Five hours of PAL tarmac hell

Inday Espina-Varona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 22 2016 06:10 PM | Updated as of Feb 23 2016 06:37 AM

Five hours on the tarmac. A pilot whose idea of reassurance was proclaiming, “My life is more important than yours.”

Two busloads of passengers on Philippine Airlines’ Bangkok-Manila PR731 deplaned after verbally tussling with cabin crew and Captain Filomeno Tacan during three hours of waiting in a sweltering Airbus Industrie A340-300.

Those who kept faith with PAL finally got off the ground after five hours. The passengers, including this writer, landed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 2 nine hours past boarding time -- to discover all our luggage had been offloaded at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

Shouts of rage filled NAIA 2 when, after waiting 30 minutes at Carousel 5, airport staff said, “there’s nothing on the plane.”

In distress

PR731 was scheduled to fly out 1:50 pm Bangkok time. It was nearly 7 p.m. when the plane took off.

Two mechanical problems, coming one after another, caused the delay.

Shortly just past 1 pm, as passengers settled down, Tacan announced that mechanics were patching up some engine leak problem.

Take-off was called an hour later. A second engine malfunction delayed the flight anew.

With only one emergency ground air-conditioning unit, the cabin grew hot. Crew had to open the main exit to let in some air.

Couples with children and other messengers mill around the main door of a PAL Airbus to get some air while stranded for hours on the tarmac of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Inday Espina-Varona

Toddlers stripped down to their diapers. One, just behind me on row 36, sprawled on the carpet, which he seemed to find cooler. His father gave him and a sibling some ice to rub on their faces.

The pantry at the rear of the aircraft was crowded with folks seeking drinks and food, including some elderly diabetics requesting for some sugar fix.

Surreal comparisons

PAL Capt. Filemon Tacan arguing with a lawyer about the safety of passengers. Inday Espina-Varona

As irate passengers demanded a lowdown on their safety, Tacan came on the public address system.

“Sorry sa nainip sa likod. Kami din dito nainip. Nobody wants a delay. Mas mainit dito sa cockpit kesa likod, no?” Tacan said over the cabin public address system after explaining that mechanics were assessing the plane’s status. (Sorry to those at the back who are getting impatient. So are we. Nobody wants a delay. It’s hotter in the cockpit than in the back.)

As curses and mocking laughter filled the plane, Tacan continued with his spiel.

“Of course, we’ll make sure it’s safe. We’re flying with you. We’re not allowing you to fly without us. So we are with you. Common sense lang. Kasama namin kayo. Lay down your fears. We’re making sure, that’s why we’re having this checked and rechecked.”

“Pasensya lang kayo. Sa Mumbai, nadelay kami ten hours. Isipin niyo yan.” (We were delayed ten hours in Mumbai. Think a bout that.)

Tacan said ground crew had given the green light to fly. If another malfunction occurred while the plane taxied, he promised to return to the terminal.

Families and groups of friends then demanded to deplane “for peace of mind.”

Cabin crew, some of them crying, tried to mollify passengers.

“I’ll sign a waiver,” an international NGO worker who sought anonymity told the chief bursar. “My first concern is the plane and its stability. The other is the pilot.”

“We want to go back to Bangkok and have some peace of mind,” said a man standing on the landing with a companion who cradled a baby in her arms.

“We don’t want to fly with the pilot. We want to transfer,” said a couple from business class.

A man who said he was suffering from claustrophobia said he understood that Tacan had to follow engineers’ assessment, “but adding drama just made it annoying and fearful.”

When the bursar asked them to reconsider, the NGO worker asked, “Is it the financial implication that we’re talking about or the welfare of the passengers?”

That prompted another huddle by the crew and Thai airport officials, which took almost another hour.

Proud of his skills

Passengers lined up, but half returned to their seats after hearing they would have to find their own lodging if they could not get on the next flight to Manila.

The crew said that was the consequence of “voluntary” deplaning.

As authorities sorted out the protocols, Tacan went out of the cockpit.

When lawyer Janet Francisco reminded him of passengers’ rights, Tacan repeated his message: “I consider my life more important than anybody. That’s why I’m not lying. Otherwise, I won’t be with you.”

Francisco answered back, “That’s your job, to protect the people.”

“With that in mind, I’m more important than anybody else,” the pilot replied.

As the exchange went on, he reiterated having been stuck on the tarmac for ten hours in Mumbai, India. The passengers, he added, were not allowed to get off.

He defended his capabilities. “Kami, galing sa fighters. Ano doon, daming katapangan. Pero ngayon, airline ‘to.”

Tacan, a veteran pilot who once flew boxing champ Manny Pacquiao from Manila to Los Angeles, may have meant to lighten the mood of passengers.

Crew said the pilot had 31 years of flying experience and apologized for “the language problem,” hinting that the Visayan may have gotten lost in translation.

But Tacan was full of bluster in the cabin and even approached some passengers as he and the crew readied to emerge from NAIA2.

“Sino yung nagrereklamo? I told you, I love my life more than yours,” he told the businessclass passengers who just shook their heads

Even at NAIA2, Capt. Felimon Tacan would not let go the message: 'I love my life more than yours.' Inday Espina-Varona

Missing luggage

Tacan, who had left his female co-pilot to do the in-flight announcements, came on at landing, telling passengers to claim luggage at Carousel 5.

Inday Espina-Varona

After waiting almost half an hour, we went around asking what the problem was. PAL staff milled around but would not engage passengers until a foreign passenger began shouting and one other person threw a slip of paper at personnel manning the misplaced baggage counter.

Once they learned what happened, jaws dropped. Raul Salvacion, an employee who took addresses and other passenger details said it was his first time to encounter this kind of case. He also said PAL in NAIA was not informed about the offloading of baggage.

Some passengers who had deplaned to catch another flight caught up with us at NAIA. They left with their luggage. The rest of us called it a day.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.