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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why you should go to Boracay, but not via AirPhil Express

The Philippines has been named one of the top travel destinations of 2013 both by Conde Nast Traveler and Travel+Leisure, and Boracay is undeniably one of the hottest attractions, having been consistently named as one of the top islands to visit. And that is why you should go. Not because it's the "in" thing to do, but because there's a high possibility of the island getting totally destroyed, what with the avalanche of tourists. Heck, there are even plans for condominiums. Condominiums. On a tiny island. Why!?! So anyway, if you've never been (like me, a week ago), or would like to say goodbye while it's still pretty, I suggest you pack those bags and book that flight.


And while we're at the topic of your flight, might I suggest, if you value your time and sanity, to never, under any circumstances, fly with AirPhilExpress. Let me tell you a story. It's a long one, so maybe open a bag of chips and a bottle of Coke for maximum enjoyment of my travel horrors.


With my best girls scattered all across Asia, it is necessary to plan vacations real early. This Boracay getaway, for instance, was booked a year in advance. At that time, only AirPhilExpress had tickets available for our travel dates - it was that early. There are no direct flights from Singapore to Caticlan, so we had to make do with a 6-hour layover in Manila - we leave Singapore Friday night (8pm), arrive in Manila before midnight, and take the earliest flight to Caticlan at 6:20 the next day. It seemed perfect - I don't have to take a day off work, and I have enough buffer time in the event that our flight gets delayed.

Ten months later, around December, AirPhilExpress contacted me to inform me of a change in flight schedule. Two things: (1) I was at work; (2) I happened to be working in Germany, on a business trip. Naturally I wanted to finish the call as soon as possible, because not only did I have things to do, but I was also being charged for roaming rates. So the representative proceeds to tell me that my flight has been re-scheduled from 8pm to 12 midnight. Now in my mind, this was good news - I don't have to rush to the airport after work, and I also get a shorter layover. So I agreed. I did remember some tidbit of a FaceBook post about AirPhil bumping people off flights, so as an afterthought, I confirmed with the representative if I was being bumped off my flight. And she said no, it's the same flight, the schedule just changed. So being the gullible, unthinking customer I was, I agreed. And then I received my itinerary.

To my horror (and hypertension), instead of a Friday night flight, I was booked a flight on Thursday midnight! Which means my six-hour layover has ballooned to a whopping twenty-six hours. And the really infuriating thing is, there is a flight that leaves on Friday midnight. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it common sense to assume that a flight that has been "re-scheduled" from 8pm to midnight would mean it leaves four hours later instead of twenty hours earlier? So I called their hotline.

Now let me paint you a picture. This happened in the middle of the German winter. There is no cellular reception inside the office. So I had to go outside - in sub-zero temperature - just to make an overseas call with my roaming sim. So there I was, in my Michelin man winter coat, stomping furiously on the snow, shouting and shivering and wanting to let out a stream of expletives. To summarize my two 20-minute conversations, both of which were abruptly terminated after I requested to talk to a supervisor (or anyone capable of thought, really), I leave you with this line, from the call center agent:

Oo nga ma'am, kasalanan nga po yun nung tumawag sayo kanina. Pero wala na po ako magagawa dun.
Translation: Yes ma'am, it's the fault of the person who called you earlier. But that's her fault and there's nothing I can do about it.

How's that for customer service? I have a mental image of my hand going through the phone, out the other line, and strangling whomever is holding it.

At this point I realized I've been racking up substantial overseas roaming charges, which only resulted in me being very upset and frostbitten. So I decided to get in touch with them via e-mail and Twitter. To be fair, @airphilexpress is very quick to reply. It is, however, impossible to reason with (read:useless). As is their e-mail correspondence. Let me give you a summary:

AirPhil: For confirmed bookings, please be advised that for any changes made, change fees will be applied. 
Me: Thank you for the quick reply but I do not appreciate the quality of your answer, as it did not address any of my concerns 
AirPhil: Our sincerest regrests for any disappointment you might have felt with our service. Please give provide us the details of your phone call so we may help you further. 
Airphil: Based from our call review, the agent gave you a recap of the old and new schedule and you agreed. For confirmed bookings, please be advised that for any changes made, change fees will be applied. 
Me: I am not contesting the fact that I agreed, but my agreement was ontingent on the fact that your airline is providing the most reasonable alternative schedule. Which clearly, it was NOT. I also explicitly asked the agent if I was being bumped off the flight, and she confirmed I was not. 
AirPhil: Based from our call review, the agent gave you a recap of the old and new schedule and you agreed. For confirmed bookings, please be advised that for any changes made, change fees will be applied.

After that last e-mail the only reply I was capable of composing consists of random symbols (as in: *&@#^&@$!^&%@!!!). It was pretty much like talking to a brick wall, and it was oh so fun. 

Now, all this happened as I was preparing for my great European adventure - seven days flitting across the continent by my lonesome - which was as exciting as it is scary. I also caught the Newton shooting incident on TV and got very depressed. So I decided to let this whole AirPhil screwup go, because I cannot start every single day of my year-end vacation with my blood pressure through the roof (due to the time difference, I get their e-mail reply in the middle of the night so it's the first thing I see every morning).

Now if you think that is the end of it, consider getting a bigger bag of chips and maybe another can of full-fat Coke.





My friend Anj, who was supposed to be on the same flight as me, was more vigilant while being re-scheduled, and was able to get the Friday midnight flight, but was moved to the 7:40 flight to Caticlan (instead of 6:20). So I arrived in Manila a day earlier than her, and spent the entire morning and afternoon shopping and all that good stuff. Around midnight, as I was (re)packing my things for my early morning flight, I received a message from Anj informing me that her flight to Caticlan was cancelled, and that the staff informed her that all other flights have been cancelled as well. This triggered a flurry of panic, but after checking with the hotline and the website, it was confirmed that while the 7:40 flight was cancelled, all other flights were available. Which meant that for some reason, the staff who contacted Anj lied to her about the status of the other flights. To what end, I have no idea. Was it supposed to make her feel better, because it's not only her flight that was cancelled? Was the 6:20 flight full (if so, why not just say so)?

I saw Anj as I checked in for my 6:20 flight (still a go!) looking infuriated as ever, but eventually she was able to get on the 6:10 flight to Kalibo. So all was well. I mean, sure, we were about ten years older from all the stress, but we're on our way to Boracay and that's all that matters.


And then, as we waited at the boarding gates, AirPhil announced that the 6:20 flight was delayed due to "weather disturbances". Ah. 

It would have been perfectly believable, had the very next announcement not been a boarding call for the CebuPacific flight to Caticlan. And had the announcement after that not been a boarding call for an AirPhilExpress flight bound for Kalibo (where Anj is happily seated). And had my friend's father, who works for Pag-asa, not confirmed that there is zero weather disturbances anywhere from Manila to Caticlan.

See, this is something I don't get. I understand that management has to resort to bullshit - like if a pilot reports to work drunk you don't go telling people that's the reason their flight is cancelled. But in this case it's not so much the lies as the insult to intellect. Am I supposed to believe that the weather somehow selectively disturbs only the AirPhilExpress plane to Caticlan? Is there some sort of stormcloud that follows their plane around? Or, I don't know, does the plane take a different route and takes a detour over Russia? You know what reason you can give out that people can't question (easily)? Technical difficulties. Problems with the aircraft. Tell me that, and I'd shut up. Maybe I would think you're airline is inefficient and lousy, but that's pretty much a fact already. But the weather, when all other planes - to the same destination! - are flying out (and it's so goddamned sunny for crying out loud), that's just pure horseshit.

Anyway, after fifteen minutes, the "weather disturbance", by some miracle, was done and over with (maybe they were able to blow the stormclouds out of the way), and after a short wait for "some documents" (again, WTF), we were off to Caticlan.

When we were all settled into the hotel, napping all the AirPhil stress away, my other friend Chelo, who was furiously cramming studying for her comprehensive exams and was set to arrive the next day got a call from AirPhil because her flight is - surprise, surprise - getting cancelled or rescheduled or just generally screwed. 
So that's what, four out of four flights supremely screwed up? It's almost too good to be true.

Done with the chips and coke yet? Because the saga continues.

So vacation's over, and we are eternally grateful that there were no calls from AirPhil all throughout. We were all taking the same flight to Manila at 1:50pm; we arrived at Caticlan airport at 11:30am. A tad early, but you can never be too cautious, right? Well apparently you can, because look at what greeted us at the entrance.




 Delayed flights, across the board. 


The curious thing is, CebuPacific doesn't seem to be having any problems. At all.



At the AirPhil counter, Anj, who has infinitely better life skills than me, was able to get into the 1pm flight - that's the 11am flight but it was, repeat after me, delaaaaaaayed. While trying to find a flight for me, I managed to eavesdrop on the staff conversation (not hard at all, since they're right in front of me):

A: Pwede siguro si ma'am sa 56 no? Ilagay ko na lang sa 56. (Maybe we can place ma'am in flight 56?)
B: Eh hindi nga natin sure kung meron pang 56... (We don't even know if there is still a flight 56...)
I almost, almost interrupted them to say no, nevermind, I'll take my original schedule, please don't put me in the flight that may or may not be. As an afterthought, why aren't they sure? Why still allow people to check-in? Why not start calling people and apologizing and placing them in flights that are sure to depart? Why haven't they shut down yet with service this horrible?

So long story short, I was placed in my original flight which was, as of that time, 2 hours delayed. I had a six-hour layover before my connecting flight to Singapore, so I wasn't too worried.

So there was nothing left to do but wait. Thank heavens for free WiFi. And clean restrooms with toilet paper. Caticlan airport is awesome. Okay, not awesome. But good enough. A couple of minutes in, the flight status was updated: that lone AirPhil flight that wasn't delayed? Tentative. And that flight 56? Tentative as well. All other AirPhil flights have been diverted to Kalibo. And CebuPacific? On schedule. Every single one of them. Whenever a plane lands and it's a CebuPac plane it's like a slap in the face. In my mind I can see their mascot CEB sneering at me ("that's what you get for not flying with us!").

After two AirPhil flights have managed to depart, with me still left wilting at the airport, I finally had to ask the staff if we're ever going to get to leave the island. Because, well, we're almost near the two-hour mark. The reply? The ETD is 5pm. What do you know, another slap in the face. 


I looked around and realized that the only people remaining in the airport are those boarding the same flight as me. Bored out of our wits, I was able to chat with two Canadians. Apparently their flight going to Caticlan was delayed as well, and the staff told them it was due to a "sunset violation". Something about the plane not being able to fly at night and they can't predict what time the sun will set. Hmnmnmn. Let's pause for a minute and reflect on that. Maybe the plane is solar-powered and really needs the sun. Maybe due to global warming the sun has decided to set at random hours, like, say 3pm (when their flight was supposed to depart). Or maybe, way up there in the clouds, it's winter, and the sun does set at 3pm. But hey, what do we know. This is an airline so advanced, it detects major changes in weather every ten minutes. So this whole sunset violation thing brought up the question of how we can depart, as it is already 4pm. Ah, the staff has the answer. They chartered a "twilight flight". Oh goodness. After that I can no longer look at my seatmates. I felt so embarassed for my country, for the quality of service they were getting here, for being fed a crapton of bullshit. I felt even more embarrased for myself, a local, who is being fed the same amount of bullshit (if not more), and cannot do anything about it except laugh hysterically.

Finally, there was an announcement. How exciting! The plane that will take us to Manila will be arriving... at 5:55pm. Enter Andok's fried porkchop with rice and bottled water. 





I am often very easily placated with food. But I have an 8:45pm flight to Singapore to catch. And I could not eat because with everything that was happening - flight delay, papal resignation, North Korea nuclear test - my anxiety levels were through the roof. Besides, everyone knows fried food should be accompanied by Coke. Or beer. Anyway, I asked the staff if they could just rebook me because I would rather take the next day flight than go on a marathon across the airport terminal, but they promised me - they promised! - I would make it.

To be fair, the plane arrived early! It arrived at 5:54, one minute ahead of schedule. Such efficiency; it's almost unheard of. We left almost immediately, and while that should be good news, I did worry a bit if security checks were even made. But anyway, I made it to Manila. They gave me a huge sticker which is supposed to guarantee assistance from the ground crew.

And indeed upon landing I was escorted to the check-in counter. There was a dedicated staff to take care of the people from my flight; unfortunately she is slower than molasses. When it was my turn, she asked me, lazily, where I am going. I had half the mind to pin the huge sticker to her forehead so maybe she could see the flight number better. And then she told me to I needed to have my OEC verified, and to please hurry. Like it's my fault I had to rush. After I made a mad dash across terminal two, she told me to please hurry to the gates, because we're boarding in five minutes. Well if she wasn't moving like a goddamned glacier we would have been boarding in twenty.

When I reached the Immigration there was, surprise surprise, a very long queue. I asked an AirPhil staff if it would be possible to prioritize me as my flight's boarding call has just been announced. He looked quite upset, and I assume he just asked the immigration guys the same thing but was told no. However, he had the gall to tell me this: "Ma'am, next time, check-in two hours before your flight".

This kuya is very lucky for two reasons. One, while I was wearing white shorts, I forgot to bring a pink halter, and so I was not in the proper outfit to go Claudine Barreto on him. Note to self: next time, come in full outfit so people know you're serious. Airport brawl serious. Two, we were on full view of the immigration officers, so I can't exactly go ballistic. So I told him that while I try my best, in every single one of my flights, to come early, his wonderful airline had me wait for four hours, and assured me that I would make it to this connecting flight without having to run across the airport like a crazy drugged monkey, and yet here I am, stressed and tired and out of my wits, and still trying to make it in time.  Thankfully that instantly removed the patronizing look from his face, otherwise I had no choice but to clobber him with a boxful of calamansi muffins.

After more than three insufferable hours seated at the back row of the aircraft across a very bratty kid who kept screaming "Buzz LightYERRRR" and "Mama I want iPaaaaaad" at the top of his lungs all throughout the flight, I finally made it to Singapore.

"We are pleased to announce that we have arrived fifteen minutes ahead a schedule."

OMG. Fifteen minutes!?! That is so wonderful! Along with the tiny pack of Happy peanuts, it more than makes up for all the trouble I've had from the point of booking up to the actual flight! I mean seriously, what do they expect? A round of applause? A medal?


So if you're still reading, you're probably one of my friends who were with me on this trip. If not, I hope I did not send your blood pressure soaring (along with AirPhil's solar airplanes). I hope you got a few good laughs, because that was the only way I survived this - through tons of laughter. AirPhil, after all, is a big joke of an airline.

I would like to end, though, with the positives. One, AirPhil flights have been the least turbulent of all budget flights I've taken. And two, the staff in Caticlan airport were very accommodating. They deserve a raise for having to deal with irate passengers almost daily, bearing the brunt of the problems I'm pretty certain they did not cause. 

P.S. I now filter AirPhilExpress e-mails to spam, as an anti-hypertension measure.
P.P.S. AirPhilExpress and Philippine Airlines codeshare flights, so even if you book a PAL flight you might end up in AirPhil. Be warned.

4 comments:

  1. ang haba ng entry mo pero it was entertaining(?). now i realize that claudine had a point during that airport brawl. LOL. grabe lang, nakaka high blood yung nangyari sayo. tumaas din BP ko habang nagbabasa.

    sa zest air pa lang ako never nagka-issue... pili ka na lang if death due to hypertension (cebupac, airphil) or death due to aircraft problems (zest air). =p

    -juyjuy

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  2. Reading this post reawakened my deep seated hatred for airphil. I used to make it my life's mission to spread their screw ups because, well, they managed to screw up EVERY SINGLE FLIGHT I HAD WITH THEM. Local and international.

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  3. Does this post come with a share button?

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  4. @juyjuy: yan nga ang conflict ko - kung pipiliin ko ba mabaliw sa ground or sa habang lumilipad :p

    @Freeverse: I don't understand how AirPhil manages to still exist when it's screwing up left and right. (And the post does have a couple of share buttons, right above the tags :)

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