Carlos Quimpo

I was seven years old when I stepped on an airport and boarded a plane for the first time. Since then, my romance with air travel has blossomed with every aeronautical mile I’ve earned.

I have had my fair share of travels, locally and overseas, but unlike most travelers, it’s the journey that excites me more than the destination.

Never mind if it’s the same airport, airline, or airplane, every experience is just like the first time. Never mind if it’s a shaky flight that will move many a passenger to pray. It’s a thrilling roller coaster ride like that hour of turbulence over the Ural Mountains on board KLM, en-route to Amsterdam. That was just glorious.

Oh, yes, I remember KLM, the Dutch flag carrier that took me years to memorize its full name—Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, and its main hub Schipol with its hilarious, albeit embarrassing, way of calling the attention of late-boarding passengers. Something like: “Calling the attention of Mr. A of flight B, you are delaying your flight. Please check in at your designated gate now, or we will be forced to unload your luggage.”

I wonder if they still do that today?

Schipol is a major entry, exit, and transit point for air travelers. It’s huge, modern, and vibrant, but, in my opinion, incomparable to Singapore’s Changi—the best airport that I have been to, so far. A mélange of everything, where you have urban sophistication and technology on one end and greens and moving creatures on another.

The Singapore Airlines base has been ranked since 2013 (and on three other previous occasions) as the world’s best airport by Skytrax, the leading airline and airport review and ranking body.

SQ (Singapore Airlines’ flight code) and Changi will always be dear to me for being the first foreign airline and airport that I flew and landed in, respectively. I still laugh every time I recall the flight attendant in her dainty kebaya repeatedly say “Bang-gus,” which turned out to be our local milkfis: the bangus. Dinaing na bangus or bang-gus—whatever—was one of the in-flight breakfast choices that time.

So, how was the milkfish? It was passable but expectedly bland, like most in-flight meals in the coach, or popularly known as economy section. But I’m sure it’s totally different when you fly business or first class, which I got to experience only on a number of domestic flights.

Once in a while, though, I stumble upon delightful airline treats. Like the spicy seafood Thai noodles on my Singapore-Bangkok flight, also on SQ. It was one of those rare “wishing for a second serving” in-flight moments. Simply heavenly, that I have forgotten if the flight attendant pronounced the name of the dish correctly or not, unlike the bang-gus girl.

PAL was the classroom where I learned the ABCs and the three As of air travel: airplane, airline, and airport.

For all the encounters that I’ve had with SQ flight attendants—be it hilarious or forgettable—was the realization that I had been served by some of the best, if not the best, team of flight attendants in the world.

The late Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, known for his keen attention to detail and perfection, and utter dislike for mediocrity, was said to be among those who shaped the first batch of SQ flight attendants, now known worldwide as the Singapore Girls. But, more than a flight attendant, a Singapore Girl, coupled with the slogan “A great way to fly,” is the iconic symbol of Singapore Airlines’ highly successful marketing campaign, creative duties of which are currently being handled by TBWA Worldwide.

I think I was in the second grade when I first saw their TV commercial. Despite many updated versions later, the gentle melody of the original continues to resonate with me to this day.

KLM’s “Swan” TVC is another of my favorites. As the name implies, “Swan” is about the winged fellow preparing to land while Diana Ross’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” plays in the background—simple, but memorable, for my first long-haul flight, all of fourteen hours including turbulence, was on KLM.

Still, nothing beats the breathtaking 80s “Shining Through” campaign of our flag carrier, Philippine Airlines. Stunning Filipino faces and smiles speak of our legendary hospitality and, yes, beauty queens—one of the Philippines’ best brand ambassadors—are in the classic TV commercial series. With an emotive score, it was one of the best visual feasts ever seen on Philippine TV. While a rework was launched sometime last year, I did not feel it had the same moving impact as its predecessor.

By default,because it relates to my career as a professional event organizer that takes me around the country, Philippine Airlines is the one carrier that I fly with the most. It was also the classroom where I learned the ABCs and the three As of air travel: airplane, airline, and airport.

And it’s also from flying with them that I made my two personal guidelines when flying:

1. Never take window seat A when flying southbound on an early morning flight. The sun rises from the east and its rays will shine smack on to your face when you’re on this row.

2. Never take, again, window seat A when flying northbound on a late afternoon flight. The sun sets in the west and its rays will burst forth on this side of the plane.

Unless you’re a fan of sunrises and sunsets, that is, with all the supposed meanings that come with them.

Interestingly, a number of friends have since adapted my flying guidelines, mostly colleagues from the same industry who, like me, have made the sky the highway of our professional lives.

While, indeed ,the sky is generally for travel, it is also an economic battleground for the giants of aviation; notably between America’s Boeing and the European consortium Airbus.

The sky has been the backdrop of some of my funniest, embarrassing and, yes, most emotional in-flight moments.

This is the same sky that earns millions of dollars for countries, as foreign carriers pay every time they pass through their airspace, like a toll fee when one drives through an expressway, but not exactly in the same stop-pay-go manner. Once, on a cloudless sky over Dublin, I counted as many as ten airplanes streaking across the firmament.

“Ireland is in the middle of mainland Europe and continental America, and is located in one of the busiest airspaces in the world so it earns big for being a flight passageway alone,” said a friend who’s based on the beautiful isle of the leprechauns.

Indeed, trade still happens 35,000 feet or so above sea level. But while the sky continues to be a trading floor for currencies and aircraft orders, it has been the backdrop of some of my funniest, embarrassing and, yes, most emotional in-flight moments.

How could I forget the faces of irate passengers on a packed flight from Cebu? This was when clients from my previous job and I boarded our plane very late and had to contend with murmurs from the elderly couple beside me, even after we’d reached maximum flight altitude. Or that disturbing look I got from passengers all around me, and I all the while wondering what it was all about. I only realized what it was later, to my horror, when I got home and took a shower, that it was the stench of Cebu’s Taboan Market—famed for its dry goods and distinct, arresting smell—had gotten stuck to my shirt. The scent, that silent evidence, had literally given away where I’d been.

Then there were my crying jags on board the now-defunct Northwest Airlines on my way to Atlanta, Georgia. My sobs worried my seatmates so much that they had to regularly ask me if I needed help.

Why can’t [Filipinos] have a Changi, an Incheon, a Taoyuan, or a Suvarnabhumi? Why are Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific stuck with three stars for years on end?

Was I overcome by the thought of seeing my brother and his family again after twelve years? Or was it because one of the countries on my bucket list was finally within reach? Whether it was either, it was one for my personal books. I have never been that emotional in my years of flying.

But emotions often turn to wonder, like a monorail inside Detroit’s Metro Wayne Country Airport that moved passengers from one terminal wing to another, or the need to take a four-kilometer underground tram to get to the other end of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport where my brother was waiting for me. ATL, the code name of the aforementioned, by the way, has been the busiest airport in the world since 1989.

While American airports are understandably bigger and better, I couldn’t help but ponder how far Philippine aviation has come compared to our Asian neighbors. Why can’t we have a Changi, an Incheon, a Taoyuan, or a Suvarnabhumi? Why are SQ, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, and Indonesia’s Garuda ranked five stars by Skytrax, while Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific are stuck with three stars for years on end?

The joys of flying sometimes meet the sighs of frustration.

If there is something in the Philippines unmatched by the rest of the world, it’s the fiesta atmosphere at any airport. Where else can you see an entire community send off or welcome a traveler? Sometimes they come in rented jeepneys with pansit and adobo in kalderos to save on the cost of dining at airport restaurants, usually proibitively priced. Only in the Philippines!

And when you finally hear the parting words from the flight attendant there is, for me, always sheer happiness and comfort, knowing you’re back home:

“Mga ginoo, ginang at binibini, kalalapag lang natin sa Pandaigdigang Paliparan ng Ninoy Aquino. Manatili po tayong nakaupo, patuloy na nakasuot ang sinturong pang-kaligtasan at hintaying ganap na nakahinto ang sasakyang-panghimpapawid. Sa ngalan ni Captain X at First Officer Y, ako po ang inyong lingkod, Joanna Estur, na nagpapasalamat sa inyong pagtagkalik sa Philippine Airlines, the heart of every Filipino. Sana ay muli naming kayong makapiling sa inyong mga susunod na paglalakbay. Maligayang pagdating dito sa Maynila. Mabuhay!”