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PAL expands to Toronto

TORONTO – Last June 5, Bombet Arangote, who used to work with me at the then Benpres Holdings Corp. and now settled in Canada, sent me an e-mail from out of the blue. Bombet wrote: “PAL should also consider having a direct flight here at Toronto with their 777.  We might be able to get incentives that would help them create a market here.”

I replied that I will pass on his e-mail to the folks in PAL. Last Friday, Bombet’s suggestion came through. When I e-mailed him last week about my being part of the inaugural flight, he e-mailed back that he will be part of the staff of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) who will welcome us. He recently got a job there in its finance department.

Bombet’s journey to Canada is typical of many of our aspiring middle class. He was one of our financial analysts and really had a bright future back in Manila if he stayed. In fact, he just got married, started a family and just bought a house in Paranaque.

But I guess, he made the decision to move as soon as he started feeling his role as a father. He was like one of my cousins who moved to Los Angeles well into his late 40s and much more established in his Manila career. At least Bombet was in his early 30s then.

The thought of their children’s future made them take the leap into the unknown. Both had to endure a lot of humbling experiences before they got themselves established in their new countries.

Bombet likes touching base with friends from the old country. When I visited Canada some five years ago as part of a group of ASEAN journalists invited by the Canadian government, Bombet drove more than 40 miles to see me in cold February weather. Today’s meeting is a lot less taxing for him.

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It was a fiesta atmosphere at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to mark the arrival of Asia’s first airline in Canada’s premier city. They even had Filipino folk dances performed at the airport by a dance troupe of local Filipino youth. Tomorrow (Sunday in Manila), Kapamilya stars Rachel Ann Go and Toni Gonzaga will lead the launch of the PAL Toronto service and promote The Filipino Channel (TFC) at the Paskuhan Village at the Metro Toronto Convention Channel. Both stars traveled with us from Manila on the inaugural flight. 

 PAL had been serving the Pacific coastal city of Vancouver for a number of years now but this is the first time it is flying directly from Manila to Toronto on Canada’s eastern flank. The inaugural flight was on a brand new Boeing 777-300ER, which arrived last Nov. 7 direct from Boeing’s plant in Seattle, Washington. The flight has set new high standards for the airline. 

I see it as the coming out party for San Miguel Corporation’s Ramon S. Ang who has worked tirelessly over the last few months to re-make the airline which many have commented has seen a lot better days. Unfortunately, RSA managed to get only as far as the send off ceremonies at NAIA T2 because he had a respiratory problem similar to that which afflicts P-Noy. His doctor warned him that if he braved Toronto’s sub zero winter weather, he would be courting pneumonia.

When RSA was thinking of getting into PAL, we talked about the pros and cons of such a move. I must confess I wasn’t too upbeat about the chances of the airline being saved. It had a dismal financial performance year after year and it carried the burden of being the flag carrier of a country under Category 2 of the US FAA and also banned from flying in European airspace.

RSA had his doubts too and at one point, I thought he gave up on the thought of being a white knight to save the airline. But through all our conversations, I could sense that deep in his heart, RSA wanted to take on the challenge.

 He talked like a little boy eagerly anticipating Santa Claus on Christmas Eve as we chewed the merits of San Miguel getting into PAL. I thought like a San Miguel shareholder worried about acquiring what looked like a dead weight of an investment. In an era dominated by low cost carriers, PAL was a legacy airline burdened by an excess of staff that are older than that of its competitors and not as well versed in the use of new technology for marketing and operations.

But RSA was sure he could turn PAL around, if that is the last thing he will do ever. He told me that he is a mechanic and a pilot and he has proven his marketing skills in San Miguel. He is confident he has what it takes to make Filipinos proud of its flag carrier again.

So he managed to convince Lucio Tan to let him buy a minority share in the airline but to let him manage it. The taipan, possibly too tired of the airline’s many problems and its continuing cash drain, agreed to let RSA and San Miguel in.

When I heard the news, I was glad for PAL and RSA. I thought it will be good for both. I also relished the thought that San Miguel beer will once again be available in PAL flights.

The big problem that RSA faced upon assuming management control of the airline is what to do with all those new B 777s that have been delivered and soon to be delivered. The 777s are ideal for the Manila trans-Pacific flights to the US West Coast but because the Philippines was in Category 2, PAL cannot change aircraft types, even if the aircraft was made by a US company.

Eventually, the decision was made to field its brand-new, Boeing 777, on the 15-hour, non-stop flight to Toronto. The luxurious wide-body jet is especially designed for such ultra-long-haul, intercontinental journeys. Its two GE 90-115BL engines – the largest and most powerful ever built – can readily cover the 13,230 kilometers between the two cities non-stop.

The inaugural flight to Toronto was also an opportunity to launch the airline’s make-over. With 42 seats in Mabuhay Class (business) and 328 in Fiesta Class (economy), the configuration is designed to give passengers a taste of what it is to be pampered with PAL’s new signature inflight service.

Forget those old bulky business class seats in the 747s that often don’t work to maximize comfort. The 777s feature plush, well-appointed Recaro seats that recline to a lie-flat angle.

Cuisine is also much improved. Gone are the days when all I really wanted on those long flights to Los Angeles was the lugao. Well known chefs now work to satisfy palates like never before.

The Manila-Toronto run will give the Philippine flag carrier a direct link to Canada’s largest city. It is also the airline’s first gateway on the vital East Coast of North America in 15 years. From Toronto, it is just a skip and a hop to both New York and Chicago, among the more important cities for the Filipino community in North America.

RSA however emphasized that he was also “always keen to develop new markets and Toronto, with its diverse population, booming economy and status as one of the world’s top financial centers, presents us a major opportunity to do so.”

“There has long been a big clamor from our customers in Toronto and all along Canada’s eastern seaboard, particularly the large Filipino community, for a PAL service to their part of the country,” he added.  “We heard them loud and clear, and we’re excited to serve them.”

Indeed, Filipinos represent the third largest Asian Canadian Group. The Indian and Chinese communities rank first and second, respectively in terms of size among Asian Canadian groups.

Some 200,000 Filipinos live in the Greater Toronto area. The second largest concentration is in Vancouver at about 111,000.

Next is Winnipeg with 70,000. When I visited Winnipeg over five years ago, I noticed that there is a Filipino town on the way from the airport with Tagalog names for the streets like Mabuhay among others. I was told Winnipeg was an export garments manufacturing hub and many Filipinos worked in the factories.

Many new Filipino migrants end up in the boom metropolis of Calgary, which benefited from the energy sector. It now hosts about 55,000 Filipinos.

There are about 60,000 Filipinos in Montreal and 50,000 in Edmonton.

When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Manila early this month, he commented that Tagalog is now the fastest growing language in Canada. Harper also said Filipino communities are the fastest growing in Canada, even in the farthest and most remote areas.

Flying to Toronto may prove to be a good business decision. Not only does PAL have a growing Filipino market, it also allows use of its new Boeing 777-300ER aircrafts, pending the upgrade of our status to Category 1. It will also mark the latest product improvements since San Miguel Corporation (SMC) took management control of the flag carrier in April 2012.

With this Toronto inaugural flight, Ramon S. Ang is serving notice that Asia’s oldest airline is now also Asia’s newest… newest fleet… newest reiteration of the world renown Filipino service quality. Hope it works. For now, it sure made Filipino hearts in this city where temperature is six degrees below zero, warm with pride.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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