There is something soothing when a pilot’s voice crackles over an aircraft’s public address system to welcome you on board a flight.
Even more so when the plane encounters turbulence. The relaxed, almost ‘nonchalant nothing to see here’ tone can put anxious flyers at ease.
One particularly nervy passenger on a recent British Airways flight revealed how her fear of flying was all but cured when the pilot handed her a sketch explaining how the aircraft stayed in the air and invited her to the flight deck.
Such reassuring characteristics, seemingly inherent in pilots, perhaps explain why there is sense that Philippine Airlines (PAL) is in safe hands under the leadership of Stanley Ng.
Once you have that engagement from people, and they know they will be heard, ideas will keep flowing.
Ng is President and Chief Operating Officer of PAL, a post he has held since early 2022 after an 18-year career with the airline. He is also a pilot, and an active one at that. Last November he was pilot-in-command of the flight that whisked Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos to the Association of South-East Asian Nations summit in Cambodia.
"It was an honor and a privilege," Ng recalls.
Since Ng has taken the controls at PAL, the carrier has enjoyed something of a financial resurgence. Targets were exceeded every month in 2022, with the strong performance continuing into the first quarter of 2023.
After the trials and tribulations during the COVID-19 pandemic – PAL filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2021, emerging four months later – the turnaround is clearly welcome. It has been driven by "revenge travel", a post-pandemic term used to describe people’s determination to put the era behind them and take to the skies once again.
Ng adopts an open and inclusive approach to leadership, with transparency and engagement as his watch words. Mistakes are to be learned from, not criticized, and ideas explored, not shut down. Where once there was inertia and a fear of speaking up, there is now openness and encouragement.
"The most important thing I tell people is to think again," Ng tells The CEO Magazine. "Ask yourself, ‘maybe I could be wrong?’. It’s an important mindset for everyone because if you become over-confident, you will not listen and you will not be open to ideas.
"Once you have that engagement from people, and they know they will be heard, ideas will keep flowing. They will feel empowered. Never stop a good idea from flourishing."
As for mistakes, he says, that is part of being human.
"There has been a culture of not speaking up, of playing it safe. People don’t want to make a mistake," Ng says. "But making a mistake can be a discovery and a learning for everyone. We must be willing to take risks, to try something new. If we don’t, we are going to have the status quo and nothing is going to change. That is the leadership style I am trying to share."
Focus on customers
It is not only the workforce Ng is hoping to engage and bond with. Under his stewardship, the airline is striving to forge closer relationships with customers, both through its communication strategy and via the onboard experience.
He describes the implementation of a new customer relationship management system (CRM) as one of the airline’s "most exciting and important initiatives", given it will provide a deeper understanding of its customers and what their tastes and preferences are.
It is also overhauling its loyalty program, Mabuhay Miles, to improve customer engagement and plans to refurbish its aircraft with new in-flight entertainment systems and enhanced on-board internet.
"Connectivity should be a basic service," he admits. "My personal assessment is that we have to work hard to keep up with technology and innovation. We need to invest in the latest technology and aircraft."
We want to be consistent so the passengers’ expectations will be met every time.
As for the service itself, Ng says it is an aspect of the business of which PAL should be proud. Yet there is always room for improvement. The airline is focusing on its "attention to detail", he says, and aiming to further differentiate itself from competitors.
"I think we’re on track," he says. "We also talk about consistency. We want to be consistent so the passengers’ expectations will be met every time. Sometimes being good and sometimes bad is not sustainable.
"We’ve had a strong first financial quarter, but we’re starting to see more competition," he continues. "Other airlines are becoming aggressive with their pricing, so we need to show passengers that we are different, that there’s a reason they should fly Philippine Airlines over other carriers."
The importance Stanley places on service is not limited to passengers. He stresses that his role as PAL President is not only about doing his utmost for the country’s flag carrier, but for the Philippines as whole.
Whether it is working with local suppliers, bringing tourists into the country or repatriating citizens in times of crisis – the pandemic being the most recent example – the airline is working for the greater economic good of the country.
To help the world get to know the Philippines and to meaningfully serve the country is always top of my mind.
"My purpose is more than managing the airline. It’s giving back to the Philippines, trying to help it grow economically and to bring in more foreign investment," he insists. "The government strategy is to increase tourism by 30 percent this year, and Philippine Airlines is an instrument to make that happen. To help the world get to know the Philippines and to meaningfully serve the country is always top of my mind."
And serve the nation he does. Pulling on his pilot uniform, climbing in to the cockpit and flying the Filipino president and his wife to Cambodia is testament to that.