By Mel Fernandez
AUCKLAND – The Philippines is poised to be the next big tourist hotspot for Kiwis with the start of direct, non-stop flights on the Auckland to Manila route from 6th December.
For one thing, the travel time will reduce as passengers will no longer have to stop off in Australia when flying with the flag carrier Philippine Airlines. What’s more, the deployment of a wide-bodied aircraft on this sector will boost flight loads by up to 60%.
Synchronously, PAL and Tourism New Zealand have signed a memorandum of agreement aimed at increasing the number of Filipino visitors to New Zealand.
“The establishment of Philippine Airlines direct, non-stop flights between Manila and Auckland from December this year will further enable our personal and commercial links,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she was in Manila in November to witness the signing ceremony for the tourism promotion agreement.
“Auckland airport has estimated that the new non-stop flights will inject NZ$13.6 million annually into the New Zealand economy,” she added.
An estimated 23,000 Filipinos visited New Zealand in the year ending 2017, showing a 103% growth over a three-year period, according to Tourism New Zealand.
Two years ago PAL became the first ever airline to fly direct from Auckland to Manila. The journey via Cairns on a narrow body 156-seater Airbus A320 took about 12 and a quarter hours. But the new non-stop, direct flight on a 254-seater wide body Airbus A340 aircraft will make the trip in just 10 hours.
“Today marks an important milestone in PAL’s history,” said Didi Virata, the airline’s Area Manager – New Zealand, at a launch event in Auckland on 6th November for media, the travel trade and members of the Filipino community.
“PAL will be the first airline to fly non-stop from Auckland to Manila using a 254-seater wide body Airbus A340 aircraft,which is suitable for long-haul flights,” said Didi. “It will offer business class with full-flat seats and a roomier economy cabin. The non-stop service will give us a better product to offer our market aside from the convenience of this non-stop service.
“The carrier will start a thrice weekly overnight service between Auckland and Manila every Tues-day, Friday and Saturday, departing at 12:30 am and touching down in Manila at 5:45 in the morning local time. The aircraft departs Manila every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 11:15pm and arrives in Auckland at 2:05pm local time the following day.”
Over the last year passenger numbers have really taken off on PAL’s direct flight via Cairns said Ian Robinson, PAL’s Regional Sales Manager Australia and New Zealand. He told FMN that the cabin factor reaches a whopping 90% during peak periods and levels off to the mid-60s during off-peak periods. As demand is rising steadily, the time was right to introduce the bigger wide-bodied A340, 254-seater plane. Ian said that the airline hoped to hit a 80% cabin factor after 6 months.
According to Josen Perez de Tagle, PAL VP for Corporate Communications, the A340 will feature back of seat inflight entertainment in business class. “For Economy we do loan individual iPads to the passengers in addition to their own devices so that they can have the entertainment that they prefer on such a long flight. It is a wi-fi system.
“More improvements are in the pipeline,” promised Josen. “It is our plan to upgrade the A340 eventually. If we get really good numbers then we can even do that in the middle of 2018. We would like to use the Airbus A330, which is the same size as a A340 but an advanced version.
“What we have done with that aircraft is tear out all the seats and build three new cabins – business class, our new premium economy service and of course, economy. Per feedback, our passengers love the new cabins, seats and other amenities.
“Every single seat will have inflight entertainment, as well as the usual wi-fi connectivity and substantially improved inflight comforts in premium economy and business class.”
Although the visiting friends and relatives market (VFR) is the base of it’s operations, the carrier cannot only rely on this market to fill seats, said Didi. “We will be instensifying promotion so we can entice more and more Kiwis to fly to Manila and beyond. We also want to strengthen our relationship with the trade and have more packages out in the market. We would like to stimulate interest in medical tourism, golf and diving.”
At the end of the day PAL has a unique selling proposition, said Didi. “We are the only airline to fly non-stop to the Philippines and we are the only airline that flies the fastest – 10 hours from Auckland. “There are so many places and experiences we would like to introduce to passengers … Boracay, Palawan, the Visaya area … with 7,000 islands in the Philippines, it is hard to run out of destinations.”