MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III has stepped into the dispute between Philippine Airlines (PAL) and 25 pilots who have moved to higher-paying jobs abroad, causing PAL flights to be delayed or canceled and passengers stranded.
The President announced Sunday that the PAL management would sit in a meeting Monday with Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and the secretaries of departments, such as transportation, labor and justice, to tackle the matter.
A separate meeting will be held with pilots who had left PAL to join bigger airlines, he said.
“The end point being to address the situation and to remind everybody—PAL, for instance—that they have obligations when they secured the franchise to operate this public conveyance,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President said “the pilots also have an obligation. This is being studied with pertinent laws.”
He scolded both the management and the pilots over what he called “disruption” caused by the mass exodus of the latter in the past two weeks.
“There has been disruption to our tourism efforts and to other aspects of the economy that would need their services,” Mr. Aquino said. “If this is not (resolved), they (will) lay themselves open (to) appropriate charges.”
PAL, Asia’s first airline, has rejected the resignation of 25 of its pilots.
In a statement on Sunday, the company said it had ordered its pilots to report back for work this week or risk facing criminal and administrative charges for causing the cancellations of several flights over the weekend.
“PAL doesn’t want to get in the way of its pilots’ dream of landing better-paying jobs abroad, but they have contractual obligations with the company and a moral responsibility to thousands of passengers,” the company said.
In the last two days, the airline has been forced to cancel regional and domestic flights after 13 captains and 12 first officers flying its Airbus A319s and A320s resigned from the flag carrier.
“They left without giving PAL ample time to train replacements,” the company said.
On Saturday, the shortage of pilots either disrupted or canceled 23 PAL flights, including one to Hong Kong.
The Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) said eight PAL flights from Manila to four destinations and vice versa—Cagayan, Cebu, Bacolod and Iloilo—were canceled Sunday.
The MIAA quoted PAL as saying that the cancellations were “planned.”
Two international flights to Hong Kong and Singapore scheduled last night were also affected, delaying their departures by as much as 30 minutes.
About 5,000 passengers were affected, but most have been accommodated in succeeding flights, the airline said.
The flag carrier said the pilots’ resignation was something it could not prevent.
“Many of them simply did not show up for work and just handed in their resignation letters. Some of them even owe PAL millions of pesos for the cost of their training,” it said.
Losses, market share
PAL, founded in 1941, has a fleet of 38 aircraft. It flies to 46 domestic and international destinations. It has incurred losses in the last few years because of rising fuel costs and low passenger loads, according to PAL spokesperson Jonathan Gesmundo.
With the entry of new airlines like Cebu Pacific, PAL’s market share of domestic air travel has shrunk to 41 percent (of the 14.745 million passengers in 2009). PAL used to control almost 100 percent of the domestic market before the entry of Cebu Pacific in 1996.
PAL said the pilots were lured by foreign carriers with higher salaries.
One pilot, who requested anonymity because he still works for PAL, said salaries abroad were 120 percent higher than the current pay of PAL pilots.
But Elmer Peña, president of the Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines (Alpap), said money was not the only reason for the successive resignations.
Lower pay, no tenure
Peña said that a few months ago, PAL forced several of its pilots to take jobs at a sister company, budget carrier Air Philippines.
“They were forced to take lower salaries and the security of their tenure was removed,” he said.
“It’s like PAL is telling its employees that they owe their jobs to the company,” Peña said.
He said the pilots did not want to leave their families to work abroad, but the airline’s policies forced them out. “They are fed up,” he added.
Many pilots have been trying to resign for weeks, but the management met their requests with hostility, according to the Alpap president.
Alpap used to be a labor union representing PAL pilots. The group was forced to leave PAL in 1998, after a pilot strike it mounted that year was declared illegal by the courts. It now informally represents pilots from all local airlines.
Today, PAL pilots are the company’s only employees without any union representation.
Impact on passengers
A business leader in Cebu is calling on the PAL management to immediately resolve the problem.
Robert Go, former president of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said businessmen would be adversely affected if the problem persisted. “This problem is very disturbing to business,” he said.
Domingo de Guzman of the PAL information department in Mactan Cebu International Airport office confirmed the cancellation on Sunday morning of PR 848, which was supposed to leave for Manila at 9:35 a.m. The incoming flight from Manila at 8:45 a.m., PR 847, was also canceled.
On Saturday, incoming and outgoing flights—PR 843 and PR 844—at 5:35 a.m. and 6:35 a.m. respectively, were canceled.
PAL has nine Cebu-Manila flights and nine Manila-Cebu flights on Sundays and seven Cebu-Manila and eight Manila-Cebu flights from Mondays to Saturdays.
De Guzman said the passengers were accommodated on other Manila-bound PAL flights on Saturday.
Go, however, said that even if the passengers were able to leave in later flights, the passengers were already late for their respective appointments.
“That is bad for us businessmen because the time element is very important, especially if we have business meetings,” he said.
Go said he felt sorry for the PAL management for losing its pilots to foreign airline companies, but he added that the airline should still have to act swiftly to resolve the problem, probably by having a dialogue with the pilots and hearing what they want.
Wilven Pinili, a passenger from Cagayan de Oro City, said he missed the first hour of his workshop in Manila on Saturday because of a canceled flight.
“I was moved to the next flight out to Manila. Good thing I’m a premier elite member. At least I was prioritized. Nevertheless, it still caused me discomfort,” Pinili said.
He said he was supposed to take the 6:50 a.m. flight to Manila on Saturday. Instead, he took the 8:50 a.m. flight.
Other affected passengers were “distributed to the next succeeding flights,” he said.
This issue with its pilots puts PAL at odds with every part of its workforce.
Earlier this year, the PAL Employees’ Association, which represents the company’s ground crew, asked the labor department to stop the airline’s plan to outsource 2,600 jobs.
PAL also has a pending appeal with the Supreme Court regarding a decade-old dispute on the dismissal of 1,400 flight attendants, which the high tribunal earlier declared illegal.
The problem at the country’s flag carrier came just as the government won the arbitration case against Philippine International Air Terminals Co. (PIATCo) in the International Criminal Court in Singapore.
“It’s with a very intense delight that I was informed the other day that we had won by the dismissal of the complaint in that arbitration (case) in Singapore,” Mr. Aquino said.
With the decision, he said he was looking forward to having the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3 operating on “maximum capacity” by Christmas this year.
The German firm Fraport AG had sought international arbitration in connection with the Philippine government’s takeover of the NAIA 3, after the Supreme Court nullified the latter’s contract with PIATCo in a 2004 decision.
The following year, the high court ordered the government to provide compensation to PIATCo because of the takeover.
Christian V. Esguerra, Paolo Montecillo, Philippine Daily Inquirer