Something stinks at Cebu Pacific

I normally abhor rants since they accomplish few things except raise your diastole and reduce you to a Scrooge who misses Christmas by a mile. But here I am, writing this in the hinterlands of Leyte, blue with anguish after Cebu Pacific messed up—big time—its December flights to Tacloban.

Yes, Cebu Pacific of the Claudine Barretto-Mon Tulfo fiasco, the same airline who tries to make infants of their adult passengers by conducting silly games, depriving them of some sleep and quiet time above the clouds.

I booked my Manila-Tacloban-Manila flights months in advance knowing the notoriety of the Christmas travel season. With a hectic Manila schedule, I carefully orchestrated the round-trip flights with small time margins in case of delays. Four days before my December 12 flight came a text message from Cebu Pacific that due to “force majeure,” they cancelled their flights to Tacloban. The cryptic message was coupled with the instruction to call their offices or consult their website. That’s service with a snarl, akin to a pickpocket who instructs you to open your shirt linings after he cleaned up your trouser’s back pockets.

Force majeure? If I rely on my overweight Webster it should mean incidents beyond human control such as calamities, accidents or events nature has unleashed on mortals. A check with Cebu Pacific revealed the runway facilities at Tacloban’s Romualdez Airport are unusable or still under construction due to delays. How can that be force majeure since delays can be anticipated in construction timetables? Besides, why accept reservations without the necessary alternative services in a month that everyone knows are the busiest? Are we dealing with fumbling amateurs pretending to run an airline?

After a hair-raising discussion with a staff member of Cebu Pacific’s Customer Service they finally re-routed my flight via Cebu. Not a bad idea as long as I can reach the green grass of home at the appointed time and date. But the initial response from the airline was a flat “no,” which changed to a reluctant “yes” only after a shrill, nerve-wracking argument.

That’s not the end of the horror story. Cebu Pacific had bigger, nastier surprises. Rio Mae, my niece who booked for a December 16 return trip, received another cancellation notice four days before her flight.  You guessed it—another force majeure cancellation with the exact wording as the first one. Also four days before the appointed date. Is Cebu Pacific scheduling their force majeure events like the way the gods of Olympus parcel out their intrigues and tragedies?

We traveled straight to Tacloban on the day of departure to escort Rio Mae.  Right on the security checks we were greeted with a long queue that mutated by the hour like a six-headed Medusa. Finally, after hours of waiting we reached the pre-departure desk only to be told with the bluntness of a dull axe that the next available flight will be on December 24, eight days away! Of course, no one in their half-bright minds would travel on Christmas Eve. But when one is at dagger’s point, why not grab at any chance?

I didn’t lose sanity, temper and sense of logic. I looked at the Leytenos all standing in one silent queue. Most of them might be the same resilient victims of Yolanda and Hagupit, a hardy tribe who could adapt to any calamity with the equanimity of a saint. There must be a lesson in this tableau of patient and watchful waiting, I told myself. But should one remain docile and allow this crass airline trick to go unnoticed?

Hard as I tried, I could not fathom the callousness of this airline that communicates like the Oracle of Delphi with its full-paying passengers. Besides, their pricing does not match their abysmal service, which consists mainly of distracting their passengers with on-board “fetch-me” games.

I shelled out almost 11,000 pesos (200 euros) for the Manila-Cebu route, the same rate I would pay for a ‘discounted’ fare from Amsterdam to Milan, an international route to a major city hub. The difference is I would at least get a free glass of water and be spared of the mindless chatter from flight attendants enthusiastically corralling their passengers to silly games.

If an airline thrives and piles up its profits on the quiet desperation of their passengers, and from paying customers who are cowed to a silent “bear-it-all,” if this is Philippine society in a nutshell, this certainly bodes ill to the rest of us who still hopes for a meaningful, substantial change.

If something stinks we should not just plug our noses. It is a shame the Barretto-Tulfo ruckus focused on sensation and sordidness, while burying the nasty secrets of Cebu Pacific and its profound lack of customer service. 

Let’s sneeze out this “kulangot” of disservice coming from Cebu Pacific. If we aim to tackle the big and little monsters in our society, we should at least start with the basics. Let this be another warning to Leytenos, as I am sure this will not be the last cheap trick this airline would pull out from its sleeves.


Joel Vega is an editor and medical journalist based in The Netherlands.

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