Flying in a pandemic: How Cebu Pacific copes

Font Size

THE pandemic has effectively shuttered the airline industry. In the Philippines alone, the lockdowns have caused airlines to lose P7 billion monthly according to the Air Carriers Association of the Philippines, Inc. (ACAP), prompting them to seek almost P9 billion in monthly aid from the government.

Just a year ago, more than 1.45 billion people travelled the world, according to the United Nations World Trade Organizations. Last year, the Philippines welcomed 8.26 million foreign travellers.

While international travel has paused indefinitely, local carriers like Cebu Pacific Air (CEB) continue to work with a skeleton workforce doing sweeper and cargo flights.

“When our first passenger for 5J 646 boarded, I clearly remembered her saying that she couldn’t believe that they were going back to Manila. Her words struck me and I felt the weight of what we were doing for them. For many, it was an answered prayer,” Christine Joy Madamba, a CEB cabin crew member, was quoted as saying in a company release.

Ms. Madamba worked on two repatriation flights (5J 646 and 5J 690) from Puerto Princesa to Manila on March 26, shuttling hundreds of people from the vacation island to the capital. It was the first time she has done so.

“Volunteering to fly during difficult times is not new to me. I feel a certain sense of responsibility — a lot of people are counting on me to bring our guests home safely,” she said.

In early May, the Department of Tourism (DoT) said it had rescued more than 1,100 stranded domestic tourists through sweeper flights.

Ever since the lockdowns started in March, the carrier has done “over 50 sweeper flights to various provinces, as well as to and from some international destinations, to fly out stranded passengers,” Charo Logarta Lagamon, CEB corporate communications director, told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.

The carrier is also doing an average of eight “all-cargo flights” daily from Manila to domestic and select international destinations, “depending on where there is a need to support logistics to transport vital goods,” Ms. Logarta Lagamon added.

Many of the cargo flights are used to shuttle medical equipment like the one Katrina Valencia was on.

“The call of duty is stronger despite the risk of COVID-19. We are doing our part by bringing cargo, including the PPEs needed by frontliners in the hospitals… by doing our jobs, we are helping each other combat this pandemic,” Ms. Valencia was quoted as saying in the statement.

CEB’s 72-strong fleet is down to 20 aircrafts which are being used on rotation while the others are preserved and maintained regularly.

“It was a sight to behold. They were cheering for each other and seemed very grateful to be given a chance to go back home. Hearing them say the words, ‘thank you for rescuing us’ and ‘thank you for coming to get us’ made it all worthwhile,” Ms. Madamba said, recalling her sweeper flights.

The pandemic will undoubtedly change the world of travel and the losses are steep but there is still hope for recovery, according to Ms. Logarta Lagamon.

“Ultimately, while there will be a recovery, it may take some time before business goes back to normal,” she said.

She acknowledged that passengers have apprehensions when it comes to travelling but ensured that CEB has “placed stricter protocols to ensure everyone’s safety and boost passengers’ confidence,” including “extensive and more frequent disinfection of all [their] aircraft” alongside measures requiring ground staff and cabin crew to wear PPEs and passengers wearing masks and maintaining proper distance.

“As this is quite a dynamic and rapidly changing scenario, we cannot provide exact guidance, but our conservative outlook is that there will be a gradual recovery and we are hopeful that things normalize by the end of the year,” she said.

The airline will continue to work with a skeleton crew while most of its employees work from home though they will re-assess if they need more employees on-site by June.

“For now, we are planning for a gradual introduction of our network, but it depends on how things progress. We will likely begin with the reinstatement of trunk domestic routes — keeping in mind that this may be a time when only essential travel will be done,” Ms. Logarta Lagamon noted. — Zsarlene B. Chua