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Opinion

Of pilots and passengers

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Today being Sunday, a day of rest at least in the Christian church, it’s fitting that I share with you a story about a pilot who, after 29 years of flying tens of thousands of passengers, is putting down his wings.

This, indeed, is the story of Capt. Joey Villanueva, 60, one of the 700-plus pilots of flag carrier Philippine Airlines. Last week, I joined a “surprise salubong” for Capt. Joey at the PAL Pilot’s Lounge within the airport.

How does a pilot retire?

It was the golden hour of Wednesday, a breezy January afternoon as friends, family and his fellow pilots gathered at the lounge to wait for Capt. Joey, who was still some 30,000 feet in the air, on his way back to Manila from Honolulu for his last flight before he retires.

Around 5 p.m. and back-lighted by the setting sun, the plane touched down at NAIA. Moments before, on board PR 101, flight purser Chito Cailles told passengers why their flight was extra special.

“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to spend a few minutes to tell you about the special flight you’re in today. Our captain, Joey Villanueva, is in command for the last time as he will retire... Capt. Joey has been with Philippine Airlines for 29 years and throughout his tenure, he has flown to 36 local destinations, 15 international destinations and over 21,000 hours in the air. From the numbers alone, it’s obvious that Capt. Joey has a passion for flying and loves to serve fellow travelers who chose the national carrier, Philippine Airlines.

“Some of you clap when the plane lands in Manila, and you know what? Our pilots in the cockpit hear it when you do. So today, as the wheels touch down in Manila, please clap extra loudly for Capt. Joey as we wish him Mabuhay and happy retirement.”

I arrived at the lounge early, my first time to see it and I was impressed. It looked even better than other airline lounges – clean and cozy and it speaks of a world that is all about flying. There are photos of airplanes and pilots everywhere and clocks from different time zones. Kudos to Capt. Lilybeth Ng who spearheaded the renovation of the lounge in late 2019.

Around 6 p.m., Capt. Joey arrived at the lounge to the warm welcome of friends and family waving blue and white balloons. Merry banter filled the night as guests feasted on a buffet of pizza, pasta and what-have-you.

Filipino pilots

It was an honor for me to be there and bid Capt. Joey a happy retirement because he represents the hundreds of Filipino pilots who bring all of us to safety – turbulence, air pockets, pandemic and all.

How many of us really pay attention to these voices blaring from the cabin audio systems? Perhaps, for some of us, they’re just voices who interrupt us while we’re glued to our in-flight movies.

Indeed, many of us rarely remember the pilots or any of the crew. All we really care about is getting to our destinations safely.

And yet it is because of them, pilots like Capt. Joey, that this is possible.

Capt. Joey, for instance, is credited for not having a single accident or mishap, said Capt. Alfred Patrick Garcia, deputy chief pilot, Airbus Wide Body, when he handed Capt. Joey a plaque for his service that night.

Indeed, pilots spend years to become good pilots.

As Capt. Joey said when I asked him about life lessons up in the air:

“One should be patient because there will be flight delays and disruption.  Don’t be complacent because that is the enemy of pilots. Too much confidence is not good because there are too many factors that can affect the flight. Always respect colleagues because a successful flight is always a team effort, from the ground staff to the cabin and flight deck crew.”

Among the best in the world

There are at least 3,000 Filipino pilots and they are said to be among the best in the world.

In a study published in the International Journal of Aviation Psychology, researchers learned that Filipino pilots possess attitudes that make it easy for them to assimilate the concept of teamwork and communication in the cockpit.

Pilot and content creator Capt. Mann Ed Demalata (@pilotoncall), who has a huge following of aviation enthusiasts on social media, said that indeed Filipino pilots are really good and deserve all the support – from higher compensation to better airports and better navigation equipment.

Unfortunately, pilots were badly hit by the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence suggest that some 30 percent of an airline’s pilot count lost their jobs when COVID-19 struck.

In fact, Capt. Joey’s dream for the industry, even if he is now retired, is for air travel to go back to pre-pandemic levels and for local tourism to thrive so that those who were laid off can fly again.

He also looks forward to the construction of airports in strategic areas, which I believe are really badly needed.

It takes unparalleled guts and grit to sit on the flight deck, take command of a mammoth flying giant and be responsible for hundreds of innocent lives – you, me and everyone we know – and yet Capt. Joey did just that for 29 years. A big round of applause for him and for each and every Filipino pilot who always brings us back home.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.

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