Stickman Readers' Submissions July 7th, 2008

Delightful Philippines – Flying 19-Seaters to Palawan

At Manila's domestic airport, I climb onto the scale. That's right, I myself step onto the old-fashioned, mechanical scale – together with my checked luggage and my carry-on luggage.

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According to the rules, if passenger and luggage combined weigh more than one hundred kilos, you have to buy a "cargo seat", whatever that maybe. But we did a lot of thinking and repacking in the hotel room, so luggage and I remain under one hundred. Still there lurks a threat: Luggage may stay behind and arrive with a later plane.

Checking in with Seair

When you fly to the Philippines' remote northern Palawan Province, to Busuanga or El Nido, you may well end up in a 19-seater airplane operated by Seair (South East Asian Airlines).

They'd already handed us this tiny piece of paper:

"You will be flying on a LET 410 UVP-E, a 19-seater turboprop aircraft. The LET410 is one of the world's most popular aircraft in its class, with over 800 examples in service nationwide. Its maximum take-off weight is 6,600 kg or 14,520 lbs. Standard operating procedure requires the passenger to be weighed, including accompanying baggage and hand-carry items. You will be required to purchase an extra seat (cargo seat) in case your combined body weight and accompanying baggage (including hand carry) exceeds 100 kg. "

At least, this information sounds relatively clear. There are many more terms and conditions to be read online. I had studied them thoroughly, but never fully understood what to expect at the airport. So I had asked online forums, only to get more confused. But having to leave your luggage behind seems like a real option.

And even now, after some flights on Seair, I cannot fully explain their weight limitations. I believe the regulations are like that:

  • 10 kg luggage included with ticket price.
  • excess luggage costs 40 pesos (1 USD) per kg plus 12 percent tax.
  • per person maximally 100 kg of combined body and luggage weight, otherwise you have to buy the "cargo seat".

Now my wife Nahlee enters the scale. She plus the massive luggage assigned to her undercut a hundred kilos too and we get a joint assessment. We run into the expected, pre-calculated excess weight, but not to a total of more than 200 kg.

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The check-in lady patiently and pacifyingly mumbles a mantra of "small aircraft", "maximum take-off weight", "limited luggage", "100 kg" and such and finally produces a receipt over 582,40 pesos (14 USD) for 13 kg of excess weight. Her shy look says: Would you kindly pay without rude complaints please?

Just when I stuff back my wallet, another Seair check-in lady approaches me from behind, repeats the mantra of "small aircraft", "maximum take-off weight", "limited luggage", "100 kg" and such and announces that our heavy main suitcase might not fly with us. It might follow one day later. So she writes down our pre-booked guesthouse in Coron town on Busuanga – they would deliver the bag to our lodge.

Nahlee shrieks when she hears that. No fresh dress for a day?

Departing with Seair

I look around for the way to the departure gate. A Seair luggage handler pats me fatherly on the shoulder and accompanies us to the next security check. It had not been immediately visible from the check-in counter. We each have to pay 5 USD domestic terminal fee (departure tax). The Seair luggage handler looks most surprised that I stuff back my wallet and don't tip him as we disappear towards the waiting hall.

Together with our hand-luggage, my shoes are x-rayed. In pre-emptive obedience, Nahlee takes off her shoes too, but hers are not considered worth the ride through the machine. Unlike Europe or Bangkok, they don't demand an extra x-ray session for the laptop.

The security officer pats me fatherly on the shoulder again and beams: "I am your friend, no?!" I keep the wallet under cover.

The domestic waiting hall reminds you of a bus terminal in an impoverished country. Two tiny, flickering CRT monitors communicate all departures to several hundred waiting passengers.

Finally we are called behind the first glass door, where tickets are checked again. Only now we get boarding cards – and sweets. A Seair check-in lady approaches me from behind, and when she starts to speak I remember her voice from the check-in counter earlier. She says: "Your luggage will travel with you, sir, you don't have to wait a day."

Nahlee shrieks with joy.

Another lady says "please follow me". She walks out onto the tarmac, and 19 Seair passengers follow her like ducklings around potholes, creaks, puddles and other aircraft through burning sun at Manila's domestic airport. Seair have assigned this guiding job to an extra long-legged ground staff so it's easier for us to follow her (and easier for her to manoeuvre the airport crevasses).

After the slalom around the airstrip we all stop next to the tiny turboprop machine and snap our pictures. The engines are running already. The ground staff lady walks inside the plane with us and – against the noisy machines – shouts out the default security announcements about smoking and seat belts. She has no microphone to help her.

I had procured seat row 1 for Nahlee and me. In a LET 410 UVP-E, that means two window seats next to each other, with the aisle between us. Of course we have good views around the Philippines archipelago. And as the cockpit is not fully enclosed, I always see the female co-pilot's pony tail out front.

We roll out on Busuanga air strip next to the terminal building. The pilot bows back on his chair and – through the non-existing cockpit wall – looks thoughtfully at us passengers. He might think something. We see he's about to announce something. But first he seems to muse for a while. He nods. He ponders. Then he puts on that mellow, easygoing Philly smile. He swallows. He nods again. He smiles self-assumingly. Then he says ever so casually:

"Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for flying Seair, and welcome to Caticlan!"

Everybody bursts into a big laugh, because we just landed _not_ in Caticlan (which is the gateway to busy Boracay), but on Busuanga.

The pilot produces another nod and mellow smile, then we walk across the tarmac to grab our bags.

On Busuanga (see my report), Seair's open jeepney truck with a faded Club Paradise sign waits to take us to Coron town through 26 kilometers of dust and gravel. Quite uselessly, the yellow colossus stands still for one hour before starting the engine.

Busuanga to El Nido

The same yellow monster takes us back to the airport, which is actually situated within the ground of huge YKR farm. Of course the shuttle bus leaves one hour earlier than necessary, and all passengers get thoroughly covered in red dust. On another 19 sweater, we'll continue to El Nido (see my report).

At the airport, we have to open the bag. The officer fumbles half-heartedly through our treasures, a few wet towels on top always fasten the procedure. Then we have to stand on scales again, including all luggage. When all is added up, this time we have six kilos excess luggage/excess body weight – even though nothing at all changed compared to Manila, where we were charged for 13 kilos.

As we want to enter the departure area, we are stopped by another cantankerous official: "Terminal fee, sir." That's 25 US cents per person here. The low price might explain the abysmal state of Busuanga Airport restrooms.

The open air waiting sala has nothing except broken plastic chairs (and a resident cat). So all passengers simply step through the open door onto the airport tarmac (followed by the resident cat). There we stand and watch various Seair 19seaters arriving from Manila and El Nido. The pilot's are good-looking, well-natured guys. As soon as they step out of their toy planes, they light up smokes and start cracking chain-jokes. They stand around with us on a shaded corner of the tarmac, non-stop smoking, joking, laughing and nonchalantly signing whatever papers ground staff holds in their way.

One last round of smoke, joke, laugh and signatures, then everybody seems to catch a parting mood. The pilots wander towards their three planes. We have no idea which plane will continue to our destination El Nido, but I simply follow the most humourous, energetic pilot. At the airplane, a ground staffer sweeping the cabin asks me:

"Where would you like to go, sir?"

Polite question.

"Hmm… El Nido… possible?"

"That's fits well, sir, this plane goes to El Nido."

How nice. We crawl inside.

Our humourous, energetic pilot shoots his little bird almost vertically into the Busuanga sky. We pass more clusters of lovely South Sea like islets. Then a string of impressive rocks rises out of the Palawan Sea. Nestled between rocks and rolling waves, there lies El Nido, our destination.

All of a sudden, our pilot dives vertically towards the waves. Now that is scary.

Nahlee pales. "What is this", she asks with a low voice?

"Pilot can't wait to get his next ciggie", I becalm her.

Just moments before the aircraft rams into the waters, somehow we roll out on El Nido's gravel airstrip that starts right on the beach.

We walk to a semi open air wood shack the size of a living room. That's Seair's arrival hall. The ground staff lady gestures to take a seat on the wooden benches (also on the companion slideshow to this article). She stands in front of us passengers and looks thoughtfully at us. She might think something. We see she's about to announce something. But first she seems to muse for a while. She nods. She ponders. Then she puts on that mellow, easygoing Philly smile. She swallows. She nods again. She smiles self-assumingly. Then she says ever so casually welcome to El Nido and we will have to wait some time for transport to town; it will only be available after the airplanes left again. She distributes tourist brochures and suggests a few guest houses.

The pilots join us again in the waiting cottage, non-stop joking, smoking and signing papers. When I leave for a moment, one handsome pilot chats up Nahlee. Turns out he is German. He ends the conversation upon my return, but even without more of Nahlee, this captain won't have a lonesome time in the Phils.

We sit around in the arrival shack for one useless hour. Of course you could also stretch out in the airport hammocks under the airport trees next to the arrival shack.

Finally, through clouds of dust, all of Seair's LET410s roar back into the blue. Now we get a chance to leave the premises, before other planes arrive. The ground staff counts the parties (five) and talks into her cell phone.

Not much later, you see them coming: In one orderly row, five, exactly five, tuktuks chug along the dusty airstrip towards our arrival shack.

Booking Seair

First I had planned to fly on Asian Spirit, not Seair, but Asian Spirit's online booking site looks even more rudimentary and scary than Seair's. When finally booking Seair online, I sit in the Northern Lao hinterlands and have little chance to make arrangements by phone or personal appearance. But I don't want to book later, after arrival in Manila, I want our seats now: The tiny planes to northern Palawan are known to fill up fast.

So I sit there in this remote internet shop and hack in our birth dates and such. Fully correct, Seair observes that we are both pax type "FC", meaning 12 to 200 years old. If you're from 201 to 202 years old, it's pax type "YCD", according to Seair's online list. They fail to define pax types from 203 years up.

One last click, then I confirm the order – I finally made it through this confusing site.

But now the browser shows only one name, only my name. Where is the wife mentioned? I am very sure I typed in both the wife and me before. I wouldn't click the rather rude "Delete Pax" button next to her name. I do a screenshot of this last page on the site and store it on the USB stick.

Well, not too bad, I think: Soon I'll receive an e-mail from Seair and I will see if we have one or two reservations.

But I never receive an e-mail from Seair (not even in the spam folder).

Well, not too bad, I think: On the screenshot I made there is a booking number (they call it "record locator" in the Philippines).

But I never find out how to use the booking number to trace back our current booking status, maybe it's not possible. And as I'm in Laotian hinterlands, calling the airline in Manila is no easy option either.

Very scared, I ask for advice on the travel forum. I also write to Seair's support desk, again mentioning all detail's for me and the wife and our pre-booked stay in Manila.

On the travel forum, others agree that Seair's web site is no picnic. One helpful soul, based in Manila, offers to call the airline on my behalf and to report back to me via e-mail.

Seair answers my e-mail within twelve hours. They say that indeed only one seat had been booked. For me. But now – upon my desperate e-mail – they reserved another seat for Nahlee too. For her ticket we have to visit Seair's ticketing office a day before departure. That's doable. Seair even points out in their e-mail that their Manila office is just steps away from our pre-booked hotel in Manila.

The helpful soul from the forum mails back that she/he (I don't know) interviewed Seair by phone. Seair revealed all my bookings and plans including hotel data to the helpful soul and confirmed by phone that we now actually hold reservations for both Nahlee and me. So all is fine. And, asks the helpful soul, shouldn't we all meet for a cold one in Manila?

At Seair's ticketing office in Manila-Makati we get a ticket for Nahlee and pay cash. It's cheaper than my online ticket. The friendly, patient Seair clerk says that I should have received an e-ticket by e-mail.

I never received one e-mail from Seair, I reply. So I don't have an e-ticket.

The clerk's look implies that I might be over-challenged with handling e-mail software. She says she will have a new e-ticket faxed in for me, but it would take a moment. Finally we sit there half an hour on plastic chairs before the fax machine disgorges my e-ticket.

El Nido to Manila

Back from El Nido to Manila there are no Seair chairs available, so we take ITI's 19seaters which cater mostly to customers of the hi-end El Nido Resorts. ITI also operates El Nido's gravel airport. While SEAIR charges 157 USD pesos for the 430 kilometers, ITI needs 188 USD. (By comparison, our later flight from Manila to Dumaguete on Negros covers more kilometers, but on a bigger plane with budget carrier Cebu pacific, for 57 USD.)

We arrive at El Nido airport by tuktuk and yes, as mentioned by the ticket seller in the El Nido Art Café, the plane will have at least half an hour delay. After having waited way beyond the scheduled departure time, with free snacks, I am approached by an airline official:

"Do you have a connecting international flight out of Manila, sir?"

That inquiry comes handy, after we already sat through 30 minutes of delay. I do need to get to a photo store in Manila-Quiapo before 6.30 pm on that same day, but that's another story. Can you tell that to an airline official?

We do get boarding cards, but they don't confine you to a certain seat number. Of course we want to sit in row 1. So when they finally open the wooden gate, we power-walk onto the tarmac and towards our toy plane, as fast as possible without looking too foolish (hopefully), leaving all other passengers well behind. We have no look for the dapper folklore troupe cum flower decorated water buffalo, singing hello songs for arriving El Nido Resort customers.

This time we fly on a Dornier 228. We enjoy a fantastic view not only through the side windows. The cockpit is not separated from the cabin, so we see straight through the pilots' screen. A route map on every seat details islands, lakes and volcanoes we pass. Then the airplane drops into the skyscraper jungle of Manila-Makati. The runway, designed for much larger planes, stretches out majestically for our tiny turboprop and seems to lead straight into downtown. Watching our descent into metropolitan Asia from a pilot's perspective is a breathtaking experience.

Stickman's thoughts:

I really like it that the passenger's weight is factored into their "total weight allowance". It always pisses me off when they try to ping me for extra charges yet there are these obese beasts who clearly act like pigs at a trough who weight at least 50 kg more than me. Good job I say!

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