In my first ever Flight Fight article, I am going to take a detailed look at two of South East Asia’s sleeping giants: Vietnam Airlines and Philippine Airlines.
Vietnam Airlines (VN) was founded in 1956 and currently flies to 52 destinations in 17 countries. It has been a member of SkyTeam since June 2010. Aggressive and ambitious expansion plans to its fleet and flight network aim to see it become the second-largest full-service airline in ASEAN (after Singapore Airlines).
Philippine Airlines (PR) was founded in 1941 and currently flies to 8 destinations domestically as well as 42 destinations overseas. It is the only major South East Asian airline not to join a global alliance but has codeshare agreements with many of its regional rivals.
Vietnam Airlines has 2 hubs in Vietnam: Saigon Tha Son Nhat International Airport and Hanoi Noi Ba International Airport. It uses these hubs roughly equally but most passengers note that their experience on VN is much more professional from the larger and more modern airport in Saigon. I would certainly agree with this assumption, and for Tha Son Nhat is the principle airport of the country, and I try to use Noi Ba for short-haul flights only. From these hubs, Vietnam Airlines flies long haul to London-Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris, and Moscow, but mainly focuses on the South East Asian and Chinese markets, where profits are high.
Philippine Airlines has its main hub at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. I am not impressed with this airport, and I try to avoid it as much as possible (not necessarily the fault of the airline). Since the late 1990s, when PR was a high profile casualty of the Asian Financial Crisis, it has had to scale back its domestic operations, and almost all of its flights to Europe, but is now on the road to recovery. That said, London-Heathrow remains the only long-haul destination in Europe for PR, as they focus more on China, Australia, North America, and particularly the Middle-East, a region in which they remain very competitive.
Vietnam Airlines has a few different aircraft in its relatively new and mixed Airbus/Boeing fleet: 57 Airbus A321, 8 A330, 8 A350 (with another 16 on order), and 11 B787 Dreamliners (with 8 more on order). Interestingly, no aircraft in the VN fleet has a first class cabin, but Business Class and Deluxe Economy are offered on most flights, in addition to the cheap seats.
Philippine Airlines has 55 aircraft registered in its fleet and – like Vietnam Airlines – it has a mixture of Airbus/Boeing planes. The majority of the PR fleet is made up of narrow-body aircraft from the A320 family, but there are also 15 A330s, 6 A340s, and 10 B777s. In 2018, Philippine Airlines welcomes the Airbus A350 to its fleet as it phases out the aging A340s. Like Vietnam Airlines, Philippine Airlines does not offer a first class product on any of its aircraft.
Vietnam Airlines is rapidly emerging as having a respectable economy class, and certainly a match for many of its regional rivals. You can be sure of having seatback entertainment on newer aircraft with AVOD and in-seat power. All economy class seats on the VN B787 Dreamliner have 18″ width and legroom of 32″, plus they can also recline around 6″, which helps when trying to sleep on long haul flights. Check out this review by Flights of Fancy of an Economy Class flight on the B787 Dreamliner from Sydney to Saigon.
The economy cabin with Philippine Airlines is known as Fiesta Class. On many of its aircraft, PR has a 3-4-3 seating configuration which can make it feel very cramped, yet Fiesta Class does have 9″ AVOD screens for every seat, with a range of audio, video, and gaming options. However, Fiesta Class seats do not have power sockets for personal phones and tablets. On the flagship B777 aircraft, Philippine Airlines’ Fiesta Class seats have a width of 18.5″ and leg room of 33″, which makes it slightly (and only slightly) more comfortable than Vietnam Airlines, especially if you a larger-sized person. Check out this review by Wander With Mi of an A330 Economy Class flight from Manila to Doha.
Vietnam Airlines’ business class is among the very best in SE Asia, and especially on its B787, where it has won a lot of plaudits. Simple yet elegant design with generous leg room (even for business class) wins over a lot of travellers and creates loyalty. The 1-2-1 formation makes the whole business class cabin feel very spacious and is perfect for long haul flights. Check out this review by Airlines and Me of a Vietnam Airlines Business Class flight from London-Heathrow to Hanoi.
With Philippine Airlines, business class is known as Mabuhay Class. On B777 aircraft only, Mabuhay Class includes lie-flat beds in 2-3-2 formation, as well as 15″ personal AVOD screens and power sockets at every seat. The Mabuhay Class seats have a width of 20″ and legroom of 78″, although some travellers say there are too many seats on the cabin (at least when compared with Vietnam Airlines). Check out this review by I Wandered of a Mabuhay Class flight on the flagship B777 from Tokyo-Haneda to Manila.
Neither Vietnam Airlines nor Philippine Airlines offer first class cabins on any of their aircraft. It is unlikely that either of these airlines will ever begin first class services either in the current economic climate.
If there was a weakness with Vietnam Airlines, it would have to be with the consistency of their cabin crew. Especially in economy class, VN crew are infuriatingly inconsistent. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful – with nothing much in between. Make no mistake, true Vietnamese hospitality does try to shine through, and I have experience some instances of great customer service, however you cannot help but feel VN cabin crew treat this as a mere job, and it often comes across in their performance.
Philippine Airlines crew are among the best in SE Asia, but my experience with them is that often they look stressed when performing their duties. A friendly smile accompanies every steward and stewardess, but a lack of organisation from senior staff often seems to leave the cabin crew fighting for time. Meal service can feel frantic and rushed, although PR cabin crew always try to provide this service with utmost professionalism.
Unlike some of their regional rivals, Vietnam Airlines still serve snacks in all their cabins on flights longer than 90 minutes, and for flights of over 2 hours, a hot meal is offered. While these snacks are nothing special, at least the hot meals are sufficient indeed. Food, in my experience, has been piping hot and extremely tasty, with a good range of choices available in economy class. In VN’s business class, food standards go up a notch, as you would expect.
Philippine Airlines food is not the best in the skies, although a lot of credit must go the presentation of their Mabuhay Class offering. I have always been impressed with the glass and cutlery used, which compares very well to some of the best airlines in the world. Unfortunately, in economy class, meals are seemingly prepared (and served!) with little care, and this really shows when you peel back the foil on the tray during your flight.
Overall Flight Experience
I have flown with Vietnam Airlines more than I have with Philippines Airlines, although for international flights, PR consider the B777 as their flagship product, so once you’ve flown on that big bird, then you pretty much get to see the best PR have to offer – and I don’t think it is as impressive as the best of Vietnam Airlines. Flying from London-Heathrow to Asia, I would never consider flying with Philippine Airlines, although I would not have a particularly big problem choosing Vietnam Airlines, either to Saigon or Hanoi. The quality of the economy class cabin, the choices of meals available, and the fresh smell of the B787 (or A350) all makes VN a better choice. If Philippine Airlines does have one saving grace, however, it is the quality of its cabin crew, which I feel give a more consistently enjoyable experience than their Vietnamese counterparts.