Island Sky: The Airlines of the Philippines

Airports & Airlines
Ahmed El Dahan
min read
January 14, 2022

Island life comes with its own catalogue of challenges and inconveniences and more times than not, aviation is the key to dominating the harsh landscapes and marine environment. From transporting supplies and servicemen, to bringing in tourists, for an archipelago nation like the Philippines, efficient aviation resources are quintessential to fostering a healthy economy.

And thankfully, the country has done well for itself; with its ever growing airport facilities and over 25 airlines filling its skies, the Philippines features some of the oldest and most successful airlines in the Asian airspace.  

Phillipine Airlines

Known for being one of the oldest active Asian airlines, Philippine Airlines, also known as PAL, began operations in 1941 and remains the flag carrier airline of the Philippines. The airline's maiden voyage took place in March 1941, using a single Beechcraft Model 18 NPC-54 between Manila and Baguio, soon this flight was offered daily.

Albeit its promising start, the airline’s commercial operations were subdued during the second world war, when all resources were transferred to military pursuits. It was after five years that PAL saw a return to civilian endeavours, and in February of 1946 services to 15 domestic destinations were initiated using Douglas DC-3 aircraft. Later that year, PAL became the first  Asian airline to traverse the Pacific Ocean with a journey carrying American servicemen to Oakland, California, making several stops in Guam, Wake Island, Johnston Atoll and Honolulu. By the end of the year PAL was providing regular services between Manila and San Francisco and had been deemed the Filipino flag carrier airline by the government. Expansions continued in 1947 with the acquisition of more Douglas aircraft and the start of operations to Europe.From 1960 onwards, the airline saw several changes that influenced its performance and outreach from being  privatized along with receiving its first jets, namely Boeing 707 and DC-8 models. 

The airline continued to grow steadily improving its fleet and expanding destinations up until the mid 90s, when the 1997 Asian financial crisis put heavy tolls on the airline industry that culminated with PAL having to drastically reduce its destination scheme, effectively grounding all flights to Europe and the Middle East, reducing the size of its active fleet and 

laying off thousands of employees. It was not before 2000, with PAL under receivership along with undergoing radical management changes for the airline to recover from the crash and return to profitability, albeit not achieving the same prosperity it had seen prior to 1997. Moving on, PAL made steady progress in the 2000s up until the COVID-19 pandemic, which once again saw the airline grounding operations and laying off staff to compensate for losses. 

By mid 2021, PAL reported a $313.2 million loss, returning two aircraft to its lessors and postponing delivery of new aircraft scheduled for 2020 and 2021 to 2026 and 2030 respectively. In September of the same year, the airline filed for bankruptcy, cancelling over 80,000 flights with an estimated revenue loss of $2 billion along with firing 2,300 employees. Interestingly in December the airline announced a government approved recovery plan.

To date, from its hub at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, PAL continues to offer journeys to over 40 local and international destinations that includes London, Los Angeles, Taipei, Singapore, Vancouver and Sydney. It owns a fleet of 54 airplanes; with the exception of 10 Boeing 777-300ERs, the rest are Airbus such as A320-200, A321-200, A321neo and A330-300 models. 

Cebu Pacific

Cebu Pacific

Established in August 1988, Cebu Pacific commenced operations in March 1996 after receiving all necessary certifications. Initially the airline offered a daily network of 24 domestic flights that included such destinations as Manila, Cebu, and Davao. First aircraft used included the Douglas DC-9-30, 757-200 and A319-100 aircraft. By the final quarters of 2001, it had grown to perform about 80 daily flights spanning 18 domestic destinations. At the same time the airline was given the green light to fly internationally and first left Filipino airspace with journey’s to Hong Kong. 

As the airline gradually expanded its regional outreach going to such places as Seoul and Singapore, expansions were hindered slightly by the SARS epidemic of the early 2000s. By 2008 the airline was covering a prolific Asian destination network touching down in Bangkok, Guangzhou, Jakarta, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Macau and Taipei amongst others. 

Today Cebu Pacific is known for covering one of the broadest destination schemes in the Asia-Pacific that spans from the UAE to Australia. Of its 63 destinations the airline is regularly seen in Kuala Lumpur, Doha, Hanoi, Dubai, Osaka and many more. Its current fleet comprises 48 Airbus planes including A320-200, 320neo, 321neo and A330-900 models. In addition the airline also has outstanding orders for 10 A321XLR models set for delivery by 2024. 


Marketed as cebgo, this airline is a subsidiary of Cebu Pacific and covers primarily domestic operations using 15 ATR aircraft. Previously the airline had been known as SouthEast Asian Airlines and later Tigerair-Philippines before being coined Cebgo by JG Summit, parent conglomerate of Cebu Pacific. It had been acquired from the Singaporean Tigerair for $14.5 million.

From its base at Mactan-Cebu International and Ninoy Aquino International Airport the airline covers a network of 30 domestic destinations throughout the Philippines archipelago including Busuanga, Manila, Tandag, Butuan, Tawi Tawi and Zambuanga. 

Sunlight Air

Sunlight Air

Active since 2019, Sunlight Air was established as a chartered airline and began operations in December 2020, with its inaugural flight between Ninoy Aquino International to Busuanga Airport in Palawan.

Falling into the niche genre of boutique airlines, it is part of the Sunlight Express Airways Corp. conglomerate that also owns several hotels and resorts throughout the Phillipines. From its hub in Clark International Airport, the airline covers five destinations - Busuanga, Puerto Princesa, Caticlan, Panglao, Siargao, and Cebu using a fleet of three ATR 72-500s. Sunlight Air is known for the convenience it brings customers by providing all inclusive packages with combined accommodation and flight plans. 

Charter Airlines

There are several private charter airlines companies that operate regularly in Filipino airspace, frequenting different airports in the country. These charters provide passengers with touristic services as well as practical travel between different regions in East Asia.

This includes such flyers as Air Juan, that provides diverse services such as medical, survey, touristic and emergency evacuation services using various aircraft including helicopters, turboprops and seaplanes. Similarly Air Link International Airways is based in Ninoy Aquino International and offers charter, cargo transport and plane booking services along with operating a flight academy.

Skyward Bound

Overall the Philippines has fostered one of the most intricate aviation networks observed in a developing country, both in terms of sheer numbers and the quality of services provided. Surveying its historic and contemporary airlines, along with its vast airport facilities, with time and nurture, the archipelago nation is well on its way to becoming one of the most important aviation hubs in Asia.

Ahmed El Dahan
Aviation Journalist
A seasoned writer, Ahmed El Dahan was trained in Journalism and Mass Communication in the American University in Cairo. He then moved on to refine his writing skills working in various publications covering such topics as tourism, art exhibitions, music along with being a food critic. Relocating to Paris in 2015, he has an ever growing curiosity for the aviation industry. Away from the page, Dahan is an active professional saxophonist.

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