Asia's first is still shining through

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez () - March 17, 2011 - 12:00am

Last Tuesday’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of Philippine Airlines (PAL) was like light shining through the clouds of tsunami and radiation scares, unrest in the Middle East, and rising unemployment in the homefront.

As PAL chairman and CEO Lucio Tan and president Jimmy Bautista pointed out separately during the anniversary concert and program at the Newport Performing Arts Theater -at the Resorts World Complex in Pasay City – PAL was born in 1941, it rose despite crisis, rose further despite being buffeted by many challenges, and now it’s bent on “defying gravity.” It’s going to soar even further and gravity be damned.

The anniversary was an affirmation of the Filipino’s ability to be a trailblazer, and its smarts in turning crisis into opportunity. I mean, who would have launched an airline as the world was in the throes of a world war? The Philippines did, that airline would be Asia’s first and it’s still flying high now.

PAL’s history is also symbolic of the resilience of the Filipino. A year after the end of World War II, PAL was back on its feet – or shall I say, its wings – again when it became the first Asian airline to cross the Pacific with a chartered Douglas DC-4. It was the first of several flights to ferry home some 40 US servicemen. Each crossing took 41 hours, with refuelling stops at Guam, Wake, Kwajelein and Honolulu.

PAL’s maiden flight in 1941 took off on a Beech Model 18, and in 1946, on a DC-3.

In 1947, PAL started a DC-4 service to Rome and Madrid, thus earning the distinction of being the first airline in Southeast Asia to fly to Europe. By the end of the year, the service was extended to London.

PAL is also the very first airline in the world to be honored by Les Chaines de Rotisseurs, an ancient order of gourmets, with an award for its inflight cuisine in 1979.

In 1979, PAL also became the first Asian carrier to fly into China, specifically Beijing and Canton, with the first of two B727-200s. On the same day, PAL began carrying Filipino contract workers to the Middle East with the introduction of services to Bahrain.

I also heard from sources that PAL was the first to have crisp linen tablecloth on every folding table on Business and First Class, and the first to make it a policy to greet every Business and First Class passenger by his/her first name during flight.

Kapitan Lucio

And who would have pumped his own fortune into an airline after it was reeling from the Asian crisis of 1996 and a crippling pilots’ strike? PAL’s new executive vice president Vivienne Tan said she was with her father (respectfully referred to as “Kapitan” in the airline industry) in 1996, when PAL was hemorrhaging from the twin blows and in need of a fresh infusion of funds to keep it airborne. Vivienne said she asked her father why he was so bent on saving the flag carrier, knocking on creditors’ doors, and Kapitan answered her, “because Philippine Airlines is the Philippines, and if PAL goes down, the Philippines goes down. I will not let that happen.”

Kapitan, in his speech that night, himself emphasized that a flag carrier is more than just an airline that carries the country’s tricolor on its aircraft. A flag carrier, he pointed out, is one that serves the country it represents, especially in times of crisis. A poignant moment during the program/ concert was when the flight attendants who served the flights that flew to Libya at great risk to pick up threatened OFWs there were presented to the audience. They were given a rousing round of applause.

Vivienne promised that the Filipino people will fall in love all over again with PAL.

“We will court you,” the lovely and brainy Vivienne, who ran her own entrepreneurship school before she joined PAL as its new EVP, told the audience. The courtship started that night.

* * *

PAL brought together the best of Filipino talents (perhaps its concession to its international character was the foreign looking and foreign sounding host, Krista Kleiner) for its anniversary program, which was directed by Freddie Santos. It was opened by a kinetic dance number by Gary Valenciano, who sang, Hataw Na, an apt anthem for the energy PAL exudes.

Kuh Ledesma fused patriotism and melody with her rendition of Ako ay Pilipino, and a new version of an ‘80s Philippine Airlines song, Shining Through, which was composed for PAL after the 1986 EDSA people power revolution, when the Philippines was also shining through as a symbol of democracy on the world stage. (“The people of the Philippines are shining through….”)

Martin Nievera followed with a medley of songs bearing the destinations of certain PAL international flights, like, I left my heart in San Francisco.

Jessa Zaragoza, Geneva Cruz and Rachel Alejandro sang When You Believe.

The finale was by a quartet of young talents Margaret Ortega, Gian Magdangal, AJ Tablando and Vincent Bueno, who all won in international singing contests. They soared singing, “I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky…” and Defying Gravity, a song from the Broadway musicale Wicked. Vivienne read the lyrics of the song onstage, for they expressed PAL’s new flightplan.

Twelve Business Class Tickets to PAL destinations were raffled off that night (among the winners was my friend Sony Ozaeta of Triple A Travel) – including to New Delhi, PAL’s newest destination; and to Canada, on the new PAL Boeing 777.

I always feel a catch in my throat, and my eyes smart with tears of nationalistic pride, whenever I see a Philippines Airlines jet – the Philippine tricolor emblazoned on its tail – taking off or landing, here and abroad. The word “Philippines” spelled out on its body as if the latter were a marquee, a PAL plane has become more than just an aircraft to me – it has become a symbol of how our country is capable of many firsts, and will be flying high with many more. (You may e-mail me at

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