PAL unions must recognize market reality

By Boo Chanco

April 11, 2011

I don’t know if the PAL rank and file union will strike this Holy Week to cause maximum headache to management even if it will guarantee maximum inconvenience to passengers out for a Holy Week break. Those of us whose holiday excursions involve a flight with PAL should probably have a Plan “B” just in case. I asked the Cebu Pacific people if they will honor a PAL ticket in such an emergency and they said they will be happy to do that but PAL must ask first. They have apparently offered in the past and got no reply from PAL. They are also almost fully booked by now for Holy Week.

Our poor flag carrier, Asia’s first, had been getting it pretty bad from their unions in recent weeks. They should all be working together instead. Everyone in PAL should realize that they are no longer the country’s number one airline, at least not in terms of number of passengers flown last year. They are now just number two and that’s why they must try even harder to please. Cebu Pacific is now the country’s largest carrier. Based on government statistics, Cebu Pacific last year flew 10,036,503 local and international passengers to PAL’s 9,259,982. In the domestic market, Cebu Pacific leads with 7,972,659 passengers to PAL’s 5,311,168. PAL still leads Cebu Pacific in the international market.

And guess what? Cebu Pacific flew more passengers with less staff. Cebu Pacific has 4,000 people working for it, about half of that are outsourced. The 2,000 staff members outsourced by Cebu Pacific are holding the same positions that PAL wants to outsource. There is just no way for PAL to continue to have 7,000 employees on its payroll. Aviation market conditions have changed so much and the older airlines, not just PAL, must do something about their so-called legacy costs or just simply lose out to more nimble competitors like Cebu Pacific.

The conditions just got tougher with our unilateral Open Skies declaration. There will be more regional budget airlines taking to our skies and it is important that PAL’s cost structure becomes more comparable to theirs. My Singapore-based son was able to fly to Manila on a whim one weekend on a roundtrip ticket costing him $150 on Tiger Air. I know PAL is trying to match such cut-throat competitors with $250 tickets but its ability to do so on a sustained basis is questionable unless it revamps its cost structure.

In the end, PAL must be financially viable for all its employees to continue to have jobs. If they are able to restructure PAL’s cost, a good part of the present employee force will continue to have jobs in the airline. But if they strike and PAL folds up, everything and everyone goes down the drain. Cebu Pacific, on the other hand, has already invested a billion dollars and planning to invest more.

Business organizations evolve and change in response to market conditions. That’s all there is to it. PAL’s present structure may have worked in the past when it was a monopoly. That is no longer the case. And there is no national interest that can justify a government takeover to save PAL. It is survival of the fittest in the marketplace and PAL is too financially unfit to survive the challenge of Cebu Pacific, Tiger Air, Air Asia and all those new budget carriers whose price structures we love as consumers. The PAL unions must help win this competitive challenge not by striking but by agreeing to restructure the airline.

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