It was the one time business tycoon Ramon Ang and I had something in common.
The date was November 4, 2013, when the president and chief operating officer of Philippine Airlines (PAL) led a 36-strong delegation of Department of Tourism officials, PAL executives and Filipino journalists for the flag carrier’s inaugural flight to London, England.
While PAL had launched numerous flights to new destinations around the world, since Ang’s San Miguel Corp. took management control of the airline in April 2012, the businessman’s anticipation for this particular trip was different.
It was definitely palpable—stronger, heightened, and almost emotional.
He was, after all, finally fulfilling a promise he had made since the beginning of his leadership—to fly Philippine Airlines across European skies after an absence of 15 long years.
It was certainly no easy feat. Ang first had to deal with the European Union’s (EU) longstanding safety ban on Philippine aviation. The said ban was only lifted in July this year after he initiated a massive re-fleeting and modernization of a company with a legacy of 72 long years.
Immediately following the EU’s good news, he went on to secure landing slots in Heathrow Airport, which according to British Ambassador to the Philippines Asif Ahmad—who had also joined the maiden voyage—was almost close to impossible.
“I had told Mr. Ang that there were no extra slots for the world’s busiest international airport, and that he would have to secure landing slots from other airlines and satisfy our air traffic authorities to fly to Heathrow,” he recalled in one of his speeches during the five-day trip.
The ambassador advised Ang that Gatwick—London’s second international airport—was more realistic, but as the story went, the PAL president remained undaunted. Instead, Ang asked for the ambassador’s help to endorse the airline to Heathrow Airport’s authorities, and within a couple of weeks returned to Ahmad with the news that he had managed to secure not one but five landing slots to London.
“Those of you who know Ramon will know that he gets to the point very quickly,” chuckled the ambassador.
With everything in place, Ang fast-tracked the preparations to mount non-stop flights to London aboard PAL’s newly acquired long-range, ultra-modern Boeing 777-300ER aircraft; and in a matter of four short months, found himself sitting through a compressed 13-hour flight that would culminate with an almost elusive goal.
As he had movingly said before departing Manila that fateful Monday, “This inaugural flight is a milestone not just for PAL but also for the Philippines. For the first time in 15 years, the Philippine flag will fly once more across European skies.
Indeed, this is a proud and historic moment for our country. And it all begins here with this flight that we are about to board.”
Ramon Ang was ready for his homecoming.
My own return
Just several seats away from Ang on that same 13-hour flight, I was also going through my own cornucopia of emotions. Like him, I was high with anticipation at our impending arrival in London, for aside from sharing a nation’s pride in flying the Philippine flag anew in Europe, I was also ready for my own homecoming.
I had not been back to England for a much longer time than Philippine Airlines. Nineteen years to be exact after I graduated from high school in 1994. I was 12 when my turn had come to attend boarding school in the UK, far away from my parents in the Philippines.
Even before I was aware of it, I had been exposed to all things English, for my eldest brother, who is 11 years my senior, had left to study in England the year I was born. After him, four other siblings carried on that “back and forth” between London and Manila, until I made the same trip myself over four very memorable years.
I attended Thornton College, an all-girls Catholic boarding school run by the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, in Buckinghamshire—a two-hour drive from Heathrow Airport.
I wore the tie, the blazer, the tights and the skirt every day for school just like they do in the movies—and yes, the scenes from my youth were somewhat like Harry Potter and (though American) Dead Poet’s Society combined, minus the sorcery and suicide.
Just like Harry and his gang, my friends and I got to all sorts of adventures, exploring the vast grounds surrounding the old Thornton manor house. And just like the impressionable Niel Perry in Peter Weir’s 1989 film, I had my own Mr. Keating who recognized my strengths and mentored me to pursue them.
Aside from securing a very sound education, I also learned many important life lessons while I was at Thornton—a significant part of who I have become today, and the reasons why I was aching to be there again.
Being there as the only Filipino, let alone Asian student, at that time taught me, first of all, how to become a proud ambassador of my country. Within months of my first year, in fact, the Philippines had become part of everyone’s bucket list as a beautiful and interesting place to visit. Until then, all that most of my friends, teachers and their own families had known about our country from Imelda’s infamous pairs of shoes to the endless tropical typhoons.
Thornton was also where I learned to be independent and take care of myself, which was my mother’s ultimate goal in sending her erstwhile sheltered and helpless children to England. To be young and on my own in a foreign country seems difficult, yes, but the challenge boosted my confidence and showed me that I can do and achieve anything so long as I set my mind to it.
Most importantly, Thornton was where I steeled my value for friendship, as well as family though far away from home. How so? Through the very genuine and warm welcome of my English boarding mates, the Sisters, and my teachers, who all nurtured me like one of their own.
Being away from my parents and siblings, on the other hand, surprisingly made our entire family closer. The distance and longing made phone calls and letters very heartfelt, and we were never embarrassed to say “I love you” to one other at the end of every note, birthday card, and overseas call.
Come the summer, Easter and Christmas breaks I spent back home in Manila, our entire family made sure the few weeks we had were very special, with the tightest of bonding, the longest of conversations, and the endless hugs and kisses.
So today, I am a proud Filipino; a confident and independent woman; a loyal friend; a loving daughter, sister, wife and mother. And I am also a writer, whose beginnings of an objective, creative and expressive mind all began at Thornton.
I was ready for my homecoming.
My Manila, my London
Despite the 19 years that had gone by, I felt right at home when we arrived in London, and three of my closest friends—Lucy Puttick-Horder, Hayley McCann and Debbie Burgess-Gibss—immediately came to see me at the hotel where PAL had booked the Philippine media.
As we sipped wine for the first time over dinner (we were not legally allowed alcohol when we were last together), and caught up on each other’s lives and careers, it was as if a very long time had not passed. We were the best of friends—sisters—who picked up right where we left off.
The following day, in between the hectic itinerary of our press group, the four of us met up again and made our way to Thornton, where we all suddenly turned into the girlish 12-year-olds we once were.
As Hayley drove us up the tree-lined pathway to the beautiful manor house, we were both happy and choked up; more so when we finally made our way through the halls and grounds of our youth.
We felt just as loved, encouraged and safe as we had before when we sprung our surprise visit on our much-loved teachers Jan Clements (my original writing mentor and adviser at The Thornton Times Magazine) and Valerie Holmes; and of course, the ever kind sisters—Mary James, Brenda and Nuala (our favorite matron)—whose home we shared, and who devotedly took care of us away from our own families.
Philippine Airlines experienced the same wonderful welcome as I had the moment we landed in London. In Heathrow, Ang and the rest of us on board the inaugural flight were ushered into the Royal Suites (where Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the Royal Family would await their own flights) for a welcome ceremony from Heathrow Airport’s Authorities. The occasion was complete with British teatime treats, champagne and a special cake.
As the ever eloquent Ambassador Ahmad had said before the toast, “Philippine Airlines is back after 15 years. We missed you, welcome back to London.”
Indeed, the flag carrier was also in the company of friends upon its return to the United Kingdom, and with the five-times weekly non-stop PAL flights in place, a stronger bond is sure to ensue between the two nations—be it through the growing number of Filipinos living there, business relations, and of course tourism.
When my parents started sending us to school in the UK as far back as the late ‘70s, they would always be asked, “Why England? Why not the US?” The question did not surprise them, what with the Philippines’ rich history with the United States, and my mother, especially, was always happy to reply.
Without meaning to offend the Americans, she would say, “I find the English to be very polite and a bit more conservative in their ways like the Filipinos. I saw that like us, they have a strong sense of family, and in hoping to make my children independent by studying away from home, I have proven that they did so, without losing the values I made sure they had before going off to boarding school.”
So for those who are still under the impression that all Britons are born with the proverbial “stiff upper lip,” or that if they are not as crazy as Mr. Bean, are much too dry and proper, you may just be surprised at how much we Filipinos have in common with these truly warm and caring people.
To experience all this, amid such breathtaking sights of royal palaces and monuments, existing side by side with modern British ingenuities, is—I guarantee—truly priceless.
Thankfully, Philippine Airlines will make it easier for Filipinos to see the greatness of Britain more easily and conveniently with their return to Heathrow. I for sure am looking forward to many more visits from my beloved Manila to my second home in London very soon.
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PAL’s non-stop flights provide the fastest travel to London (average 13 hours) as well as convenient connections from the UK capital to top Philippine tourist spots and other destinations in Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea and Australia. British business travelers can also make Manila a gateway to PAL’s extensive international network. Similarly, Filipinos travelling not just to London but to the rest of Europe as well can shorten travel times and minimize stops with PAL’s renewed service.
The introductory economy Manila-London-Manila ticket is pegged at $1,052, all-in. The budget economy fare includes the base fare of $472, government taxes $209.90, fuel surcharge $328, travel tax $38 and ticketing service fee $5.
For those who want to experience PAL’s luxurious Business class, round-trip tickets are available for as low as $2,900.
The introductory fares are on sale until January 14, 2014, while travel period is currently running until May 31, 2014.
Tickets are available at any PAL ticket office throughout Metro Manila, accredited travel agents, the PAL website (philippineairlines.com) or PAL Reservations (02-855-8888).