PAL's Best Deal went Kaput!

A sweet deal turns sour

Who says people are cutting back on unnecessary expenses these days, particularly on foreign travel? Not the people at Philippine Airlines, who were so swamped with passengers who wanted to buy tickets to their two-day, online-only seat sale that their Web site all but shut down.

If you’re one of the few who actually purchased a PAL “Real Deal” half-price promo ticket, consider yourself lucky. Those who didn’t get in on the sale, which started last Monday and ended yesterday, are still railing at the airline for limiting the promo to those who booked flights to PAL destinations using their credit cards through the company’s Web site—which by yesterday was virtually, pun intended, inaccessible due to the number of people who still wanted to buy tickets through the Internet.

It was an offer many thought they could not refuse. Round-trip tickets from Manila on PAL were sold at $38 to Taipei, $58 to Hong Kong and Macau, $78 to Bangkok, Saigon and Singapore, $108 to Beijing, Jakarta and Shanghai, $148 to Guam, $162 to Tokyo, Fukuoka and Nagoya, $318 to Sydney, Melbourne and Honolulu, and $418 to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver.

There were the usual restrictions, of course. Taxes and airport fees still had to be paid and confirmed seats could only be used from June to December this year —effectively ensuring that those who wanted to make a last-minute hop to Las Vegas for this Sunday’s Pacquiao-Hatton fight, for instance, would have to stay at home and watch TV instead.

But it was still a tempting offer, especially for Filipinos (and there are still many) for whom Lucio Tan’s airline is top-of-mind whenever they make travel arrangements. These Filipinos, who make up PAL’s bread and butter, were obviously the target of the sale, since the “Real Deal” tickets were available only to passengers originating from Manila.

The sale began after midnight on Monday and ended last night, leaving hundreds and possibly thousands asking why, if the flag carrier really wanted to sell more seats, it made it so hard to buy them. PAL may have considered its “Real Deal” offer a success, given the response it elicited, but since the airline hasn’t said yet how many seats were sold (or how many were turned away, or even why its Web site wasn’t able to handle the traffic), that’s not really for the company to say right now.

What PAL must do right now is assure its loyal passengers that glitches like the overloading of its Web site don’t happen again. And that it is not unfairly shutting out passengers who still go to the brick-and-mortar offices of the airline or of their travel agents to buy tickets whenever it has a hot deal like its “Real Deal” promo.

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To be sure, PAL did try to help the passengers who were able to get bookings but who weren’t certain that they had confirmed reservations or if their credit card payments had been accepted after the company’s Web site got inundated by “hits” from prospective buyers. A poster on the online chat room who goes by the name “Swahi” recounted how PAL personnel tried to make it easier for these lucky few who got in.

Swahi told the story of a cousin who was online the whole morning just to book a flight, but only got as far as sending her credit card details. Then the PAL site would send her an “error” message, leaving her unsure if she already had a confirmed booking or not since it was unclear if payment had actually been made.

“I told her, considering the circumstances, that’s OK,” Swahi said. “Your booking is now in the system. [She called] PAL to verify, and true enough, it was there. The problem is, PAL ticketing didn’t see payment confirmation. So PAL instructed her to call up the credit card company. It was a good thing [a] friend was already waiting in line in the ticketing office the whole morning. So she asked her friend to pay for the tickets, and gave her friend the booking reference.”

“PAL was accommodating, with the PAL telephone hotline confirming [the booking] and even giving her up to 12 noon [today] to confirm and pay,” Swahi wrote.

On the GMA News Web site, an unidentified PAL official confirmed that the airline was “implementing measures to get in touch with these customers to assist them in completing their transactions.” At the same time, the PAL official admitted that the promo had apparently become “too attractive” to prospective passengers, and that “the system did not expect the deluge of customers.”

However, PAL’s assurances did nothing to assuage the anger of those who didn’t get in before the promo ended last night. And even those who weren’t able to complete their transactions over the Internet complained that it was “standing room only” yesterday at many PAL offices, where the people who had booking problems were advised to go.

It didn’t help when the PAL official quoted by the network, in response to the complaints it was getting, said: “There are different ways of booking a flight and getting a ticket. You can call a landline for reservation or go to the ticket office.”

“I hope he is aware that Real Deal fares can only be availed online. If we were given that option before, I would have [gone] to a PAL office instead,” retorted another poster on the Skyscrapercity site.

The Real Deal fiasco mars what is otherwise being predicted to be another banner year for the flag carrier, which only last month announced that it was increasing domestic and international flights in the teeth of the financial crisis that is also being felt on these shores. Here’s hoping that PAL does better by its customers, who have stood by it through good times and bad, next time around.

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