Philippine Airlines flying high amid surging 'revenge travel'
PAL exec banking on Guam visa waiver to boost traffic from Manila; open to exploring Saipan route
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Philippine Airlines is projecting an 86 percent air traffic load between Guam and Manila toward the holiday season, with more travelers embarking on their long-postponed trips to make up for the lost time during the dreary pandemic.
“People are more confident to travel now that almost all of the restrictions have eased up coming into the Philippines,” said Israel Fontanilla, area manager for the Philippines’ flagship carrier.
The Philippine government has done away with the quarantine policy and lifted the negative test requirement for vaccinated Filipinos and boosted foreign travelers.
“Last year, even if you were vaccinated you still had to undergo a five-day quarantine,” Fontanilla said, noting that this will be the first Christmas since the pandemic when travelers get to fly hassle-free to Manila.
Currently, the bulk of traffic consists of Manila-bound Guam residents who are visiting relatives and friends.
A huge backlog at the U.S. embassy hampers Filipino travelers’ ability to promptly obtain a tourist visa. The American embassy in Manila stopped processing visa applications during the peak of the pandemic and new visa appointments are scheduled for 2023 and 2024.
“We have some labor contractors coming into Guam to help with the construction,” Fontanilla said.
During a meeting with Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero in Manila on Monday, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Heather C. Variava said the processing of H-2B visas for Guam has been seamless, but she acknowledged "that the U.S. embassy is addressing the challenges with processing tourist visas to Guam," according to a press release from the governor's office.
Philippine Airlines is banking on the fruition of local officials’ request for the inclusion of the Philippines in the list of countries eligible for the Guam visa waiver program, which was established in 2009.
Leon Guerrero met with U.S. representatives in Manila to “renew our efforts for a Guam visa waiver program.”
A visa waiver will allow Filipinos to enter Guam without a pre-approved U.S. visa to visit or be employed under the H-2A and H-2B non-immigrant worker programs. Guam’s initiative toward this end began in 2019.
Fontanilla said the carrier is also open to exploring the possibility of opening a Saipan route.
"We used to do charter flights there. We had a few during the pandemic but it's not really a regular thing," Fontanilla said. "I've heard that there's a lot of Filipinos there. Maybe in the future, we can explore the possibility of doing flights there."
“Right now, the majority of our passengers are from here. The hotel bookings are for famous destinations such as Palawan and Boracay,” said Fontanilla, who is currently visiting Guam to provide local travel agents with product updates.
“In terms of increasing passengers from Manila, we are working with the Guam Visitors Bureau to encourage travel from Manila to Guam,” he added.
The Philippines’ flagship carrier suspended its Guam service in March 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that prompted the Philippine government to shutter its borders.
PAL resumed operations four months later with twice-a-week flights before eventually reinstating its daily flights.
While the passenger load is still well below the pre-pandemic level, Fontanilla said the ball game brims with optimism.
“We’re having around 60 to 70 percent load factor,” he said. “Those are good numbers.”
Philippine Airlines flies Airbus 321 with a 168-seat capacity.
Besides Philippine Airlines, United Airlines also provides daily flight service between Guam and Manila.
Fontanilla said Philippines Airlines has rolled back its airfares to regular rates and reinstated its promo packages.
“During the pandemic, the ticket prices were really high so people traveled only when they needed to,” he said. “Now we can actually see the term that everyone is using: 'the revenge travel.' Travel is definitely increasing as we are expecting people to travel more in the coming months."
Philippine Airlines is also branding itself as a network carrier, Fontanilla said.
"Before, we mostly concentrated on Filipino passengers and Guam has a lot of Filipino passengers," he said. "We are now looking at serving other routes as well via mainland U.S., Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia and Australia."