Air Transport World

A new sun rises at Philippine Airlines.

A new sun rises at Philippine Airlines

At 2:30 a.m., Philippine Airlines begins its day as a BAC 111 lumbers out of the antiquated domestic terminal at Manila Airport en route to Davao. Like elephants on parade, a rapid succession of BAC 111s follows, bound for many points in the vast archipelago. By the time the sun rises on the Philippines around 6 a.m., nearly half of the 3,300 people who leave Manila daily by air are gone and the first inbound international flight of the day is within the local control area.

It has happened like this day after day, year after year, in the Philippines, but now something is different. The sun rises on a different country, one with a new outlook and a new hope for the future after 14 years of smothering dictatorship. And the national carrier, wearing a new paint scheme symbolic of the sun, is truggling to rise with it.

It was with a touch of admiration, if not envy, that one of his peers told Leslie Espino, "You people deserve a medal . . . not only for keeping your airline flying but also for improving the product under the worst possible circumstances.' Espino, executive VP-marketing for Philippine Airlines, heard this faintly damning praise at a recent Asian regional air carrier conference. The beleaguered PAL--an acronym that long stood for "plane always late'-- had just emerged from a long period of government dominance; an economic downturn that saw the country's currency value plunge by more than 100% in a year, turning the airline's foreign debt into a gruesome figure; internal scandals that matched those in the Marcos Malacanang Palace stronghold; a revolution, and, most recently, a national witch hunt and attack by a newly liberated, poorly informed Philippine press.

Strength is people

Espino took the remark as "an indicator of some significant strength within the organization.' He told ATW, "If we had been weaker, we would have failed.'

"The strength of Philippine Airlines is its people,' says Dante G. Santos, who became chief executive of the carrier two months after the Marcos government crumbled, taking with it buddies like Roman Cruz, then head of PAL. A Manila businessman with no previous airline industry experience, Santos has been given the unenviable task of clearing up a staggering debt and getting the carrier back on a solid financial track. He is banking on some proven business principles that he brings from other industries, and "a staff of 9,500 capable people determined to make it work, people who know more about this business than I do, people who now have some hope that it can work after being demoralized by the way the airline was taken advantage of by the past regime.'

Signs that Santos is on the right track come in the form of increasing tourism (August inbound traffic was 60% higher than in August 1985) and record-breaking trading on the national stock exchange, which was nearly moribund in 1983-1985. Also, from April through August PAL increased its overall load factor by 10%, upped its revenues by 27% over the same period last year, and turned its first operating profit--P100 million for the period--in three years. All under a new sun called Cory Aquino.

The latter-day story of PAL is an unusual one. In 45 years it has grown into a medium-size airline with a giant impact on its country's economy as a prime mode of communication and transportation and also as one of the largest purveyors of incoming foreign currency and the most active promoter of Philippine business and tourism. …

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