How to serve well everyone who flies | Inquirer Opinion

How to serve well everyone who flies

/ 01:19 AM February 28, 2015

Summer is almost here and the surge of travelers will again be upon all modes of transport. The surge upon the airlines will be sharply in focus in view of the congestion experience at Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 during the Christmas holidays. Caution will surely be at play to make sure that the fiasco is not repeated.

“It’s time every Juan flies,” says Cebu Pacific. “Now everyone can fly” is the message emblazoned on AirAsia planes. Differing phraseology, but the resemblance is uncanny. On the tagline alone, fierce competition is apparent. Through their budget-fare business models, the two airlines have contributed immensely to the expansion of air passenger volume in the country.


The two airlines, with the flag carrier Philippine Airlines and the smaller SeaAir, PAL Express and Tiger Air, dominate the domestic and Asian air passenger market in the country. Competition must ensure that the flying public will always get excellent customer service at reasonable costs without compromising the highest safety standards. The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) are critical to the realization of this dual aspiration. These government regulatory agencies must work effectively with the airline companies and the airport authorities. Together, they must deliver to the flying public the service it deserves.

The infrastructure for air travel in the Philippines continues to be inadequate to meet the growing demand. For years Naia Terminal 1 was deemed No. 1 among the worst airports in the world, improving a bit at last reckoning but not by much. The many other airports in the country require renovation and refurbishing to be able to come up to the function and efficiency standards of flying passengers. The optimum safety of the runways and taxiways and/or simply turnaround pads must be assured at all cost. The capacities of the infrastructure will have to be adequate for aircraft models that will serve those airports. The terminal buildings need not be luxurious, just sufficiently efficient for the convenience of the passengers and the service staff. But the technical and operating specifications for aircraft servicing will have to be at par with the safest airports in the world.


“Safety First” is an imperative in aviation. The safety of aircraft and their operation is the responsibility of the airline companies. Safety in and around airports, including the monitoring of aircraft flights, is the CAAP’s concern. These responsibilities are sacrosanct in the business. Safety transcends competition in aviation. Low-cost carriers (LCCs) can never justify shortcuts in safety issues. In fact, LCCs as a business model can only be justified when safety and maintenance concerns are addressed as top priority. It is at their core. LCCs will not meet low operating cost targets if their aircraft will have downtime and turnaround time outside norms. Self-regulation for safety is extremely necessary; government regulation is complementary.

For a public utility like an airline service, self-regulation to meet the required standards of customer service is likewise imperative. The explanations given by Cebu Pacific for the Terminal 3 fiasco—such as undermanned operations, staff absenteeism, ground handler shortfalls, failure to anticipate the magnitude of holiday peak volumes, overbooking at peak season, and sheer inefficiencies—are all controllable factors. They represent management failures, a collapse in self-regulation. Only inclement weather was outside the airline’s call. Its losses from the problems must have gone way above the P52.1-million fine as flight cancellations, delays and fare refunds for the three-day fiasco must have hit the revenue flow. And loss of goodwill can be immeasurable.

The fine may be precedent-setting, but such precedents have their purpose: The problem must not happen again. There have been other passenger service problems experienced by Cebu Pacific, contradicting its tagline (“It’s time every Juan flies”). It had airport staff refusing a ticketed passenger passage for the flight, causing some public relations backlash. That one big fine will hopefully put a full stop to that kind of service.

The CAB turned over the fine to the national treasury. But this practice may need revisiting. Whatever extraordinary fund source, like fines, that may be generated from airline companies should be invested back in the facilities that can improve service to the flying public. Perhaps, the penalties that the CAB may impose for violation of the Air Passenger Bill of Rights can be for specific service improvement schemes and facilities, and hardware and software identifiable with the violation. They must never appear as miscellaneous government revenue. And fines on airlines will have to be last-resort options, only for extreme consequences of violations of rules and regulations. The CAB and CAAP must insist on using their moral suasion that funds will have to be constantly allocated by airline companies for safety and customer-service considerations.

The configuration of the Philippine archipelago makes air transport an essential cog in interisland travel. The ongoing push for tourism—“It’s more fun in the Philippines”—will find fruition and contribute significantly to the buildup of the country’s economic resources for inclusive growth, only to the extent that the airline industry, with both private and government roles, can step up. There is no room for shortsightedness. Domestic tourism growth boosts air passenger volume. The potential from international visitors who can go island-hopping is barely tapped. The Philippines was a poor sixth with 4.2 million visitors in 2013 among the Asean countries, after Thailand (26.7 million), Malaysia (18.8 million), Singapore (14.1 million), Indonesia (8.6 million) and Vietnam (7.6 million). Cambodia had 4.2 million visitors, too. There is real opportunity for quantum expansion waiting to be realized.

The Asean economic integration is to commence implementation toward the yearend. The Asean Single Aviation Market (Asam) can easily take off. The outlook of all industry players, if not global yet, must begin to be at least regional, not only local. The population base of the market zooms to 650 million from the Philippines’ 100 million with Asam. “Serving well everyone who flies” will be the impetus for the industry’s sustained growth.

Danilo S. Venida ([email protected]) holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of the Philippines and the Center for Research and Communication/University of Asia and the Pacific. He is a former president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and is now a business consultant.

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