For my 20th trip to Japan, I gave serious thought to flying with a full-service airline (instead of my usual LCCs) to make the milestone feel more special. Amongst the many carriers serving the busy Manila-Tōkyō market, Japan Airlines quickly became a key contender – not least because they transported me there on my very first visit – as did their compatriot and arch-rival ANA. In the end, a well-timed fare offer lured me back to one of the budget airlines plying this route. But beyond the price of the ticket itself, the thought of saving just a little extra cash to put towards improving my holiday experience (once on the ground) helped tip the scales.
Welcome aboard Cebu Pacific flight 5J 5054.
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 5054 / MNL-NRT) of a round-trip MNL-NRT-MNL itinerary. Click here to ready 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. Tōkyō, Japan (GMT+9) is one hour ahead of Manila, Philippines (GMT+8).
Airline and flight number : Cebu Pacific (5J) 5054
Route : Manila, Philippines (IATA code: MNL) to Tōkyō-Narita, Japan (IATA code: NRT)
Date : Saturday, 28 September 2019
Scheduled departure time : 0615
Scheduled arrival time : 1145
EQUIPMENT AND CABIN
Aircraft : Airbus A330-300
Manufacturer : Airbus
Registration number : RP-C3344
Passenger capacity : 436, all Economy Class
Cabin configuration (seat maps) : Official Site / SeatGuru
Travel class flown : Economy
Here’s a picture of our bird taken just before departure.
RP-C3344 is still fairly young at less than six years of age, and it seems reasonably well-maintained both inside and out. That said, the fact that it’s not the newest member of the fleet is made obvious by its paintwork, which features the deeper colours and “dot-com” branding of 5J’s previous-generation livery.
Incidentally, I neglected to take note of our actual departure and arrival times before that data got purged from the usual sources. There was, if memory serves, a delay prior to take-off, but that’s expected given the awful runway congestion at MNL (there’s usually extra time built into published schedules to compensate). My first picture on the ground is timestamped 1217 – taken well after landing and already some distance into the very long walk to immigration at NRT T2 – which suggests an arrival that’s roughly on time or only slightly behind schedule.
I paid a total of PHP 14,871.91 for my round-trip MNL-NRT-MNL ticket, with all fees accounted for. It should be possible to book flights with 5J on this route for even less than that, especially if one happens to snag a bargain fare and/or avoids optional charges such as luggage, seats, and meals.
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.
Not an issue at this particular moment, though.
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. What they do offer are dedicated “bag drop” counters for those who have already checked in online, as well as courtesy lanes for senior citizens and disabled travellers.
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 in person at a counter.
LCC flights normally use the distant gates along the southeastern finger of T3, a long walk from immigration and security. A long, boring walk, I might add. As the pictures below (taken on different dates) clearly demonstrate, this part of MNL T3 is a rather bland, soulless, uninspiring place to wait for a flight in.
Just pray that the travelators are all working on the day of your departure. Otherwise, it’ll be a long, boring, exhausting walk (at least if you’re toting children or heavy carry-ons).
Fortunately, my time on the ground was brought to an end by the boarding announcement. Block by block, from the back of the plane moving towards the front, with the usual priority extended to passengers with special needs.
My seat was amongst the first few rows, which meant that I was amongst the last to board.
Down the ramp and into the plane.
Here’s a shot of the aerobridges taken from my seat inside the aircraft. Both were deployed and in use – better for getting the plane filled up quickly (and into the air faster).
Just a thought. 5J’s fleet is dominated by narrow-body aircraft (mainly A320s and A321s), so it makes sense that they’ll normally use only one aerobridge and that their standard boarding procedure is what it is (i.e., back of the plane first). However, on flights using A330s where two aerobridges are deployed, it makes even more sense to start boarding the forward section early, at the same time or even before the aft rows are called up. Congestion will be minimised since people will use different aerobridges depending on their assigned place, and boarding will be completed faster since more than one part of the plane will be filled up simultaneously. Moreover, as of this writing, the entire forward cabin of 5J’s A330 – from row 1 to row 14 – is marketed either as Premium or Standard Plus, commanding a higher price to reserve than the Standard seats that make up most of the middle and aft sections. 5J might then consider using priority boarding as a tool for encouraging passengers to book costlier seats in the forward section, even if they’re physically identical to most of the other seats on the plane.
CABIN INTERIOR AND SEATING
Fitted with a whopping 436 seats in an all-economy layout, 5J’s current-generation A330 should have felt like a sardine tin … except it didn’t. The legroom (as we’ll see in the pictures to follow) was quite adequate for my needs, as was the width and the overall space allocated to my seat. That said, I’m not particularly large in height or width or girth, so I’ll be the first to admit that more generously endowed folk – in one or more of these dimensions – could potentially have found the same seats a very tight squeeze. Depending on one’s personal needs (for which there can be no absolute standard), and with due regard to the fact that 5J are running an LCC (with all the cost-cutting contrivances that this business model entails), one might consider investing more money in an exit row seat if additional space is desired.
That’ll help with legroom, anyway. Can’t do much about width though, since there are no extra-wide seats in any of 5J’s single-class aeroplanes. A full-service carrier might be the only way to go if more lateral space is what’s required. (If anything, exit row or bulkhead seats might be worse in that regard since the tray tables fold into the armrests.)
Speaking of bulkhead seats, here’s a shot of row 1 to give you some idea of what to expect thereabouts. These are sold as Premium and require the highest fees to reserve. The next few rows are also tagged as Premium.
The rest of the forward cabin is fitted with standard-issue rows featuring standard-issue space. However, these seats are marketed as Standard Plus (as opposed to Standard) and are priced at the next-highest tier (right after Premium). Doubtless this has everything to do with their position near the front of the plane: prime territory for those wishing to disembark first.
It was the benefit of deplaning quickly after landing that convinced me to fork over extra for a front-section Standard Plus seat. Here’s a wider shot of the cabin from my place in row 5.
Due to the forward location of my seat, I enjoyed unobstructed views through the window (with no wing or engine intrusion). Whilst not quite silent, I imagine the cabin must have also been quieter in here than further aft, closer to the roaring engines.
The seat armrests can be 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.
Just the usual bits and bobs. Note: no adjustable air vents.
Here’s the tray table.
You can tell that this A330, fairly new though it may be, isn’t quite at the cutting edge of 5J’s fleet interiors. Unlike the airline’s newer A321ceo and A321neo aircraft, the tray table doesn’t have a raised ridge for keeping tablets in place (although that makes sense here since 5J’s A330 seats can recline, unlike on their A321s). The A330 is also not equipped with charging ports for electronic devices.
If one is faced with urgent needs of a personal nature, there are eight lavatories to choose from. Two are in the front part of the forward cabin, four are just aft of the middle cabin, and the remaining two are all the way at the tail end.
5J have recently slashed the prices of their pre-ordered food, with each hot in-flight meal now going for PHP 249.00 on initial booking (higher if added later) versus PHP 350.00 previously. In view of that change, I decided to order two courses for each flight – not just out of anticipated hunger, but also for the chance to try out more of the airline’s edible offerings.
As of this writing, each meal is served with a complimentary 230ml bottle of chilled sweetened apple-flavoured tea. No alternatives are offered. If you’d like something else to drink, you’ll need to order off the buy-on-board menu and pay extra.
One more thing: the meals and menu featured below were phased out just days later as part of 5J’s regular menu revamp. In my next flight report (for the return leg, NRT-MNL), I’ll share images of the new buy-on-board menu and of two hot meals from the refreshed pre-order line.
Purely for reference only (since the available selections will be different for future flights), here’s the menu that was still in effect when I flew aboard 5J 5057.
Here’s one of the meals as served. Both trays (and both bottled beverages) were delivered at once; I just plonked the second course and drink on the tray table of the unoccupied seat next to mine. Pre-ordered meals were served first, and then another cart stocked with buy-on-board offerings came rolling past to hawk edibles to the rest of the passengers.
Time to tuck into my first course: Korean-style stir-fried noodles.
Not bad, not bad at all. Punchy flavour with a hint of spice. Good stuff. That said, it tasted more like a fusion pasta than Korean noodles.
Now for my second course: Japanese chicken-and-egg rice.
I assume they were aiming for a version of oyakodon with this recipe, but the end result fell flat in a couple of ways. For one, the chicken-and-egg combination was a little dry and underwhelming. The rice was overcooked and, whilst of acceptable quality overall, clearly not a premium variety and certainly not the firm, slightly sticky japonica that one would have expected to be served in a supposedly “Japanese” dish.
I wouldn’t call the dish a total disaster, and it was decent enough that I finished the entire thing, but I’m not likely to order this again. (Not that I’d be able to since it’s no longer in the updated menu.)
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 600.00) is available for purchase. The blanket is also offered separately for PHP 350.00. As for myself, I was quite happy to go without.
Arrival cards and customs declaration forms for Japan were distributed during the flight.
The cabin crew seemed thoroughly polite and professional. Then again, my interactions with them were almost nonexistent, 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 … hmm, where’s the onboard menu?
There wasn’t one in my seat pocket, or in the pocket of the seat next to mine. Since a new menu was due to be rolled out shortly, I suspect that cards withdrawn due to wear and tear – or perhaps pilfered by passengers – were simply not being replaced, with the remaining cards gradually pulled out ahead of the changeover.
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 flown internationally with 5J many times through the years, and on multiple occasions for flights to/from Japan in particular. Indeed, this wasn’t my first time on flight number 5J 5054: I reviewed a previous iteration some time ago and even that wasn’t a maiden experience.
There are several reasons why I’m happy to keep using 5J, despite the limited service and unbundled options that one must accept as part of the experience. Low fares relative to full-service carriers are a major factor, of course. But beyond that, I’ve also found 5J fairly reliable on international routes. They’ve acquired a reputation for delays, yet I’ve never personally experienced anything major on overseas legs; maybe an hour or so at most. I imagine that most of the bad press comes from domestic routes where infrastructure limitations and weather-related incidents are common.
And yes, the seats are narrow and meals cost extra and there’s no complimentary alcohol etc. etc. … but 5J is a budget airline and no-frills service is to be expected. I’m actually glad that the way their ticketing process is structured allows me to choose which services I require and discard those I could do without, as well as the size or level of service for those options I select. It’s all very nice if a full-service carrier offers a generous baggage allowance, but what if I don’t need that much weight or don’t plan to check in baggage at all? A glass of red wine with my meal sounds nice, but what if I’m not in the mood to drink?
Needless to say, if generous legroom and complimentary meals and free-flowing drinks and all the rest count as essential in one’s travel plans, then perhaps one shouldn’t be eyeing LCCs in the first place.
As for myself, the positive experience of this latest 5J 5054 iteration helps cement Cebu Pacific’s place amongst my favoured options for Japan-bound travel. Of course, at the moment I only regularly use them on flights to Tōkyō, and only for so long as their midday landing at NRT remains available or (better yet) moves to an earlier morning arrival. (5J’s evening arrival slots at the airports serving Fukuoka, Ōsaka, and Nagoya are very unattractive due to the loss of precious daytime sightseeing hours, so I’ve got other airlines in play on those routes.) For the right price and the right timetables, I’ll gladly fly with Cebu Pacific again on the MNL-NRT route.