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  • Writer's pictureBy The Financial District


Updated: Jun 7, 2021

The Philippine Airlines (PAL) is ready to navigate the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on the airline industry with the new man at the helm, President and COO Gilbert Santa Maria, who made a name for himself in the exacting BPO industry.

And for Gilbert, the challenge ahead is to steer PAL to its rightful place with the kind of “clear thinking to understand the business in its objective reality” knowing that any missteps can be catastrophic to the airline industry much like the way in running a BPO business.

He has clear goals and he has already devised a financial turnaround formula for PAL when he was brought in but the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered those pre-COVID initiatives, The game plan has drastically changed.

“Now my team and I are trying to engineer a more comprehensive restructuring to save this nearly 80-year old institution.” And he is emphatic on getting the airline in shape until demand comes back.

Gilbert knows what PAL is up against. And while he would want liquidity support for the airline, he is aware that the government is also in dire financial straits due to the COVID-19 pandemic response and may not be able to give the needed loans that the airline needed.

However, he is thankful that the government has waived landing fees and other airline costs to see it through beyond COVID-19. PAL is not asking for a bailout, Gilbert said. It wanted an ”emergency liquidity in the form of loans that will be paid back.” But, of course, he is not keen on this knowing the financial debacle the government has to go through to respond to the pandemic.

For Gilbert, the challenge that lies ahead for the airline is much the same as that in the BPO industry and here he has a clear roadmap on how to go about it making PAL a thriving business entity.

The airline business and that of the BPO are “fundamentally different businesses” but they are similar in one sense: managing people and providing the “quality of management and leadership” necessary to make a go of the business.

“BPO is relatively low capital investment, you work with many young people with generalized skills to develop them into a dedicated workforce that uses technology to serve different, demanding, large-scale, advanced and fiercely competitive enterprise clients,” Gilbert said.

“Airlines are highly capital intensive, and they are made up of groups of people with very specialized skills (pilots being one obvious set) that have to tightly coordinate and even choreograph their work so the most cutting edge technology can be used to fly millions of fare-paying passenger customers and cargo around the world,” he added.

Both businesses, he said, are similar in the sense that both types of enterprises require clear roadmaps to navigate and are unforgiving industries. You err on your management and you lose big.

For Gilbert, his entry into PAL “has to be happening for a reason” Interviewed by no less than taipan Lucio C. Tan for the job he felt “like the dog that caught the car.” And he has prepared himself well to come up with the needed game plan to lead PAL to be profitable once again.

And in doing so, he cites the fact that PAL is a national airline.

Asked what differentiates PAL from the other airlines? What are its positive attributes to your mind? He had a ready answer.

“The flag on our tails. The people who fly the planes (are) attached to those tails and their commitment to PAL’s mission and legacy as the Flag Carrier: a promise to bring Filipinos home, wherever in the world home may be, and to bring our guests and visitors here and back while representing the best of the Filipino, and I might add, the unwillingness of Kapitan (Lucio C. Tan) to give up on Asia’s oldest airline,” he said.

And for Gilbert, he is proud that “during this pandemic, PAL keeps flying our missions to bring essential cargo to this country and around our islands, and to bring home our countrymen, our OFWs, our family members while fighting for its life. Who else would do it? Who else could?

With that altruistic tone, Gilbert is expected to make the grade for PAL the same way he did for the BPO industry. He then cited the challenge that he had to surmount in successfully running a BPO that he believes he can transplant to his stewardship of PAL.

“The biggest challenge the BPO industry in this country faced was one of relevance in the face of the teeming multitudes of educated, low-cost, English-speaking employees in places like India, South Africa and some other parts of the world.

“The current scale and competitiveness of this country’s BPO industry was by no means assured when the industry was young nearly two decades ago.

“Now this country is a key hub for the global BPO industry because Filipino talent, intelligence, ingenuity and care coupled with technology and  the more advanced, even enlightened, management processes that these large western enterprise clients required enabled young, talented Filipinos to thrive, deliver world-class results and compete with the best in the world.”

In contrast, “PAL is nearly eighty years old and she has, in her people, deep knowledge and expertise in aviation that serves our passengers and our country well. I expect that this deep “tribal knowledge” combined with the more adept use of technology and the harnessing of the same creativity, talent, and leadership of the Filipinos working in PAL will transform this airline and revitalize the enterprise.

Easier said than done, but I’ve got thousands of Filipinos in PAL with me who maybe, just maybe, might be willing to step forward and leave mediocrity behind.”

Pretty soon, Gilbert will have to make tough choices to keep the airline afloat and that includes some destinations that are less profitable.

He is pretty sure what to do to offset current losses and he has a terse reply to the question “To your mind, how will PAL navigate through this pandemic within the country, with the region, and beyond” Very carefully, he answered. [Lito U. Gagni]


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