a generous sprinkling of white clouds in between – somewhere along the middle of our route…
…or even of the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji as we drew closer to NRT on our approach before landing.
Let’s turn our thoughts towards the seat. Mine was a typical 5J seat, with approximately 30 inches of pitch.
No major complaints in terms of comfort. That said, I’m not a fan of the upholstery, whether in terms of the material (I’ll take fabric over faux leather any day) or the colour scheme (which seems like something straight out of an operating room).
I found both the seat width and leg space adequate for my needs, though I should stress that I’m neither a tall nor particularly wide fellow. Larger folk might find it a bit of a squeeze, and should consider investing in an extra-legroom seat.
The legroom might have sufficed – but the tray table was decidedly lacking in terms of size.
As a yardstick, let’s have Angry Usagi (my blog mascot) stretch out on the surface. Note that he’s about 28 cm tall, from the tips of his bunny ears to the tips of his bunny toes.
There isn’t much room for doing whatever needs doing, whether it’s filling out the arrival card or tucking into the onboard meal. Things slid off, got knocked off, or simply rolled off the table more than once during the flight. I also had to be extra creative when trying to fit both my iPad and Bluetooth keyboard onto the surface.
Here’s the instrument panel above my seat.
Just the usual bits and bobs. Reading lamps, seat belt sign, (permanently-lit) no-smoking sign, PA speaker, and (unmarked) attendant call buttons.
There are 8 lavatories in total: two in front of the forward cabin, four just aft of the middle cabin, and two all the way back in the tail.
The interiors seemed reasonably well kept, but one must remember that RP-C3343 is a fairly new unit. 5J isn’t entirely consistent where housekeeping is concerned, as I observed during my return flight more than two weeks later – though that’s a story we’ll save for a future travel report.
IN-FLIGHT SERVICE AND AMENITIES
I’m usually provided with a pillow and blanket when flying with a full-service airline on a route of this length. Not today, though: 5J is an LCC and such creature comforts are far beyond scope.
A sleeping kit and 5J-branded blanket are available – if you’re willing to purchase them. As for myself, I was quite happy to go without.
Arrival cards and customs declaration forms were distributed after take-off. (Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.)
I can’t really say much more about the onboard service as I tend not to interact much with cabin crew. That said, they seemed polite and efficient in executing their duties.
Let’s have a look at the contents of the seat pocket. Nothing out of the ordinary here: safety briefing card, in-flight magazine, air sickness bag.
Actually, that last item is a wee bit out of the ordinary. In a good way.
Over the past few years, I’ve observed that some flights have begun to use unbranded, plain paper air sickness bags, perhaps to discourage passengers from collecting them as souvenirs – or perhaps simply to save on printing costs. Even those airlines that still put their own designs on the bags tend to employ dull, monochromatic graphics and text. Using just two colours (three if you count white), 5J have managed to produce what is perhaps the most eye-catching air sickness bag I’ve seen in a long time.
Now then, let’s have a chat about everyone’s favourite part of the flight: the onboard meal.
As one might expect of an LCC, 5J won’t serve its passengers anything – not even a beverage – unless they’ve paid for the service. That said, you won’t hear me complaining: there are things one learns to live without (or pay extra for) when flying with a budget carrier.
On the other hand, I was eager to have a taste of 5J’s in-flight offering and decided to pre-book meals for both legs of my journey. With each meal costing PHP 350.00, this raised the price of my ticket by a total of PHP 700.00.
The pre-order menu changes periodically, but here’s a rundown of what was available for my flight (to give some idea of the variety on offer):
– Sandwiches/wraps filled with beef or chicken, PHP 180.00-250.00
– Pastry with a sweet filling, PHP 180.00
– Pasta dishes with seafood toppings, PHP 350.00
– Beef, chicken, and seafood meals with rice, PHP 350.00
Some of the current selections were featured in the in-flight magazine. Pictures and brief descriptions of all available meals can be viewed on the official website.
There was no menu card in my seat pocket on this flight, but I did get one on the return leg. Click here to see inside the buy-on-board menu (scroll down to the “CATERING” section of that post).
The buy-on-board menu adds a range of snacks and lighter fare. Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are available for purchase.
My selection from the pre-order menu: chicken kebabs in garlic yogurt sauce, with rice and grilled tomato on the side. Pre-ordered rice meals are served with a complimentary beverage (of the airline’s choice, not the passenger’s) – in this case, a 230 ml bottle of sweet apple-flavoured tea.
The chicken was a little under-seasoned, and perhaps somewhat dry, but quite good overall. They’ve done the right thing by serving the sauce in a separate packet, instead of putting it straight onto the chicken patties; otherwise the whole dish might have ended up soggy and unappetising after prolonged storage.
Whilst not large, the portion size was sufficient to leave me feeling satisfied. Do bear in mind that I’d already consumed a full breakfast at the airport prior to departure: if my stomach were completely empty then I might be singing a different tune.
Non-existent, unless you’re generous enough to count the in-flight magazine as “entertainment”. (We’re on a budget carrier, after all.) Let’s move on.
Flying with any airline – regardless of record or reputation – has its attendant risks, but a budget carrier will often merit an extra dose of caution. Whether it’s from cramped conditions on board, or the potentially deceptive nature of the service pricing (with supposedly low base fares rapidly increasing as ancillaries are added), or the possibility of major delays and cancellations, one might easily find cause for concern whilst waiting for an upcoming LCC flight. That said, the careful traveller has no reason to shun these airlines, provided one’s expectations as regards service and reliability are appropriately tempered.
In the case of 5J, I must say that they’ve done rather well on this particular flight, with none of my key pre-flight concerns crystallising into actual missteps. Conditions on board (at least for someone of my size and build) were not at all cramped – well, tiny tray table aside – with sufficient space available to settle in comfortably for a 4-hour flight. By booking promotional fares and being careful to add only what I required for the trip, I was able to keep a lid on costs, and might even have gotten away with paying less if I were happy to forgo certain things (like pre-selected seats and onboard meals). And most importantly, I was delivered to my destination by the promised time, bucking 5J’s poor reputation as regards schedule adherence.
Of course, the concerns aren’t entirely without foundation. On the matter of delays, for example, 5J does fudge things up quite badly at times. (I might point out that I wasn’t spared this on my return leg, but we’ll go into that in another review.) That said, there are certain routes where their performance is generally up to standard, and that happens to include MNL-NRT-MNL. I’ve also heard that delays/cancellations tend to happen more frequently on domestic flights, which limits the potential impact on me somewhat as I almost never travel domestically.
Other aspects of the onboard experience were also more than satisfactory. The in-flight meal was decent, the crew were polite, the aircraft was fresh and well maintained. Some things were absent, but those were things I could easily live without on a flight of this duration – IFE and blankets, for example.
All things considered, including even the rather less-than-stellar experience of my future return flight (which will be the subject of a separate review post), I was happy with the 5J experience. Some caution is still warranted, but will likely not dissuade me from flying with this carrier again – provided that the prices and timetables meet my requirements.
UPDATE: Click here to read a new report covering a later iteration of 5J 5054 (flight date 28 September 2019).