Giving wings to all who wish to fly

- John L. Silva () - August 28, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - An hour before landing at Clark International Airport, AirAsia Philippines CEO Maan Hontiveros was combing her hair, adjusting her red AirAsia blouse and walking up the aisle to the cockpit to have a word with the pilots. The rest of us – media, staff, government inspectors – were still bleary-eyed but prodded to wake up. It had been a 14-hour flight, starting in Toulouse, France, with a refueling stop in Sharjah, UAE, and an overnight in Penang, Malaysia. 

Maan had reason to be a bit more chipper than the rest of us. She was bringing home the new and first Airbus 320 for her company AirAsia Philippines. The plane has been an airline favorite, with close to 5,000 flying around the world, making it the workhorse and cash cow for Airbus, a conglomeration of European countries and companies that has in the past 40 years given stiff competition to once monopoly Boeing.  

The all-Filipino crew receives a blessing to ensure safe flights.

In Toulouse, several days before departure, the new plane with a bevy of engineers and inspectors from AirAsia and the Philippine government along with Maan flew for a series of tests, from checking cabin pressure to its maneuverability, something like a road test for a new car. This vehicle though – 56,000 tons heavy, larger wheels and wings to boot and costing in the tens of millions of dollars – required a very serious test. It passed the checklist and a day later the transfer of ownership occurred in a quiet ceremony followed by a delightful lunch.  

It was no random decision for Airbus founders to situate their now sprawling plant in Toulouse which builds, assembles and fits Airbus 320’s along with their larger masterpiece, the A380. The city has been a hub for French aviation history starting with the building of the Ver bi-planes and seaplanes that carried mail and cargo between Europe and Africa in the 1930s. One of those intrepid pilots was the author Antoine Saint-Exupery. On one of his trips, his plane crashed in the desert but he survived. Having almost lost his life, he had time to meditate on the essentials of life and friendships, which he later folded into his well-loved story, The Little Prince.    

BLUE SKIES: Mikee Romero christens the aircraft with a bottle of champagne.

Toulouse would in the 1950s be the building site for the Caravelle, the sleek passenger airplane with its jet engines in the rear. But the medieval city’s claim to fame before Airbus would be in the building of the supersonic Concord that flew passengers in half the time over the Atlantic.   

The A320 seemed a wise choice for AirAsia Philippines’ first purchase. It’s had over a million flight hours and has been the first purchase choice of low-cost carriers for its ability to fly up to 3,000 nautical miles, making it both a shuttle and a long haul service. The new versions of the plane now use 17 percent composite material, making it lighter. That, plus improved engines and wing designs, make their planes burn 15 percent less fuel, emit less CO2 and fly more miles. For low cost carriers where close to 50 percent of its operating expenses is fuel, a thrifty plane like the A320 was the best choice.

A tour of the Airbus plant was impressive as it was revealing. The A320 building hangar was the very same one used for the Caravelle. Sections of the plane – the fuselage from Germany, the wings from UK, the instrument panels from Spain, and 53,000 other subcontracted items from all over Europe – are ferried to Toulouse and fitted together. At any given time, about 7,000 workers are involved in building one plane. The specs sharing and the precision demanded is absolutely daunting but given that they make 38 of these A320s a month says much about the experience and capabilities they’ve achieved these many years.

The A320 is ready for its test flight.

On Saturday morning, with Maan at the lead, an all-Filipino flight crew and attendants and just 32 passengers boarded a plane bearing a Philippine flag on its nose. We took off with Airbus officials waving vigorously like mother hens, seeing yet another of their fine machines ascend perfectly. It was a novel feeling knowing that the plane we were riding had just flown for its fourth time, the last three being the rigorous tests it had to undergo.

It was a clear day and for most of it, the plane flew over the Mediterranean, skirting the cities of Marseille, Nice, flying over Rome and Ankara and eventually entering Arabian airspace. After refueling at Sharjah, we were off again, headed southeast.

It’s always over the Gulf of Bengal that winds collide and airplanes are subjected to some very serious buffeting. Our A320 went through a variety of roller coaster humps and vigorous shaking, these the first true test of the plane’s worthiness. It was pitch dark outside, the only visible sight was its wings lit by sidelights and flashing red lights. The wings gently raised and lowered but held firmly. It passed gingerly.

Overnight in Penang and the plane the next morning headed for Clark. On the way home, random thoughts come to mind. For all these many years, we Filipinos have been human cargo on tens of thousands of airplanes for jobs and a future abroad. Now, a new Filipino airline, in joint-venture partnership with the largest low-cost airline in the world, has decided to be the cargo masters. Instead of just taking Filipinos to points abroad, this airline’s potential may actually change their destination.

Fellow investors Romero, Hontiveros and Tony Cojuangco celebrate AirAsia Philippines’ new plane.

Low-cost airlines have been shown to significantly increase travel and tourism between countries. The 23 million tourists that Malaysia welcomes each year has much to do with AirAsia’s hub operations there, flying to over 120 destinations AND BACK. Compare this to a paltry 3.5 million visitors a year to our country. But, now with AirAsia Philippines being a hub with its own destinations – Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore are slated with three more planes scheduled for delivery in the coming year – and connected seamlessly to the central hub in Kuala Lumpur, visitors to this country will increase significantly. In turn, more jobs will be created and more business opportunities will open, the kind that will induce people to think of starting up instead of leaving for abroad. In fact, most of the Filipino AirAsia crew who were on this ferry flight, currently based in Malaysia, will now transition with AirAsia Philippines.

For Maan, this new feather in her career cap would be a 360-degree coming home of sorts. 40 years ago, she with another partner Sylvia Muñoz started YSTAPHIL (Youth Student Travel Association of the Philippines), a non-profit that provided cheap charter and travel services to Filipino students so they could travel the region and even Europe. Many of our generation got their first backpacking flying experiences and even Maan recalls how she was able to wander throughout most of Europe because of the company. Much later in her work life, she became president of Warner Music Philippines and her counterpart in Malaysia was Tony Fernandes. Tony would eventually leave Warner to pursue a dream, to create AirAsia. That was ten years ago. It was only a matter of time that Tony, trustful of worthy colleagues, would talk with Maan about replicating the company in the Philippines as well. Drawing in Tony Cojuangco, Mikee Romero and herself as investors, they’ve made their leap of faith and determination with low cost travel. 

Patrick Santone of Airbus explains how an A320 is built.

The plane’s arrival on August 15, 2011 was a stirring moment. When it touched ground, when it was hosed in friendly greeting by fire trucks, when the band played a Filipino air, when the plane’s captain unfolded a flag out its window, and when Maan and her crew descended onto the tarmac to be greeted by all, the sensation may have been what the astronauts felt when they landed on the moon. A moment of thumping breasts and a tear of joy. It was perhaps one small step for Maan, and hopefully miles of travel for countless Filipinos.

AIRASIA AIRBUS MAAN MIKEE ROMERO PHILIPPINES PLANE TOULOUSE
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