A big riding public flies Cebu Pacific every day, and John Gokongwei, who is listed on the Forbes magazine annual roster of Filipino dollar billionaires, and his family make a lot of money on them. However, the service Cebu Pacific renders is not worth half the money and trust the public gives them. People put up with the rotten service simply because they have no choice, but the State has a duty to intervene. It must now intervene. Better yet, the public should stop flying Cebu Pacific.
Last week, I flew Cebu Pacific to Zamboanga City for a meeting. With me was a senior colleague on the National Transformation Council. This was a few days after Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte announced he was dropping out of the 2016 presidential race, and on the day LP presidential wannabe Mar Roxas tried to rekindle the nation’s memory of the infamous “siege of Zamboanga” one year ago when he and President B. S. Aquino 3rd led Western Mindanao’s entire armed contingent to wipe out a couple of hundred poorly armed Moro National Liberation Front fighters, burn down 10,000 civilian homes and displace over 100,000 residents.
Given the awful Metro Manila traffic which has turned into a worse nightmare since the Highway Patrol Group took over, I woke up at 4 a.m., heard Mass at 6, skipped breakfast, and gave myself two and a half hours for the previously one-hour ride from my home to the airport, after checking in on-line the evening before. I got to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal-3 after two hours, grabbed some coffee, and with my colleague joined the rest of the passengers waiting for Cebu Pacific Flight No. 5J 857 to take off at 11:05 a.m.
This promised to take us to Zamboanga international airport at 12:45 p.m., where another colleague would be flying in from Davao. Together, we would all drive to a late lunch with a high Church official. Boarding time was at 10:35 a.m. We waited for the boarding announcement, but as the time struck nothing came. At 11:05 a.m., our plane was still nowhere. At 12 high noon, still nothing. But the airline wasn’t saying anything. As it was my writing day for this column, I opened my Mac Book Air to make use of the time. Meanwhile my companion’s diabetes started acting up, reminding him to take some sugar.
I had finished doing my column for the next day, although I could not send it out because of wifi problems, when finally the plane came. It was 1 p.m. No apologies, no nothing, they just asked us to board, and we started boarding. I dozed off as soon as I sank into my seat, from sheer exhaustion. We were favored with extremely good weather, and landed in Zamboanga City at 2:45 p.m. Our colleague from Davao had arrived an hour and a half earlier, but waited for us at the terminal. The lunch was cold when we got to our host, but the durian was rich and creamy, and our host extraordinarily genial and warm, as usual.
This experience did not cost us our good humor, knowing the growing hazards of air travel. Flight delays happen everywhere. But wherever else it happens, the passenger is always the first to know because the airline never stops apologizing for the delay and the inconvenience. It is the passenger’s right to be informed. This right is apparently completely alien to the Cebu Pacific culture, if there is any such culture. But what happened on my way to Zamboanga did not prepare me for what would happen the next day on my return flight to Manila. In fact, nothing that has happened to me anywhere before that seemed to have prepared me for it.
I have had my share of incidents as an air traveler, but had never experienced anything as unpleasant as my Cebu Pac Flight No. 5J 852 from Zamboanga City on Sept. 11. It wasn’t nearly half as harrowing as, for instance, my flight across the Atlantic on board the first 747 jumbo jet that ever made an emergency landing in history, in September 1970. But it was by far the most distasteful. For perspective, let me recall that trans-Atlantic experience.
My wife and I were on our honeymoon, flying from London to New York on board that PanAm plane in September 1970. After flying for several hours, the plane began to make a fast descent, prompting the passengers to blow from their mouths to relieve the pressure on their ears. From the window, we could see fire trucks or ambulances circling around on the ground. ‘“This is not New York, this is not New York,” chimed the Americans on my cabin. For a while I thought we had been hijacked and our plane would be set afire on some desert. But the stewardess asked the passengers to fasten their seat belts and prepare for landing. And in three minutes, the plane was on the ground.
The stewardess said: “Please remain seated until the plane has come to a full stop and all the signs are off.” Then as soon as the lighted signs went off, the captain’s voice boomed: ”This is an emergency. Start evacuation!” The 236 passengers all rose to a man, the emergency exits and chutes opened, and the evacuation was completed in 90 seconds. We had landed at an abandoned airport facility in Bangor, Maine, and there we stayed for the next several hours while bomb experts examined the plane.
We learned then that three minutes or so before we landed, the pilot received a call from New York or London saying that a bomb had been planted on board our plane and that it would explode in ten minutes. Immediately, the pilot headed for the nearest place where he could land, and this was the facility at Bangor, Maine. After a thorough search for several hours, no bomb was found, but PanAm sent in a brand new 747 from New York nevertheless to bear us to our final destination. At no time during this episode did the passengers lack for care or attention from the PanAm personnel.
Nothing half as chilling happened on my flight from Zamboanga. But the airline’s lack of regard for the passengers’ sensibility and well-being was unimaginable; we were treated as non-human cargo. My flight was booked at 7:45 a.m. This promised to take us to Manila by 9:25 a.m, early enough to allow me to cover the preliminary conference of the Senate Electoral Tribunal at the Supreme Court on the disqualification suit against Sen. Grace Poe Llamanzares in the morning, go to an important lunch, and tape my weekly TV program on GNN with Ariel Ayala in the afternoon. I skipped breakfast at the Garden Orchid Hotel so as to be on time for my flight, only to be told upon checking in that my plane would not be arriving from Manila until 9 a.m.
At 9:15 a.m., we finally took off. I had lost the SET conference where Rizalito David, who used to be my political officer in the Senate, and his lawyer Manuelito Luna, who is also my lawyer and that of several bishops in a Supreme Court petition against the realignment of Comelec funds to support a questionable contract to lease 93,977 Optical Mark Readers, the new name for PCOS, from Smartmatic, would agree with the defense on the issues to be resolved in the quo warranto suit against Mrs. Llamanzares. But if we got to Manila before noon, I would still be able to meet my guest for lunch, and have Atty. Luna and David on my TV program on GNN in the afternoon.
At 11:30 a.m., we were asked to straighten our seats, fasten our seat belts and prepare for landing. But we did not land. At 11:35, the pilot announced our plane “could not be accommodated” and that we were being diverted to Clark. There was no explanation why, nor whether Clark was going to be our terminal point or merely a technical stop. Not having been diverted to Clark before, I did not know how we would be transported to Manila from Clark. And there was not a word about those who might miss their connecting flights from Manila as a result of the extended delay.
On some of my trips abroad, the traffic of incoming planes would sometimes be so heavy that our plane would end up circling overhead several times while waiting for clearance to land. But always, the pilot would inform the passengers on what was happening, and what our number was in the line of planes awaiting clearance to land. In the case of Cebu Pacific, instead of circling overhead a few times, Capt. Nelson Solis assisted by First Officer Timothy Lopez decided to immediately divert to Clark, obviously to save fuel and money for Mr. Gokongwei.
From my seat on 8E, I called on the cabin crew — they gave their names later as Michelle Ong, Angela Rose Cadarao, Christine Baustista, Jonafe Tubera—to tell the pilot to tell us a little bit more why we were being diverted to Clark. Those who came listened to me with a blank stare, said nothing, then shuffled toward the tail of the plane instead of going to the cockpit to relay my request to the captain.
At 12:10 p.m., we landed at Clark. I went to the pilot to complain, saying he owed it to each of the 166 passengers who had every right to know why we were being diverted. He tried to raise his voice saying he already had. “Don’t be brash with me,” I said, “you never did.” Only then did it become clear that Clark was but a technical stop, that we would sit there until we got clearance to land.
But the crew could not answer questions about connecting flights. One Ronie Castillo, who runs Peninsula Travel and Tours in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay, said he was traveling with 33 others who were supposed to connect to Kuala Lumpur at 2:10 that afternoon. Another one was a 24-year-old Chinese girl who was seated next to me — Anna Sui from Xiamen, whose flight homeward was at 2 p.m., and who said she no longer had any money.
At 1 p.m., many of the passengers started saying they were hungry. I told the crew the passengers had a right to a free meal, and the airline had a duty to feed them. One attendant said they would have to buy their own food. I then asked, could I not order food for everyone, and then just send the bill to Mr. Gokongwei? She would have to refer it to the Ground Personnel, she said.
At 1:30 p.m., the plane finally took off, and at 1.50 p.m, we landed at NAIA-3. All 166 passengers walked away without charging a single bottle of water to Mr. Gokongwei.