Philippine Airlines: Is it worth flying in business class? San Francisco to Manila and back

Cabin of Philippine Airlines business class

Is it worth flying in business class on Philippine Airlines? The answer to this question is relative to several factors:

For one, cost, and are you willing to pay this extra cost which is generally 3-4 times higher than economy class and would essentially be 3-4 additional trips for the price of one business trip. If cost is really your concern when flying, then go with economy class.

The next question to ask yourself is: How do you like being treated as someone other than a first-rate citizen of the world? If you like being treated as a burden to the airlines rather than a paying customer, then economy is probably good enough for you. If you must arm wrestle a stewardess for a drink of water in a plastic cup, then economy is good enough.

And while we are at it, this is one of those subjects that has always bothered me. I just don’t understand how the airlines can get away with treating economy class passengers so poorly and so radically different from the so-called higher classes. I get it, people pay more for business and first class, but why the super poor service? Does it really cost that much to be nice to people and to at least remove their food trays in a timely manner? Of course, so many airlines have either stopped or significantly reduced their meal service altogether, so you are forced to pay ridiculous prices for food inside the airports.

The third question you must ask yourself is: Where are you going? If the answer is on a long international flight, odds are that it will be over 9 hours long and probably more like 14-15 hours if it’s a straight shot and around 23-25 if there are layovers. If you can sleep sitting prone for that long on seats that can be used for a blacksmith anvil, then economy is probably good enough for you.

The fourth question is: Do you enjoy economy airline food? If you enjoy economy class airline food and your stomach can handle it, then economy class is probably OK for you.

The last question is: Do you enjoy being the last group on or off the airplane, the last to get in the que at customs in a foreign country, or back at home after a long flight, or the last to grab your luggage. Then you already know my answer.

If the answer to the above questions is a resounding NO, then you already know the answer to what it will take to get the comfort you deserve, decent food that is eatable, the convenience of short lines, if any, at airport check-in, waiting in comfort in the airport lounges, early boarding with a friendly welcome by a stewardess who uses your name and asks you if you would like a glass of champagne, yes real glass and real champagne, and being treated properly before, during and after the flight, well, you should already know the final answer: fly business class! (Or first class, but this blog-post is all about business class.)

Let me paint the scenario that is the basis for this blog-post: We haven’t been back to see our family in the Philippines for many years. It’s around 20+ hours to get from San Francisco to Manila on all carriers because they have to make a stopover, in either Seoul, Hong Kong, Narita or Taipei, depending on the carrier’s hub. The exception is Philippine Airlines who goes direct to Manila, making it the fastest way to get there at 14 hours (coming back from Manila to San Francisco is about two hours less with the help of the jet stream).

The check-in counter for business class at SFO is relatively fast, I say relatively because no matter what you do or how organized you are, there will always be someone in front of you who has a problem, like on our last flight to Manila. I won’t go into details, but this couple took 25 minutes while my wife and I took less than five minutes. And we even had more luggage!

Speaking of more luggage, that of course is another advantage of business class, especially when you are flying “home” to visit your family in the Philippines around the holidays. On Philippine Airlines, as with business class on most other airlines, the weight goes up from 50 lbs. to 70 lbs. each on two pieces of checked in bags, plus I was allowed one large carry-on that fit perfectly in the overhead bin. I also had a fairly large backpack that plays the role of my computer, camera and photography equipment bag. And although there is no place to stow these items near your seat because the seats need room to expand out for sleeping, it is nonetheless a simple task to fetch any item from the overhead bin unless you encounter a bunch of turbulence. But then you don’t want to work on your laptop or catalog your photographs anyway. I don’t have to remind anyone of the advantages of bringing extra baggage, but I for one never have to fret about what to bring and what to leave at home which is always a good thing when you have to pack for hot and cold weather.

Next, let’s talk about crying or rather screaming babies of which I seem to always get near me in economy, which I also fly quite frequently. When you take long flights you really don’t have much to do so you either sleep, read, watch a movie or try to get caught up on some work. As if it isn’t hard enough to do the aforementioned with so much constant commotion all around you, what with meal service carts, people banging into your seat while they stumble toward the toilets, and pilots letting you know that “we are on schedule for an early arrival” when we all know that this won’t happen. But then there is the obligatory kid who hates flying just as much as you do but can’t control the urge to rage about it and starts to whine, then while their hapless, and sometimes medicated parent doesn’t do whatever the miserable kid wants, they raise it up a notch and start to cry. And with each passing moment the parents don’t do something to appease the crying kid, they get louder vocally while at the same time they get vociferously more higher pitched until you start to feel that if you don’t start to scream and cry yourself, you might just burst!

Now, I do get it, some kids can’t be controlled, and some parents just can’t control their kids. I said I get it, but I really don’t understand it because my parents would have smacked me and did so until I stopped disturbing other passengers and embarrassing my parents. Of course, they never had to resort to drastic measures because it was a concept that they taught us kids from an early age. I guess that I get it because perhaps it’s the altitude having an effect on the kids’ ears or sinuses. But then again it may be that it is just a whiny kid who is used to getting their way by making continuous ear-piercing screams and their parents haven’t learned the simple, one-step Dad Jackson process of getting them to shut up! No matter, you will hardly ever face this situation in business class. You will also not be bothered by kids playing their video games without headsets and the volume up on high!

Now, let’s discuss seats that stick to your face. What you say is this phenomenon? Anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airplane in economy class has experienced this. Unless of course you have always managed to sit in a row that has the bulkhead in front of you. Then you have no room to stow your carry on and must get up to grab your computer bag to use during the flight. But then when you have to stick the bag back up, invariably someone has encroached on your real estate by sticking their gigantic bag where yours used to be. And now there is no room for your bag, and Miss Crankypants the stewardess, who is upset because her 401k tanked and now has to work many more years before she can retire, is impatiently telling you to hurry and stow your bag so we can have an on-time arrival!

Anyway, getting back to the seats that stick to your face. This is when the person in the seat in front of you reclines their seat, sometimes before you even take off, and their headrest is now your chin rest! Oh sure, the stewardess’ announce that everybody must stow their trays and raise their seats to the full upright position, but I wish that I had a hundred dollar bill from everybody who sat in front of me from take off to landing with their seats not in their full upright position. This is especially true when it’s time to eat and the inconsiderate person in front of you insists on leaning way back while they stuff delicious TV dinner style food into their face while you play a game of “don’t drop the Salisbury steak” with a seat-back just under your chin. But in business class there is ample room so that everyone in the entire section could have their seats reclined and still a large person could walk over and have a look out your window into the abyss, even though that will never happen.

Another annoyance while flying in economy class is the overall toilet situation. It seems that just when you have to go potty, after holding it while the airplane was bouncing around for a time, they decide to start their food or beverage service. The service carts that the stewardesses push around their wares of duty-free or leftovers from last week’s business or first class meals, are just wide enough so that you must either leap over them or squeeze into a row where someone is sitting until the service cart goes past. In my case I do what everyone tells you not to do: don’t hold it, it’s not good for you. I invariably hold it right through the meal service and always forget that they wait until the last second to pick up their trays trapping you in your fully upright seat! Of course, by then it becomes a free-for-all as everyone else who had been trapped is now charging for the all-too-few johns and you must wait uncomfortably in line doing a tight-kneed toe tapping dance to use the facility. And you just know that there is that certain someone who is taking a ridiculously long time to do their business and it seems as though they are taking a bath, washing and drying their hair and changing into a new set of clothes! But when you finally enter the broom closet toilet, you realize the guy wasn’t bathing! But this situation is very rare in business class. There just aren’t that many people and, for some strange reason, they pick up your tray very quickly, even while you are still eating the soft bread of which the hardened leftovers will wind up in economy class next week.

Now let’s discuss the situation on Philippine Airlines business class that I really think could use some major improvement. Their seating arrangement is very good in that you sit facing forward not like on British Airlines where some seats have you facing backward and therefore flying backward. However, the reclining seats in Philippine Airlines business class, despite having numerous position settings, have an odd layout when fully reclined into the sleeping mode. The overall configuration looks like a warehouse hand truck with the lip at the bottom that you use to pick up freight. Your feet are supposed to bottom out against this lip, which is OK, but the flatness of the entire “bed” is more like a typical bench seat in an airport. You know the kind, the ones that make you so uncomfortable on a delayed flight that you would rather get up and lay on the floor!

On Philippine Airlines seats, the head portion, back portion and seat portion are not aligned flat due to obvious reasons. The head portion does not receive as much weight as the back portion which gets less weight over time than the butt portion therefore the permanent compression of the cushion is different. Then there is the portion where your knees and legs go while you sleep, and these have different material thickness and height. The worse part of the sleeping bench is the portion at the bottom that resembles a hand truck lip. This is where your ankles rest and the surface is hard like the armrests in economy class. I simply could not get comfortable but eventually fell asleep from shear exhaustion and tossing around trying to get more comfortable but that didn’t last long because we hit turbulence, and my ankles were literally bouncing on the hard portion of the hand truck platform! But then I started thinking about how uncomfortable it must be in economy class trying to sleep in a tiny upright seat and some hairy ape slobbering and snoring as he encroaches over the armrest built for one but fought over by two.

I managed to get more sleep than I really expected. We left San Francisco at 9:30pm and landed 14 hours later at 3:45am Manila time. (They have a fifteen-hour time difference from California.) Upon landing in Manila we were the first to deplane and that meant that were the first to enter the terminal to go through immigration and customs, which is always a madhouse in Manila. But as we neared the immigration booth, I looked back and saw how long the line was behind us and I was thankful for flying in business class!  

We were the first group to clear immigration and grab our luggage, we used the toilet and got out into warm Manila morning, refreshed as always when we fly business class and ready to start our holidays!

Above, the Philippine Airlines waiting lounge at San Francisco International Airport

Above, the food selection at Philippine Airlines lounge was woefully lacking. This photo shows what was available and we were the first into the lounge. The clam chowder was still cooking in a crock pot and the potatoes were raw.

Above, the food inside the waiting lounge may leave a lot to be desired but the seating was comfortable.

Above, we could board our plane before anyone, then were greeted by our names and offered a glass of champagne. We opted for a glass of fine French red wine.

Our airplane was a Boeing 777-300ER which is quite large and has a very spacious business class section.

Above, the food selection in business class is not too bad considering the difficulties of making a positive fine dining experience while in the limited space of a kitchen flying at 38,000 feet.

Above, this was the menu items on our trip from San Francisco to Manila

Above, the starter course of the dinner menu was pumpkin soup.

Above, the appetizer of smoked salmon and cheese

Above, an appetizer plate of smoked salmon and king crab salad, which was delicious and not fake, crazy-crab.

Above, dinner was inconsistent on our flight to Manila. My small beef tenderloin was perfectly cooked but my wife’s was pretty rare. And the carrots were advertised as being “baby carrots” but you can see in the above they were “adult carrots” and mine were very hard and crunchy like they were blanched in cold water for twenty seconds!

Above, this is the panna cotta with mango coulis. The panna cotta was very good as was the mango puree, but I swear that the same person must do the buying of all fruit for all the airlines! The strawberry was unripe and tasted pretty bad. You know how a blade of grass tastes? That’s how it tasted! The blackberry had a flavor that was not near any blackberry that I had ever eaten, and I have eaten a lot of blackberries, both domesticated and wild.

Above, the food for breakfast was served just before we landed in Manila and was a rather typical Philippine breakfast of beef tapa, rice, mushrooms, scrambled eggs and whole lot of salsa. It was pretty good and the portions were just right after being at 38,000 feet for over 12 hours.

And now for the flight from Manila to San Francisco:

Perhaps after being in the Philippines for a month and enjoying the warmth of not only the climate but the people, I have a better perspective. Oh sure, the flight from San Francisco to Manila in business class on Philippine Airlines was a great flight, but I had so many things on mind and was looking forward to starting a wonderful vacation with my family in the Philippines. I had felt really great when we landed and that set the tone for the lengthy trip that would follow into Christmas and the New Year holidays.

After the long vacation, I can seriously say that I wanted to stay and not go home. It had been an amazing holiday, but we needed to go home, besides, my entry visa expired on the day we left Manila. Now, the Manila airport, NAIA, is one of the worst airports in the world. An entire blogpost could be written about the process that you have to endure entering the airport and finally boarding your plane. Having a business class boarding pass makes it much easier, very much easier since you have a separate security line and a porter who takes you through it. The Philippine Airlines business class lounge is light years better than that in San Francisco, with lots of food and drink that you feel like living there in the lounge!

But let’s talk about the time from when you enter the plane in Manila until you reach your destination in San Francisco. You skip the long line of people waiting to get on-board and you enter a spacious part of the plane that has more than enough space for all of your carry-on luggage. Plus, you immediately notice that the seats are spaced so that you can get up, check your luggage or fetch something from them without making the person next to you get up. This also holds true if you need to get up and use the bathroom.

As you get adjusted to what will be your accommodations for the next 12 hours, a stewardess asks if you would like some champagne or a mango smoothie, which we opted for. Then we are handed a menu that has so many good food and beverage items that we have difficulty making up our mind. We opted for a French white wine that paired well with the hor d’oeuvres, duck salad, and shrimp that I was served for dinner.

As we took off from Manila, with a spectacular view of the massive city below, we received a bonus. Forget the wonderful food, the cozy blanket, the professional headset, the extra, extra leg room, the great personal service, because the captain just announced that our 12 1/2-hour flight was now just 11 1/2 hours! Adding time to your life is always a good thing!

Above, fresh fruit that you can eat every bite!

Above and below, gourmet breakfast that actually tastes delicious!

Below, gourmet anchovies! No strong smell, just good flavor!

Below, an amazing view out of our window as we got closer to San Francisco

Below, as we neared the California coast, we were rewarded with a spectacular moonrise.

I am sure that by now you have already made up your mind regarding the worth of travelling in business class. Frankly speaking there were some issues with Philippine Airlines, however, that is a situation in our daily lives. I must say that they treated us very well, the airplane was clean as were the restrooms each time that entered them and the food was so much better than the so-called food that I have eaten in economy class flights.

The extra legroom, the seats that lay flat so that can get some sleep or just relax comfortably while watch a movie, the wonderful service, the ability to deplane first and get ahead of the crowd at immigration, being among the first to grab your checked in luggage and feeling refreshed after a long flight. Those are items that are hard to put a price on. Did I think that the extra cost of flying in business class versus economy was worth it? I would say that once we boarded the airplane, were greeted by name and took our seats, I was already convinced that we had made the right decision.

Now, we are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, however, we have reached a point in our lives where the difference between our daily routine which includes the car we drive or even the bed we sleep in are all part of the comfort that we have worked hard to attain. However, when we travelled in the past, in economy class, we noticed how much considerably lower that standard was. We agreed that whenever we could afford it, particularly on long international flights, we would fly in business class and we have never regretted it nor looked back.

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.

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