Surviving PAL country

Our country is an aircraft, and its name is Philippine Airlines.  We are its patient passengers. This plane is long-delayed for a host of reasons – a bomb threat from nowhere, a malfunctioning engine that has seen better days, chaotic procedures, and a crew that is too timid and too uncaring to explain the situation to the passengers.

I did not realize how uncannily close this parallelism was until I took PR 812 from Davao to Manila the other day.  The flight was supposed to leave Davao at 2:15 p.m. on Sept. 16.  It was able to take off only at 8:50 a.m. the following day, Sept. 17.  The passengers were mostly teachers, priests, and nuns who attended a convention of Catholic schools. I flew into Davao the previous day for a lecture at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao.  I thought of squeezing in some birdwatching while there and so had myself re-booked for a mid-day flight the following day.  It was a mistake.

Twenty minutes after boarding should have begun, a voice in the PA system curtly announced that further security procedures needed to be conducted.  The plane was pulled away from the airport terminal. The cargo bins were towed to the tarmac and their contents spread out on the cement floor.  From the large glass panes of the waiting lounge of the new airport, we spotted a couple of sniff dogs that were put to work.  It meant only one thing – they were looking for bombs. But this caused hardly any alarm, only mild grumbling over a possibly long delay.

One of the dogs appeared to stage its own revolt.  As it was led to an endless line of cartons containing the durian fruit, the dog suddenly broke loose from its trainer and circled the whole cargo over and over like a horse gone mad.  We all laughed and took vicarious delight in this amazing act of rebellion.  Later, passengers with checked-in baggage were asked to go down to the tarmac to identify their baggage and to drag it to the cargo bins.  Two small vans shuttled back and forth to ferry the passengers. I was pleasantly surprised by the extraordinary serenity with which my fellow passengers complied with this task.

Finally, at almost 6 p.m., boarding was announced.  Before this, no PAL personnel bothered to show up at the waiting lounge, nor was any explanation offered by anyone for the extended delay. Inside the plane, more bad news awaited us.  One of the plane’s engines failed to start.  At around 7:30, we were asked to return to the airport lounge to wait for further instructions.  No such instructions came.  Some passengers decided to withdraw from the flight, and asked that their baggage be off-loaded.  It was supper time. This was a nation left to fend for itself.

At 9 p.m., a re-boarding was announced.  Patiently, we all made a line for the door.  Everyone was either calling or texting someone who was waiting at the Manila terminal.  I had run out of battery charge and all I could manage was a short message to Karina, my wife, telling her that I would miss the birthday dinner for our daughter Kara. This wasn’t as bad, I said, as missing a connecting flight to San Francisco or to Dubai where some passengers were headed.  She was all praise for my seeming patience and coolness.  At 10 p.m., the captain announced that the same problem with the engine had recurred.

At that point, more people decided to leave the plane. They saw the engine malfunction as a bad omen.  Once more, cargo was offloaded from the plane.  Snack packets containing peanuts and some jello were distributed.  This was our dinner.  Seeing this meager fare, one passenger opened a large box of pastries and shared the goodies with everyone.  Another passenger offered a gallon of rare durian ice cream.  It is funny and heart-warming.  Abandoned by their leaders, Pinoys take stock of what they have and share it.

At a little before 11, Captain Rocha announced that the plane was all right and it was safe to fly, but that the baggage of those who were quitting the flight had to be unloaded.  This was taking time.  We were told that the PAL terminal in Manila would already be closed by the time we landed.  There was no choice but to abort the flight.  All the baggage had to be off-loaded and collected by the passengers.  The same plane would leave at 7:30 the next morning.

That was when I began to lose my cool.  I sought out and confronted the PAL manager in Davao, a Mr. Arturo Balaga.  Unknown to many of us, he was in his office all this time, but not once did he bother to come out to explain the situation to the passengers.  He said that PAL could not offer accommodation because all hotels were fully booked.  However, he said PAL would reimburse those who would find a place to stay for the night.  It was almost midnight.

Weary from the long wait, children began to fret and the elderly were moving around in a daze, wondering where they might deposit their suitcases and fruit boxes.  One of the passengers, the writer Sylvia Marfori, approached passengers to ask if they needed a bed for the night, offering to put them up in her own home.  She gathered more than a dozen people, myself included.  She called up a friend of hers, Min Ponce-Millan, and asked her to accommodate more people in her apartelle.  That’s how we survived PAL’s deceitful negligence.

The PAL manager had lied to us; some passengers found vacant rooms in various hotels.  But many slept with no blankets in the cold iron benches of the waiting lounge. PAL’s in-flight crews are its saving grace, but the indifference of management cancels everything they do. I found new friends on this trip, and discovered a trait that makes this nation survive despite its leaders – the instinct for generosity of its people.

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