No less than five airlines compete for market share on the busy route between Manila and Taipei – a popular (and conveniently short) regional hop for business-people and holidaymakers alike. In today’s post, we’ll look at one LCC option for travelling between these bustling cities: a morning flight operated by the Philippines’ largest budget carrier.
Welcome aboard Cebu Pacific flight 5J 312.
Note: Schedule/route information, equipment type, pricing, and other details are accurate only for the specific flight reviewed here. This information might not hold true for previous or future flights, even by the same airline under the same route and flight number.
This report covers the first half (5J 312 / MNL-TPE) of a round-trip MNL-TPE-MNL itinerary. A separate review of the return leg (5J 313 / TPE-MNL) will be published in due course.
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. There is no time difference between Taipei, Taiwan and Manila, Philippines (both GMT+8).
Airline and flight number : Cebu Pacific (5J) 312
Route : Manila, Philippines (IATA code: MNL) to Taipei, Taiwan (IATA code: TPE)
Date : Thursday, 12 September 2019
Scheduled departure time : 0725
Actual departure time : 0743
Scheduled arrival time : 0955
Actual arrival time : 0924
EQUIPMENT AND CABIN
Aircraft : Airbus A321neo
Manufacturer : Airbus
Registration number : RP-C4118
Passenger capacity : 236, all Economy Class
Travel class flown : Economy
Here’s our assigned aircraft parked on the tarmac next to MNL T3. (Planespotting moment: the photobomber edging in from the right is RP-C3262, one of 5J’s Airbus A320-200 jets.)
Now for a close-up, taken through a window in the aerobridge just moments before I stepped on board. 5J might be an LCC, but I think their current livery is one of the best in the skies.
And one last picture of the plane’s exterior, snapped right after we disembarked at TPE.
At just a few months old (delivered in January 2019), RP-C4118 is one of the newest members of the 5J fleet. This bird is also a flying milestone in 5J’s corporate history, given that it’s the very first of 32 Airbus A321neo aeroplanes ordered by the airline to enter service.
Setting aside the many technological tweaks and under-the-hood refinements, some of the differences between 5J’s A321ceo jets and its spanking new A321neos are readily visible to the untrained eye. For comparison, have a look through this previous 5J flight report in which I flew aboard an A321ceo.
One of the more obvious changes has to do with the exit configurations. The A321ceo (with the specific layout selected by 5J) comes with four pairs of full-sized doors, whilst the A321neo (again, referring specifically to 5J’s version) has just three – though it’s fitted with extra overwing emergency exits to compensate. The engines are also markedly different, both in appearance (e.g., the fan blades) and in operating efficiency; no surprise there given that “neo” stands for “new engine option“.
Our reservation was for five people under a single booking reference. Splitting the total price evenly yields an average of PHP 7,730.25 per person, with all fees accounted for. It should be possible to book round-trip MNL-TPE flights with 5J for even less than that, especially if one happens to lock in a promotional fare and/or avoids optional charges such as luggage and seats.
The total price above includes the PHP 1,620.00 individual “Travel Tax” that residents of the Philippines (with certain exceptions) must pay when flying out of the country. Although mandatory, it doesn’t have to be paid at the point of booking: passengers can settle the tax at the TIEZA counters in MNL’s international terminals. That said, I usually add the tax immediately when purchasing a ticket online (if the option is available), because that means one less queue to deal with at the airport. Just bear in mind that if you do decide to pre-pay, 5J will charge an extra PHP 100.00 per person 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. Prices will vary depending on the route, when the allowance is purchased (cheaper at initial booking and more expensive if added later), and – of course – the desired weight limit.
Bear in mind that each baggage allowance is also subject to piece restrictions. The larger the weight class, the more pieces you can check in. For example, only two pieces of luggage (weighing no more than 20 kg in total) can be checked in at the 20 kg tier. If you’ve got three bags weighing just 10 kg put together, you still won’t be able to check in all three if a 20 kg tier is what you’ve purchased.
For the fine print and other details, read the guidelines for checked luggage and carry-on luggage on 5J’s official website.
AT THE AIRPORT (BEFORE DEPARTURE)
Further details about MNL T3 – including information on airport facilities and an extensive gallery of pictures – are available in a separate report.
CHECK-IN AND BOARDING
The international check-in counters run by 5J at MNL T3 are often shared between multiple flights bound for different destinations. Expect a fair bit of queuing at peak times – which fortunately didn’t include the time at which we approached the counters.
5J flights are all-economy and their loyalty programme is really just for accumulating points, so there are no separate lanes for premium or tiered passengers. On other flights, I’ve seen dedicated “bag drop” counters for those who have already checked in online, as well as a courtesy lane for senior citizens and disabled travellers. Being slightly unwell at the time and less observant than usual, I can’t recall if these facilities were available when we checked in for 5J 312 (but they may well have been).
Do note that passport/visa verification is required for international flights, so ALL passengers – checked in online or not, with bags or without – must present themselves at a counter.
LCC flights normally use the distant gates along the southeastern finger of T3, a long walk from immigration and security. Our assigned boarding point was Gate 105, one of a pair sitting all the way at the very tip of the terminal.
We were summoned aboard in blocks of rows, starting from the back of the plane and moving towards the front. Passengers with special needs (including the elderly) were asked to board first.
A single aerobridge was used by all passengers – no surprise as the flight was all-economy and we were using a small plane.
CABIN INTERIOR AND SEATING
The cabin was in fairly good shape, though there were signs of a less-than-thorough approach to maintenance. Nothing major, mind you – just a stain here, a splash there, that sort of thing.
5J’s new Airbus A321neo aeroplanes are fitted with single-class cabins containing 236 economy seats, six more than their current-generation A321-200 jets. The extra capacity was made possible by the manufacturer’s new “Cabin Flex” configuration, where a change in the number and type of exit doors (as mentioned earlier) allows for the insertion of more seats – up to 240 or more using the highest-density layouts.
Of course, even in an all-economy cabin, not all seats are equal: 5J charges higher prices for certain places depending on legroom and their position within the aircraft. Fees will vary on the route and when the seat reservation is made (note that, as with most of 5J’s optional services, you’ll be charged more if this is added after initial booking).
The seats on the bulkhead-free port side of row 1 appear to have the most spacious legroom on this aeroplane. The window seat is disadvantaged due to the wall angling inwards as it meets the door frame, but the remaining two places enjoy about as much open space as a market square. (Then again, one should bear in mind that those waiting for their turn to use the forward lavatory will tend to congregate hereabouts.)
Note that the seats on the starboard side of row 1 have the forward galley bulkhead in front of them.
The standard rows are standard-issue budget-airline narrow, though this has never been a problem for me. That said, I’m not an especially broad or tall fellow, so larger folk may find these same seats uncomfortably tight.
My place was in row 19, next to one of the overwing exits. Caveats aside (higher cost to reserve, no floor storage during take-off or landing, duty to assist in case of an emergency, etc.), the position comes with a key advantage: plenty of extra legroom.
To illustrate what the view is like from this row, here’s a selection of pictures taken through my exit-door window. (Planespotting moment: the aeroplane in the third image below is HS-XBF, an ex-Singapore Airlines Boeing 777-200 currently operated by NokScoot.)
Let’s have a wider shot of the cabin now, taken from my seat and looking towards the front.
Nothing on the seat back except the usual tray table and pocket. The tray table is rather small, although it’s possible to slide it forwards by a few inches to create more room behind.
The table might be lacking in size, but it does have an extra feature. Look closely and you’ll observe a small ridge near the back edge – a simple holder for smartphones or small tablets. 5J won’t provide you with built-in IFE, but on the A321neo they’ll at least make it easier to enjoy whatever digital entertainment you may have brought on board.
And to keep those devices fully juiced up, they’ve even fitted USB power points under the seats. Note that unlike on the older A321ceo, where the outlets are next to your legs (as shown in this previous flight report), those on the 5J A321neo are in front of you: a far more convenient location that makes them easier to locate (especially in a darkened cabin) and easier to use.
The slim profile of these Recaro SL3510 seats might deceive one into thinking that they’re as hard as wooden benches. On the contrary, I found that there was plenty of yield where it was needed most. A special netting used in the SL3510’s backrest allows for the use of thinner foam layers whilst maintaining adequate support, which means a slimmer seat outline – hence a little more space for the same amount of pitch.
One VERY important thing to bear in mind: the seats on this aeroplane do not recline. (I’m not just referring to the exit rows, but to all seats.) Now I realise that opinions will vary, with different physical conditions and characteristics coming into play; indeed I’ve personally flown with someone who objected to the lack of adjustable recline. That said, where I’m concerned, the predefined 15-degree angle of the Recaro SL3510 offered just the right amount of comfort.
On balance, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that 5J’s new seats are amongst the most comfortable I’ve ever had to plant myself in (not counting business class recliners, of course). But as with many things in the world of commercial flight, YMMV.
One other thing. The armrests can be fully raised, which might interest those hoping to turn empty rows into makeshift beds. Whether the cabin crew will allow them to stretch out in this fashion is another matter.
Now for a shot of the overhead panel.
If one is faced with urgent needs of a personal nature, there are four lavatories to choose from: one in the front, three all the way in the tail.
At roughly 2.5 hours on paper – and less than 2 hours in reality – the MNL-TPE journey was short enough for me to set aside the idea of paying for a hot in-flight meal. That said, 5J have recently dropped the prices of their pre-ordered meals (from PHP 350 to PHP 249 on initial booking, higher if added later) so tucking into one of those shouldn’t make too much of a dent in one’s travel budget.
In any event, if you’ve elected not to pre-order a hot meal, there’s a selection of snacks and beverages to choose from when buying on board. Note that the items listed on the menu’s back cover must be ordered in advance (i.e., not available for in-flight purchase). Bear in mind that the menu changes periodically; in fact, the pre-order items below are due to be swapped out for new offerings this October.
Since I was feeling a bit under the weather, I decided to perk myself up with some nourishment. My selections: bread stuffed with chili con carne-style corned beef (PHP 100), spicy Korean instant noodles (PHP 150), and a can of Coke to wash it all down (PHP 70). There was a PHP 20 discount offer for Coke bundled with one’s choice of bread, so I paid PHP 300 in total (rather than PHP 320).
The beef-filled bread turned out to be rather tasty – so much so that I ended up ordering the same thing on our return flight.
As for the prices … well, inflated of course, but that’s only to be expected on an LCC flight. I’d say they were reasonable under the circumstances.
IN-FLIGHT SERVICE AND AMENITIES
I’m usually provided with a pillow and blanket when flying internationally with full-service airlines. Not today, though: 5J is an LCC and such creature comforts are far beyond scope.
A 5J-branded sleeping kit with blanket, eye mask, and inflatable pillow (PHP 600) is available for purchase; the blanket is also offered separately (PHP 350). As for myself, I was quite happy to go without.
Arrival cards were distributed during the flight.
The cabin crew seemed thoroughly polite and professional. Then again, my interactions with them were almost nonexistent (apart from ordering food), but I saw or heard nothing that would give cause for serious concern.
SEAT POCKET CONTENTS
Let’s reach into my seat pocket and sort through what’s inside.
The usual cast of suspects. In-flight magazine, safety briefing card, air sickness bag, and the onboard menu.
All right, I cheated: there was no menu card in my own pocket, haha. I borrowed that from another seat. I’ve no idea whether this was deliberate (maybe just one per row to save on printing?) or a mere oversight, but it’s interesting that there were no menu cards at all (so far as I could tell) on our return flight. Since a new menu is due to be rolled out shortly, I suspect that cards withdrawn due to wear and tear – or perhaps taken by passengers – are simply not being replaced.
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.
I’ve taken a good many flights run by budget carriers, so I’m well aware of the limited/unbundled service on offer and I adjust my expectations accordingly. With that in mind, I was quite satisfied with how Cebu Pacific operated 5J 312. Inexpensive fare, shiny new plane, comfortable seat, reasonable buy-on-board prices, arrival ahead of schedule … can’t ask for much more than that, really.
(Side note: the last time I took 5J from MNL to TPE, flight 312 was a late evening service. Quite a big change in schedule there.)
With the right price and the right timetable, I’ll gladly fly with 5J again on this route.