The Unsung Heroes of Philippine Airlines (part 1)

The Unsung Heroes of Philippine Airlines (Part 1)

By Apolinario Villalobos

By modern lingo, heroes are not just those who saw action in the battlefields. Heroes nowadays refer to people who keep the streets clean, sun-scorched and rain-soaked traffic enforcers, young policemen who risk dear lives in tracking down criminals, overseas Filipino workers, and many more. In the case of Philippine Airlines, the employees who belong to its era of early operations, they who laid down its foundation, the frontliners who faced irate customers and passengers at the ticket offices and terminal, endured the sun’s scorching beating at the tarmac, and those who lost sleep and skipped meals as they worked overtime on policies that are needed to be collated into operating manuals, are the “unsung heroes”, I am referring to.

The airline as the country’s flag carrier has been magnanimous in its role – practically in bringing the islands together, easing the travel of Filipinos, propping up commerce that nurtured the eventual development even of far- off towns and islands, and shuttling people from abroad to interesting nooks in the country, thereby bringing consciousness about an exotic archipelago somewhere in Southeast Asia, along the rim of the Pacific. Philippine Airlines, proudly flew the country’s colors in its effort to put the latter in the international tourism map, and it was successfully done with its prime travel program – PALakbayan. And, that was the era of the airline’s struggle to make significant contribution to the country’s economy. With Ricardo G. Paloma, “Mr. Tourism” among the people of the industry during his time, at the helm of this effort, success was achieved, and of course, with the help of its “unsung heroes”.

The screening of future heroes of the airline started at the time of preliminary interviews, during which sincerity was gauged in the answers to two questions: “are you willing to be assigned anywhere?”, and, “are you willing to learn?” Standard answer was of course, yes, but the clever interviewers, station bosses, who themselves, rose from the ranks, were able to discern sincerity in how such single word was further enhanced by the interviewees. With further filtering, the hundreds of applicants were trimmed to the very few that consisted the so-called “cream” – thick in its consistency of enthusiasm, courage and sincerity.

During the rigid training, the applicants were further scrutinized, as not only the basics of station operation, check-in counter handling, and ticketing were taught, but moral values and attitudes, as well. Those that showed resistance were eventually eased out. The early management of the company showed compassion and fairness by not giving much weight to the alma mater of applicants. My case was a clear example, having graduated from an obscure school in the south, but proud Notre Dame of Tacurong College.

My first assignment in Tablas, exposed me to the intricacies of station operation handled with resourcefulness most of the time. The station personnel got worried every time there was rain and the direction of the wind changed, factors that dictated the load of the aircraft. Some of the towns where the ticket offices were located had no electricity. Reservation was done manually. As an extra mile in serving the customers who came from far barrios, those who arrived late, meaning, early evening, were served with the use of a kerosene lamp. That was the situation when I set foot in Tablas where I found Celso Dapo, Oswald Alamo, Sonny Garcia, and Bien Alvaro, the Supervisor who welcomed me with warmth. They were the first heroes of PAL that I met. We had no day off as even on flightless days, we had to conduct some kind of community outreach by mingling with the locals to ensure their patronage of the airline. Our threat was the more frequent schedule of ferries from the nearby town of Looc and the bigger ships that made regular calls at Odiongan.

I saw the same situation in other stations that I visited when I assumed later a job to research on tourist spots for the TOPIC Magazine that I edited. When I visited Mamburao, Obet Reyes, the station Supervisor and his staff endured the loneliness of being far from loved ones. Assignment of personnel depended on the need of any station, so that some of my batchmates during training were assigned to Jolo, like Abet Yu who hailed from Cagayan de Oro. I came to understand why right at the moment of the first interview, willingness to be assigned anywhere was extracted from applicants, as I later found out that those who hailed from Luzon were assigned in Mindanao or Visayas stations, and those from the latter provinces were assigned in Luzon stations or Manila. Just like the gallant men of the military, they boldly accepted assignments without question.

What we see today is a somewhat modernistic Philippine Airlines that fly world-class, long and wide-bodied aircrafts which is far from the picture of many years ago when the Philippine skies were sliced by its HS-748’s, DC-3’s, YS-11’s, and a little later, BAC1-11’s. The airline’s president, then, was Benigno Toda, a Hispanic and very accommodating person who were perceived by the employees as a “father”. During his time, the airline was like a big family. And, there was no spat in anyway, with the union.

Aside from the harried effort to come up with systems and manuals, the airline was also into community outreach to promote air travel awareness, at the same time. Through its Public Relations Office (PRO), now Corporate Communications Department, aircraft familiarization tours for school kids and groups were conducted. The office was also tapped when there was a need for exhibits in schools, complete with stewardesses in sleek uniform. The staff of the said office, likewise, conducted film showings in communities and schools, or during seminars about the airline. This effort showed that PAL flew its aircraft not only for profit but also to foster goodwill, and contribute for the welding of the islands into a cohesive country despite its diversified cultures.

The effort of the PRO was duplicated by the Tours and Promotions Office, under its manager, Vic Bernardino which conducted slides presentations in schools and during seminars organized by government agencies, such as Department of Tourism, local government units, and travel agencies. The said office conceptualized the PALbayan Tour Program, which gave a new face to travel. Practically, the whole staff were adept as resource speakers for tourism forums. The whole staff was also given tasks that covered all facets of tourism industry. Ed Buensuceso was a scuba diver, mountain climber, birdwatcher, and cave explorer and so were John Fortes and Thelma Villaseῆor; Bong Velasco was a mountain climber and bird watcher; Mayee Santos Cuenco was a thorough researcher on festivals and tourist spots; Reggie Constantino, Ed Ramos, Bong Velasco, and this writer, whose primary responsibility was to edit the TOPIC Magazine, were also into mountain climbing and cave exploration. Tour programs for groups were developed by any of us for tourism students who would like to visit a place to fulfill a requirement in their course. The same effort also benefited travel agents who had requirements for special groups. Again, in this effort, those assigned in outlying stations were all out in giving their support. They served as “meet and assist parties” for groups that arrive in their stations. Practically, passengers were made to feel that PAL cared for them – all the way.

On the other hand, those behind their desks at the head office, worked double time in formulating policies for the operating manuals. The combined efforts of the Marketing and Sales-Philippines Department’s divisions, such as, Standards and Coordination under Ed Guatelara, Luzon Sales under Teodorico Pabelico, Market Planning under Gil Carolino, Cargo under Joe Clemente, the Administrative group under Salvador Caburian, and Metro Manila Sales under Tessie Luna, proved to be just impressive. What with their brilliant staff, such as Dennis Balictar, Gary Cruz (who later became a Director/AVP of Cebu Pacific), Toto Antonio, Jovy Jovida (who later headed another department), Jay Delfin (now, a respective Marketing Consultant in Indonesia), Bong Valencia (who later became VP-Airport Operations), Johnny Carls, Gabby Briones, Emma Tronco, Ceres Noble (who later became a Director of Cebu Pacific), Gene Asuncion, Frankie Guttierez, Alvin Feliciano, Edwin Bautista, Toton Oban, Dixon Ilanderal, Nelson Du, Rey Reyes, Tina Bacaltos, Ramon Magno, Ex Estandarte (who later became Manager-Research of HRD), Mike Villaflor (now, concurrently, Staff Manager of the Philippine Region, but with a dual function as Head of Luzon and Metro Manila Sales), Belinda Yngente, Edette Razon, Amee Atotobu (now, a manager of Metro Manila Sales), Ayee Asuncion Garvida (who held a Ticket Office manager), and Nina Intengan. Plucked from the provinces for their talents were Archie Batu, Juancho Dimagila, Ludy Bagares, Raymond Baylon, Cris Lebumfacil, Ayee Noval, and Glenna Tan. Not to be forgotten is Milagros S. Limgenco who during that time was an executive of Luzon Sales, and later, Director of Metro Manila Sales…she who worked earlier than the regular log-in time, till late in the evening. There could be other names that I have missed…but, as recalled, they will be mentioned in other related blogs.

PAL’s Golden Era was during the time of Mr. Benigno Toda, during which Mr. Ricardo Paloma was the Regional Vice- President for Philippines and Guam. It was during that time that the oneness of employees as one family was strongly felt. Those belonging to other departments did their share by upholding the spirit of discipline and pride for being part of the country’s flag carrier. Everybody was driven by the desire to excel in their assigned tasks, be they at the Comptroller Department, Corporate Planning, Marketing and Sales-International, Airport Operations, Passenger Handling, Public Relations, Inflight Service, Passenger Service, Reservations, and Maintenance Department (now, Lufthansa Teknic).

This desire to excel in assigned task was among the sparks that ignited the idea to come up with the Total Passenger Care program. The concept actually was developed during a workshop of supervisors and managers in Baguio, and a name I can recall that formulated the concept was that of Tessie Luna, manager of Domestic Ticket Office. The program practically made those who availed of PAL service, feel not as customers, but as members of the PAL family, too. They were pampered with comfort all the way from the time they purchased their ticket until the time they reached their destinations.

PAL would not be what it is today, without the unselfish dedication of its unsung heroes. Some have retired many years ago yet, some just a few years ago, some still just lately, and with a very few still working for the company, as if like leaves clinging to the robust tree, waiting for their time to fall…and become a nutrient to further its life. That is the humble legacy of the early employees of PAL…as nutrients to ensure that it will go on streaking the Philippine skies with pride!

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