July 05, 2007

PAL to upgrade B747s

By Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo
BusinessMirror July 5, 2007

I’VE always loved traveling business class, especially on long-haul flights that require a great amount of leg room to stretch your limbs so your blood doesn’t stop circulating to your lower extremities, offering me a more restful flight. Of course, the wider choices in in-house entertainment, as well as fine cuisine and wines, provide a definite boost to one’s morale when you’re 35,000 feet up in the air, and outside your window is a sea of blackness as far as the eye can see.

At the turn of the millennium, a number of air carriers in Asia also started improving their services in the coach class, giving economy passengers a taste of privileges once held by only those who could afford the upscale cabin classes. While seating may still be tighter, the discomfort is more than made up by sumptuous dishes and a wide array of in-house entertainment just a click away.

So I’m glad to hear that after slowly paring down its debts and boosting its finances back into black, flag carrier Philippine Airlines is now focusing on giving its passengers a comfortable lifestyle whether they are booked on business or economy class.

In a recent lunch tête-à-tête with a select group of reporters, PAL president Jaime “Jimmy” Bautista told us that the airline will be spending close to $50 million to reconfigure its four Boeing 747-400s beginning next year. “We will be eliminating the first class section and expand the business and economy sections.”

Wow! I thought, this can only mean more space for jetsetting travelers on PAL’s international routes. Jimmy, in between forkfuls of new divinely inspired creations of Gaita Fores at Pepato, told us that the airline is just following the global trend of concentrating more on the business traveler which, as a group, is on the rise. While no local statistics are available, according to a paper last year on tourism megatrends in East Asia and the Pacific by the World Tourism Organization, business travel is now the fourth-ranked reason for travel in the region.

(This is how a cocoon-type lie-flat seat looks like.)

He further disclosed that business travelers will no longer have to endure stiff backs as the airline will be installing new “cocoon-type” seats, which can not only give passengers individual privacy but also recline “flat like a bed.” While most cocoon seats are not the most aesthetically pleasing in terms of design and may make you feel like being half-enclosed in a fiberglass or plastic environment, it may lessen the chances of you being bothered by the chatty smelly old gent beside you while you’re trying to relax on a long-haul flight. Trust me. (This reminds me of a trip on a carrier bound for the Middle East a few years back, which its press releases always claim as having received recognition as the best international airline every year by some award-giving body. To my shock and disbelief, its business class felt like traveling in coach of an ordinary airline! Can you say bad food and stiff neck? Ugh.)

What is even more welcome news is that with the reconfiguration, travelers in PAL’s Fiesta class no longer have to suffer cramped positions as they will now have more room to maneuver and relax in their snug seats. “We will also put in individual entertainment audio-video screens with on-demand movies, taped television shows and video games,” says Jimmy about what’s commonly known in the airline industry as AVOD (audio-video on demand). The same screens, of course, will also be installed in what will be an enhanced Mabuhay class.

So as far as the multimillion-dollar reconfiguration goes, the business class located at the 747’s bubble top will soon have 42 seats, compared with the current, and likely extend to the front of the plane where the first class section is now located. The economy class will still have 383 seats but, as Jimmy says, offer more comfortable seating and entertainment features. Now that makes all the difference if you’re on a nonstop 12-hour flight to San Francisco. Isn’t that just a fabulous way to fly?

The reconfiguration is scheduled to start during PAL’s lean season, at the same time the planes are undergoing their regular six-year D-check involving heavy maintenance and overhaul. By 2009, the reconfigured B747 cabins will be unveiled to what I expect would be a very eager traveling public.

This dovetails with the projected delivery by the third quarter of 2009 of the airline’s brand-new Boeing 777-300 extended range fleet, about six of them I’m told, to last until 2011. When these babies arrive, they will already be installed with the latest in inflight entertainment features and state-of-the-arts seats, giving passengers a very pleasant flight. And with its ever-smiling and affable flight attendants, each flight onboard PAL promises to be a treat especially for world-weary travelers like myself.

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