The beauty of the Philippines
I knew it was in for an interesting experience the moment I found out that my flight home was cancelled due to a serious technical issue that forced the London-bound Philippine Airlines aircraft that was supposed to be our ride to turn back to NAIA.
This story isn't about how my travel savvy wife got us out of trouble by doing all the telephone calls, Facebook and Viber messages, that confirmed our hotel accommodations with the airline and rebooked our domestic flights from Manila to Bacolod multiple times and saved us most of the stress the would've gone with a cancelled international flight during one of the busiest travel weekends in the United Kingdom. That is another story worth telling but I'll get to that part one of these days.
This story is about the beautiful and ugly human reactions that I observed from the sidelines during that epic adventure that extended our vacation by almost 48 hours.
One of the lessons I learned during this ordeal was the value of being prepared and calm. We had this advantage because I found out about the cancelled flight while browsing through Facebook and we were able to confirm the cancellation by checking my email which I hadn't opened in weeks. This advance information allowed us to make inquiries and prepare for any eventuality. Most of the people that I observed losing their nerve during this ordeal were the ones who found out about the cancelled flight only at the airport.
To be fair to those who lost their cool during that fiasco, Philippine Airlines should've put someone with more experience in handing similar situations at the head of their London station because whoever was in charge didn't make the situation any better. First of all, considering the enormity of the FUBAR, the PAL check in counters looked like a ghost town when we went there to check in. All we got was a pile of letters telling passengers that their 10 p.m. flight had been cancelled and that they should go home and come back at noon the following day. If we hadn't called in advance to inquire about hotel accommodations, we might've allowed them to send us home as well. Proof that this tactic worked was that the coach that took passengers to and from the hotel near the airport wasn't even half full. Whoever made this decision to try to save the airline a few quid wasn't doing it a favor.
That was just the beginning. When the few of us who got hotel accommodations were shuttled in to the airport the following noon, the line to the check in counters was already very long and you could almost sense the frayed nerves. What made it worse was that upon finally checking in, we were told that the flight that was scheduled to leave 4 p.m. was now scheduled to leave 9 p.m. If they had only told us about that delay sooner we could've spent another whole day in London instead of being stuck in some rinky dink hotel or the terminal. The only consolation was Heathrow is at least a few worlds better than NAIA.
Once the check in process was over and done with, PAL personnel disappeared, along with any status updates on PR721D (D for delayed). This was a big mistake for PAL London Station because conflicting reports and rumors that our flight had been further delayed to 6 p.m. the following day had started swirling about and there was nothing and nobody to allay our fears. Passengers turned to each other, social media, and for us, desperate messages to the Philippines to figure out what was going on because nobody from PAL was there to tell us where PR720 was. All we wanted to know was if it had already left Manila and what time it was scheduled to arrive in London because that aircraft was going to be the one to get us home. But nobody from PAL, neither the London station, nor its social media crew in the Philippines, gave us any answers for 5 agonizing hours of uncertainty.
It was during these hours of uncertainty that I noticed the reactions of my fellow passengers. The Australian and British passengers, many of whom were en route to Australia for a holiday, were understandably incensed. As for the Filipinos, it was amusing to see some of them lose their cool and resort to name dropping as they demanded answers. My wife even overheard one lady threaten the ground staff that she was calling up the office of the president of PAL. It amused me when she told me this story because it was past midnight in Manila at that time. She must've been very well connected. Her story also reminded me of the other Filipina lady who we overheard proudly declaring that she would give the staff a hard time because they gave her a hard time when the cancellation was announced. I don't know if she kept her promise or if it was just her frustration talking, but hearing a fellow Filipino talk like that made me cringe. The most disappointing thing about this kind of behavior was that both of those difficult passengers that we observed were from business class. I know that the response of the airline wasn't exactly perfect during that particular crisis, but that was when I saw that class doesn't automatically come with business class tickets.
Long story short, many people lost their nerve and showed their true colors when PAL London station really messed things up. All we needed was to be constantly informed and assured that our airplane would come and some sort of confirmation to the promise that our connecting flights would be sorted out but nobody was there to do that in London.
If there is any consolation, PAL really stepped up its game when we finally got to the Philippines after a delay of more than 24 hours. Despite the added wrinkle of our cancelled and delayed flight being further diverted to Clark due to bad weather and low fuel, the ground staff of PAL was ready for those of us with transfers and connections as soon as we landed in Manila. There was no letter sending us home. Instead we got our boarding passes for the next available flights to our final destinations, and since it was already late, those of us who had to stay the night were automatically handed hotel and transportation vouchers. That was how I imagined it should've been done from the start in London.*
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