25th January 2014 Philippine Airlines PR 720 Manila (MNL) - London-Heathrow (LHR) Boeing 777-300ER (77W) RP-C7777 Mabuhay (Business Class)
Manila to London Heathrow is one of Philippine Airlines' newest and revitalised routes. It made its debut on the fourth of November 2013 after a 15-year absence from Europe.
We were actually supposed to take Cathay Pacific until a friend referred a promo fare to my mom in December where Philippine Airlines was selling Business Class tickets between Manila and London for only $350 (£230) plus taxes and surcharges round-trip. Adding taxes, the total bill per person amounted to over $1,000 (£600). So we decided to take it anyway.
What made this upcoming flight exciting was that Philippine Airlines was flying its flagship Boeing 777-300ER aircraft on the route. This meant that it was configured with the most modern Business Class in the Philippine Airlines fleet.
I heard rumours that despite bargain basement prices in both Business and Economy class, the load factors weren't looking good. To confirm my suspicions, I went to the Philippine Airlines website and did a ‘mock booking’ to inspect what seats were available. I also did this for other dates and in general, the flight barely had a hundred seats sold.
On the date of web check-in, I found that Business Class was wide open with only a little over a third of Business Class seats allocated. But there was a big surprise: Philippine Airlines' computer systems actually allowed the issuance of mobile boarding passes. These would be emailed to the passenger's email address. Nonetheless, we printed a copy of the boarding card just in case.
In the process of checking in, I selected a seat on the left side of the cabin to facilitate boarding.
Check-in was rather uneventful but I would wish that they would replace those placards with monitors. I found the policy for those who performed web check-in to print their boarding cards out useless as we were issued new boarding cards by gate staff anyway. The queues at passport control were moderate but moved somewhat fast anyway.
TIP: Even if you are a Filipino passport holder, you will be asked about your profession at departure.
After a quick security check, we then headed for the Mabuhay Lounge for around 20 minutes. I was last in the Mabuhay Lounge five years ago.
Between then and now, it has been refurbished to have a more elegant feel to it with mostly white and mahogany. The computers were a bonus but unfortunately, the internet on the iMacs was not working.
Since I didn't have breakfast on my way to the airport, I decided to eat some eggs, bread and pastries.
Then it was boarding time. Upon arrival at the gate, my suspicions of the load factor might have been confirmed as the number of passengers queueing was barely enough to fill an A320. However, we couldn't be too sure as we joined the queue 10 minutes before it was scheduled to close. The gate staff was helpful in pointing us to the queue for Mabuhay Class passengers.
The aircraft allocated to the flight was familiar to me. It carried the registration, RP-C7777. Four years ago, that was the same aircraft I used for PR300 and so far it is the only Boeing 77W I flew on in the PAL fleet.
The flight attendants in our section were quite attentive to detail. During the pre-flight refreshments, they served me milk and a hot towel.
They also took my order too, which I will discuss in a later paragraph, and addressed me by my surname.
Despite monitoring the number of passengers and finding only a handful of them queueing to board, the front Business Class section had a reasonable number of passengers with less than 10 seats in the front section not taken. After the seat belt sign was switched off, I decided to try the recline feature. It actually didn't feel like it was slanted. It was just right for me. Window shades were immediately placed down.
As for the in-flight entertainment, it was a fully functional audio-video on-demand platform. However, the in-house in-flight entertainment selection was relatively limited compared to what other carriers offered. Nonetheless, the USB port allowed me to play some music from my own collection. It also had a universal AC adapter to charge one’s laptop.
TIP: You can actually do this yourself by having a USB memory stick and having music files in the MP3 format. The USB port can also charge certain devices, particularly smartphones so use it if you need to allocate the AC adapter for your laptop.
In addition, there was no WiFi installed yet on this aircraft unlike the newer 777s. It made communicating live on the ground a bit difficult but it saved me the hassle of coughing-up $40 (£25).
Breakfast was one of the best I have had in quite a while. It was a full-course meal of fruits, bread and tenderloin steak with egg, potatoes and broccoli. They allowed you to take your time and would not rush to give you the next course until you were finished with what you had.
Two hours into the flight, the cabin lights were dimmed further. At that time, it was already past midnight UK time and in an attempt to facilitate adjustment into that time zone, I figured that it was time to try my best to get some shut eye. Before that, I changed into night clothes and stayed in that for more than 10 hours.
The rear Business Class section composed of two rows was relatively open with only 2-3 other passengers occupying it. The seat reclined quite well but I had difficulty getting a full sleep after around 2.5 hours in spite of the fact that the area I was in had only 2 Business Class seats and the seat beside me was unoccupied except for the pillows which worked out quite well.
Around halfway into the flight, it was time to make sleeping less of a priority though I reclined the seat into as many positions as possible to help me get comfortable. The crew later served the second meal, which was akin to lunch. Similar to breakfast, I had beef tenderloin. They also informed me that I was a bit late in waking-up for the meal compared with the other passengers but they served me anyway. I also did away with the appetisers that I don't normally delve into anyway. I virtually wiped out the entire dish, going to show just how much I enjoy beef meals and this was by no means the last meal for the flight. To literally sweeten the meal, I opted to have ice cream for my dessert.
Another interesting thing that is worth noting is the actual route taken by the flight. Most long haul flights from the far east will fly over the ex-Soviet Union. However, PAL has not yet secured full fly-over rights yet. As a result, the flight was forced to go through Indochina before heading northward through the Indian Subcontinent, Iran and Turkey. This would also explain why the flight is longer in duration similar to a Hong Kong-New York flight.
From time to time and upon the request of some friends back on the ground, I took a peek at the Economy Class cabin to check the loads. Despite what the seating charts from a few days earlier suggested, there were far more passengers occupying the economy seats than originally expected.
It was likely more than 200 from what I originally expected to be just a little over 50 passengers. What was even more surprising was the discovery that a lot of the passengers occupying the seats were British. This could suggest that Philippine Airlines may have potential with the UK market but that is just my opinion.
During the second half of the flight, I brought my newly-repaired iPad out and watched some of the shows loaded on there rather than enjoy the PAL in-flight entertainment. As we were nearing our final meal, I changed back into the clothes I wore to board the flight. The last meal I selected was a Korean beef meal. It was served with fruits and salad. Like the first two meals, I found it scrumptious.
After the meal, it was time to just relax and enjoy the view, as well as having a final peek at economy class.
Portions of the final 35 minutes of the flight were slightly bumpy and the weather was a mild 54 degrees. Skies were also getting darker in the middle of the afternoon, which reminded us that it was still winter in the UK.
The descent and final approach took some time as we took several turns circling over the London Heathrow area. We touched down at Heathrow Airport at approximately 3:00pm UK time. It took another 5-10 minutes to reach our gate. As we exited the plane, the flight attendants wished us well using our last names. They also promptly informed passengers who were on tight connecting British Airways flights to proceed to Terminal 5 immediately.
It took another 5-10 minutes to reach passport control. Fortunately, as we were Business Class passengers, we were invited to use the fast track lane. Immigration clearance was done in five minutes for me and my folks. We spotted our bags rather quickly but got slightly confused as to where the customs and exit was.
TIP: If you are travelling on business class to Heathrow, just retain your boarding card and present it to staff at the fast track lane to allow access to the shortened queues.
We finally left the airport using the Heathrow Express Train. As we arrived in Terminal 4, we had to take a shuttle train and connect at Heathrow Central for the main train, which serves Terminals 1 and 3. We later arrived at Paddington Station as it was getting dark.
Ratings in the next section are based on these explanations and are appropriate for business class travel. The experiences pertain to this particular flight flown on this particular day.
[*]Check-In(6/10): Whilst this was not a major issue for us since we had bags to check-in anyway, I have to say that the policy to require all passengers to proceed to a special counter for document verification is pointless. What is even more pointless is them instructing us to print our own boarding cards since they printed out ones for us anyway. Also, PAL inadvertently issues mobile boarding cards so they should work to promote this feature and work with local authorities in NAIA to honour it. [*]Lounge (8/10): Well-maintained with new computers. Elegant colour schemes to match lounges of other global airlines. But internet on the iMacs was not functioning at all. Also, it would have been better if they offered cereals in the buffet bar, which is also a standard refreshment offering in other premium lounges. [*]Boarding Process (9/10): The airport staff pointed us to the correct queue. [*]Seat (9/10): : Let's be clear that these seats would probably be tagged world-class had they been in use a decade ago. In the last ten years, other carriers have gone to great lengths to offer other features such as greater functional personal space such as closets for hand luggage and coat storage. In this aspect, PAL falls short. However, I liked that the seats felt like a bed and I didn't have any issues or feelings that it slanted uncomfortably. The difficulty I experienced sleeping was due to the incorrect timing for my body clock. PAL should also expedite the installation of WiFi into this aircraft to offer a more consistent experience with its other Boeing 777 aircraft in the fleet. [*]Food (10/10): Simply, it was all delicious and served systematically. Unlike Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines' flights that last at least 13 hours, you get a third meal with Philippine Airlines. It was tagged as a light snack but it was just as filling as the ‘main meals.’ [*]Cabin Crew (10/10): Without even requesting assistance, the crew anticipate ever need whether it was water or hangers for your clothes. They always did their best to help you with anything. They were polite all throughout and even remember your last name. They also didn’t even mind my personal requests to change seats or peek at the economy class section. [*]In-flight Entertainment (4/10): Audio-Video On-Demand had full functionality but the albums and films that were in-house numbered just a few dozen. This is compared to the hundreds of hours you get on Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, or Emirates. The highlight for me was the provision for playing your MP3 files but now competitors are upgrading to extend this provision to films in a passenger’s personal collection.
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