Now everyone can fly!

By Cheloy Garafil
August 31, 2011
IT is not everyday that one gets to pick up an airplane from Toulouse, France and bring it to the Philippines. But on Aug. 13, 2011, I was fortunate to be part of a 29-member Filipino delegation that did just that when we traveled all the way to Toulouse to pick up Air Asia Philippines Inc.’s first Airbus A320.
Airbus is the current leading aircraft manufacturer based in Toulouse. Because of its reliability, innovativeness and craftsmanship, Airbus has become one of the most trusted names in the airline industry all over the world. 

It is the leading supplier of civil airliners to the Philippines, accounting for over 80 percent of all passenger aircraft flying with airlines in the country today. Airbus has been supplying airplanes for airline companies in the country since 1978 when flag carrier Philippine Airlines ordered its A300B4, the world’s first widebody twinjet airliner more popularly known as the "Lovebus."

This year, it is Air Asia Philippines’ turn to mark yet another milestone in the airline industry when its first of four Airbus A320 planes landed the country last August 15.

From Toulouse, the Airbus A320 was flown by an all-Filipino crew composed of Captains Johansen Hernandez (commander of the ferry flight), Edward Samaniego and Primo Dagondon and First Officer Robert Kaw Sing. Capt. Hernandez flight tested the A320 in Toulouse prior to the flight back home.

Even the flight stewardesses were all Filipinos - Vivienne Escobar, Ghia Rivera, Thelma Reblora and Lorielyn Sanglay – chosen from Air Asia Berhad, Air Asia’s parent company based in Malaysia, where they had served as attendants for the past five years.

Maan Hontiveros, chief executive office of Air Asia Philippines, said she chose an all-Filipino crew to highlight that Air Asia Philippines will be run by a dynamic all-Filipino team. "We are bent on showing the world that, yes, the Filipinos also can, and on building an airline that is Filipino-owned, Filipino-run and world-class," she said.

Assisting Hontiveros in the trip were Air Asia Philippines officers Sarah Elizabeth Adan and Eric Arejola and lawyer Joy Caneba. Also present were inspectors from Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), namely, Captains Jess de Dios, Karl De Guzman and Michael Manuel, who evaluated the air-worthiness of the plane in compliance with government standards and requirements. Engineer Mike Tabelon was also on hand to painstakingly make sure that the new plane was performing at its best at each flight.

The very amiable Ambassador to the Holy See Merceditas Tuazon, close friend Josee Bantug and Fr. Ted Lopez, who is based in Rome, also joined the ferry flight. Completing the entourage were members of the media who certainly had a fun time chronicling the whole event.

It is also worth mentioning that Airbus also sent its representatives to the first flight, namely Captains Dominic Henry Chin, Selvam Velaitham, Firhad Uzir and Vong Chun Kee, to make sure everything was in order. They, however, did not join the group in the last leg of the flight to the Philippines.

En route to Toulouse, members of the group flying from Manila had to first make a nine-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur for the connecting flight to Orly in Paris. While waiting for the connecting flight, the members of the media were given a tour of the Air Asia Berhad headquarters at the LCC Terminal by Air Asia Berhad’s very accommodating communications officer Desiree Bandal, a Filipina from Dumaguete City.

While on tour of the Air Asia Berhad office at 8:30 p.m., we were pleasantly surprised to see no other than Air Asia Berhad owner and chief executive Tony Fernandes still at his desk working. Known for being a workhorse, Bandal said her boss would usually work late to make sure the company is not only doing well but also to continuously introduce innovations in the airline industry.

Fernandes has proven himself to be a most unique and highly-effective CEO. Known for his musical inclinations, having been a regional director of Warner Music, he decided to venture into the airline industry right after the September 2011 attacks in the United States. Everyone thought he was crazy to engage in such a venture given the expected slump in airline travel after the attacks and the problematic state of Air Asia back then.

He went on to buy Air Asia, the cash-strapped and heavily in debt company, for one Malaysian ringgit (P14).

But being known for his vision and no-nonsense straightforward leadership style, he turned the problematic Air Asia into one of the leading carriers in Southeast Asia. After just a year in operation, he wiped out Air Asia’s 40M ringgit debt by introducing Asia’s first budget airline concept. With its slogan "Now Everyone Can Fly," Air Asia is now operating on 172 routes in 78 countries flying 400 flights a day.

Air Asia has been voted Skytrax World’s Best Low Cost Carrier for three consecutive years from 2009 to 2011.

Air Asia Philippines is one of five affiliates of Air Asia Berhad. It is owned by Hontiveros, who has known Fernandes since their days at Warner Music, businessmen Tony Boy Cojuangco and Michael Romero, CEO of Harbour Centre Port Terminal Inc. They own 20 percent each of Air Asia Philippines while Air Asia Berhad holds the remaining 40 percent.

Hontiveros said she was the one who introduced Cojuangco to Fernandes. Cojuangco and Romero are, on the other hand, co-owners of the Asian Basketball League champion team the Philippine Patriots. Air Asia is a major sponsor of the team.

Arriving in Toulouse, we were treated to a hearty dinner, French style, by Airbus executive Stephanie Henrion. The next day, we were off to a tour to Airbus’ assembly line in Toulouse as well as to its mock room for its models.

While in the Airbus headquarters, we learned the following:
• Airbus offers the most modern and comprehensive family of civil airliners on the market, ranging in capacity from the best selling A320 family to the 500-seat A380.
• Airbus consistently captures about half of all commercial airliner orders and achieved record aircraft deliveries over the past 7 years.
• Airbus has sold over 10,800 aircraft and delivered more than 6,800 since its creation in 1970.
• At current production, Airbus backlog represents 7 years of production.
• Every 2.4 seconds, an Airbus takes off or lands.
• Airbus Military is also the global leader in the market for military transport, tanker and surveillance aircraft.

It was Hontiveros who led the team for the Airbus ferry flight as she made sure everyone had a grand time during the flight. With only 34 people onboard, it was a truly unique experience. At one point, a mass partly in Italian was held on the flight officiated by Fr. Ted – a truly riveting experience for anyone.

On board the ferry flight, the crew and the passengers were treated to sumptuous French meals – lobster, fresh vegetable salad, foie gras, crab omelette, a wide array of cheeses, deserts and fresh fruit medley, just to name a few, with endless serving of wine, of course – fit for those flying first class. It was after all a once in a lifetime experience.

Capping the event was the arrival ceremony at the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (DMIA) in Clark Freeport, Pampanga, where water cannons welcomed the A320 upon landing with the all Filipino crew waving the Philippine flag from the cockpit. Truly a proud moment for Filipinos.
Hontiveros said the entry of Air Asia Philippines in the local airline industry will revitalize the tourism industry with Clark as its center. She said Air Asia Philippines, with its hub at the DMIA, will bring in five million passengers in the next five years.

"The arrival of AirAsia Philippines’ first aircraft today reflects our commitment to the development of the country. This is only the start of all the positive things that we can do for our beloved Philippines," Hontiveros said.

She added: "(B)anking on a strong brand and sound business fundamentals, we are confident that we will also be able to grow a company that will bring pride to the Philippines. This is a brand that we aim to grow well so that it can serve as an inspiration to the business community and the country as a whole."

Air Asia Philippines first A320 is expected to start commercial flights in October to Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. Its second A320, which will come in October, will service passengers going to and from Bangkok, Incheon in South Korea and local flights to Kalibo, Aklan, and Puerto Princesa in Palawan. The other planes will be flown in next year.

Romero said Air Asia Philippines has made orders for 13 Airbus planes which will offer more affordable flights for Filipinos and tourists all over the country and the world.

In such a short period, new friendships were fostered forever bonded by that most unique experience.
The Philippines will not only gain a new airline with the entry of Air Asia Philippines but it will most surely gain a new friend, a new ally in travel – where I am sure more lasting friendships, just like those made during the ferry flight, will be created.

Cheers to Air Asia Philippines!

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