Pope Francis lifts troubled Philippine flag carrier

MANILA, Philippines – Emotions ran high Thursday, January 22, as the flight and cabin crew of the country’s flag carrier gathered to recall their encounter with Pope Francis aboard the Shepherd One.

More than 30 PAL employees – pilots and cabin crew – spoke with journalists at PAL’s headquarters in Pasay City on Thursday, 3 days after the carrier brought home Pope Francis.

“He prayed over me, and his stare was very peaceful. He started praying, and he asked me before we ended, ‘Please pray for me,'” Ruby Carol Manzano recalled in a press conference arranged by PAL.

Manzano was among the cabin crew that attended to the Pope, his delegation, and accompaying media on Shepherd One from Manila to Ciampino airport in Rome, Italy.

Many of them had the chance to interact with the Roman Catholic Church leader as he took time to greet passengers onboard.

PAL served as the Pope’s carrier for his Philippine visit, specifically to Tacloban and Rome.

The PR 8010 flight brought Pope Francis back to Rome after a 5-day visit from January 15 to 19 to Asia’s largest Catholic nation.

Flying out of troubled weather

On January 17, the Shepherd One flew the Pope to Tacloban to spend time with Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) survivors.

The papal trip had to be cut short because of Tropical Storm Amang (international name: Mekkhala) which had placed Leyte and surrounding provinces under Storm Signal Warning No. 2.

Pilot Captain Roland Narciso and the team made a difficult decision to fly the Pope back to Manila amid bad weather which paid off as the Pope congratulated the team for a safe flight out.

In a way, the privilege the PAL crew had was what millions of Filipinos wanted.

On those days the Pope was in the country, a sea of devotees swelled in areas where the pontiff made appearances.

Manuel Antonio Tamayo was PAL’s commander for the papal journey to Rome, and has flown many times with former presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Fidel Ramos, and the late Corazon Aquino.

Tamayo’s career as a pilot began in 1988 after leaving the Presidential Security Group (PSG) under the first Aquino administration.

Now 63, Tamayo has two more years before reaching the mandatory retirement age for pilots.

Serving the Pope gained him a 4-star badge which he proudly showed to Rappler in an interview.

“It was a blessing,” said Tamayo, vice president of the airline’s flight operations.
Troubled flag carrier

A blessing, PAL president and chief operating officer Jaime Bautista said, is what Asia’s longest serving commercial carrier needs the most at this difficult time.

Amid the carrier’s feat for being picked as the official papal carrier, PAL is facing an ordeal.

Its parent company, PAL Holdings Incorporated, booked total liabilities of P111.12 billion ($2.54 billion*) in the first 9 months of 2014, with net income only at P237.06 million ($5.37 million) in the same period.

On top of that, it still needs to sort out its underutilized fleet.

Bautista returned to the Lucio Tan-led airline as president and COO in October 2014. His position was assumed by San Miguel Corporation’s (SMC) Ramon Ang when it acquired 49% ownership of the flag carrier.

PAL and SMC’s partnership in 2012 was meant to help the airline, then in the red, but did not succeed.

Fuel price fluctuations, competition from budget carriers, security and safety risks, plus the continuous expenses due to re-fleeting caused PAL’s break even or loss periods.

Pope’s blessing

PAL is not the only airline that faced challenges in 2014.

Cebu Pacific Air, Inc is facing a hefty government fine over flight delays and cancellations during the holidays that stranded thousands of passengers, while AirAsia Indonesia suffered a blow when its plane headed to Singapore from Surabaya crashed into the sea.

For Bautista though, the arrival of the Pope, and the privilege of being the pontiff’s official carrier, was a gleaming moment for the troubled airline.

“It really boosted the morale of the people,” he said, referring to the PAL employees.

During his speech, Bautista was seen struggling to keep his eyes from welling up. Many of the cabin crew could not help but cry.

“We’ve had many problems, issues. But we can solve all of that,” he said. – First published on Rappler.com

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