How many people can actually say they have travelled high above the skies with Filipino-Chinese business tycoon Lucio Tan?
I can—and I am very honored to have done so.
To be clear, it is not so much the prestige of being seated in the very same cabin, just a few rows away, from the second richest man in the Philippines that brings about the privilege. It is to witness how this captain of many important industries in the country—from liquor to tobacco, banking to real estate and aviation—in his legendary stature and ripe old age of 80, stops and takes the time to chat to the humblest of crew members who work for his beloved Philippine Airlines.
It is to see him get up repeatedly from his plush front row business class seat in PAL’s Boeing 777-300ER, and make his way in short and ever so careful steps to the back of the plane to check quietly on the passengers of the flag carrier’s newest service to New York City.
And personally, it is the delight of having been able to show the Kapitan—the moniker he gained long ago in the business community for being the nation’s most successful industrialist—a slideshow of the Lifestyle Press Corps’ 48 hours of exploring the Big Apple from my iPhone (our unabashed selfies included), because he was genuinely interested and pleased to see them.
It was indeed a memorable experience to be on board PAL’s inaugural flight to New York’s JFK International Airport on March 15 with Dr. Lucio C. Tan, the legacy airline’s chairman and chief executive officer. He was accompanied by his wife Carmen, PAL’s president Jaime J. Bautista, and a select delegation of government officials and local media.
From the send-off ceremonies at NAIA Terminal 2 alone, Kapitan was undoubtedly the rock star of the landmark Philippine Airlines flight, even with the likes of US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg and Concert King Martin Nievera prominently spotted in the crowd. He had the most requests for photographs to be taken with him to be sure. From regular passengers to top executives of the DOT, the DOTC, the Manila Airport Authority, the airline’s ground and flight crew, and even members of the press, everyone was falling over themselves to have a selfie—or a groufie—taken with the Kapitan. And the VVIP was more than willing and very happy to oblige.
The T-Zone soon found out from some of the members of the Kapitan’s inner circle, however, that to this very day, even with his billion-dollar net worth, Lucio Tan’s renowned simplicity is still very much in place. He has no rock star demands and in fact only requested for three specific things for his two-day stay in New York: 1) To have bananas in his room at the New York Hilton Manhattan; 2) To visit an outlet for shopping; and 3) To have dinner at a restaurant in China Town.
Asked later during the group’s return flight to Manila how his very simple itinerary had gone in the city that doesn’t sleep, he smiled warmly and simply said, “Enjoy.”
“He never asks for any kind of special treatment, and he’s happy to do very regular things like shop and eat out in a Chinese restaurant even in a city like New York,” related a friend of Kapitan’s from the Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry who also accompanied him on the flight. Asked by the T-Zone whether Kapitan enjoyed his food trip to China Town, the friend chuckled and said, “The restaurant was very tight and it got very hot. That’s the one thing he doesn’t enjoy, mainitan. But he didn’t complain.”
And even with jetlag setting in halfway through the four-day roundtrip from Manila to New York (the layovers in Vancouver’s YVR International Airport included), Kapitan was visibly in high spirits from start to finish. After all, he had just fulfilled a long-time promise to bring back PAL to the capital of the world, and he was content.
You see, while the March 15 inaugural was billed as such, technically, it was a maiden flight for PAL to JFK but not to the Big Apple. In 1997, the flag carrier launched a service to New York’s Newark International Airport, which after being discontinued, was unable to resume due to the Category 2 downgrade of Philippine carriers by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the mid-2000s.
With PAL greatly contributing to the restoration of the Category 1 status for safety in 2014, thus allowing Philippine carriers to fly to Europe and the East Coast of United States anew, Kapitan immediately bumped up the service to New York to the top of his list. And of course, the comeback had to be a big one, with no less than the John F. Kennedy International Airport as PAL’s landing ground.
As Mr. Bautista related eloquently in his speech at the PR126 inaugural, “PAL is back in New York today because of the vision and drive of one man—our chairman Dr. Lucio C. Tan. He has made sure we would return no matter how long it took under his watch. Deep in our hearts, we knew that one day, PAL would be back in New York… and after 18 years, that day has come… and [significantly]on our 74th founding anniversary [at that].”
Kapitan smiled humbly at the praises—as I now know a business magnate can—and yet, during his turn at the podium for a brief message never gave himself a pat on the back, even if had every right to do so. Instead, he poignantly and ever so simply rejoined, “I wish to thank my PAL family for making this US East Coast service a reality.”
What else could have made travelling with Kapitan more memorable?
PAL flies from Manila to New York every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:50 p.m., with a two-hour transit stop in Vancouver. The return service departs JFK International Airport at 11:00 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday with the same Canadian city layover. For more information, log on to www.philippineairlines.com.
For more photos of PAL’s Manila-New York inaugural and the sights and sounds of the Big Apple, follow tessamauricioarriola on Instagram.