AirSwift flight T60526, the maiden flight of the airline from Manila to Boracay, was met with celebratory water cannons from two fire trucks as it touched down on the runway of Caticlan airport on March 5.
Airport authorities and Malay government officials literally rolled out the red carpet for disembarking passengers to mark the new route of the Ayala-owned airline, which has El Nido, Palawan as its hub.
The Manila-Boracay-Manila route flies once a day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Until March 31, passengers can book a one-way base fare for P970.
In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, AirSwift vice president for commercial and aerodome services Fely Ann Salvador said that “COVID-19 brought the airline back five years.”
AirSwift is the only airline that connects El Nido to other island destinations such as Bohol, Boracay, Coron, Puerto Princesa and Cebu. Prior to the pandemic, AirSwift was flying from El Nido to Boracay and Cebu twice a day. The El Nido-Boracay route was launched three years ago.
Foreign travelers, she said, would come to the Philippines for a month or two and go around the Philippines with El Nido being a must-visit. “They don’t have an itinerary or return ticket—and once in El Nido they could go to the country’s top destinations without having to go back to Manila to take another flight.”
The pandemic has made the airline rethink its business model since incoming international travel was banned last year (and it looks like it isn’t going to be lifted anytime soon), and today’s bulk of passengers are coming from Manila.
While 2019 was the “best year for AirSwift,” 2020 all but wiped out its business by 90 percent, as it did all other carriers. “We wanted to bring in more aircraft and bring more destinations to El Nido. Unfortunately COVID happened and all the success in the past five years was wiped out.”
The airline, she said, is starting again “not just back from zero but back from negative. Since there is no foreign market coming to El Nido, we’re introducing new routes like Manila-Boracay.”
The airline resumed its commercial flights to El Nido in November 2020. Their flights from March to October 2020 were either chartered or exclusive to bubble packages of the El Nido Resorts such as Pangulasian, Lagen and Miniloc. The bubble flights take off from a private hangar in Manila and do not mix with other airline passengers at NAIA Terminal 3. Neither do the travelers mix with other resorts when they get to theirs.
“They want the bubble protected from the time passengers take their COVID tests to when they reach the island and get back to Manila. The bubbles were only supposed to be until December 2020 but they worked so well that they extended it till June 2021. In El Nido, when a bubble flight arrives, sila lang. There are no other flights, commercial or chartered.”
AirSwift pilots, flight attendants tested every day
At the evening press conference on New Coast beach in Boracay, Salvador said, “There is really a clamor to see Boracay and we cannot stay closed forever. There is a safe way to enjoy Boracay.”
AirSwift’s safety protocols follow Boracay’s required PCR testing for all arriving passengers and crew. She continued that their pilots and flight attendants are tested before each flight.
2019 was the best year for AirSwift. We wanted to bring in more aircraft and more destinations to El Nido. Unfortunately COVID happened and all the success in the past five years was wiped out. AirSwift lost 90 percent of its business in 2020.
Even if all passengers on a flight have tested negative, the aircraft’s seats have clear barriers between headrests so there’s a minimal chance of saliva being transmitted since it’s hard to social distance on a plane.
“That’s the way we have to travel nowadays. If you want to beat the virus you have to work around it,” she said. The airline also distributes packs that include a facemask and disinfecting wipes.
Salvador says they have two types of aircraft: 48- and 72-seater. For the Manila-Boracay flight, they are using 72-seater planes.
“The government now allows airlines to fill their seats to capacity, lifting the previous 50 to 70 percent limit. For AirSwift, that means only 72 passengers, so we really are not a low-cost carrier, and we’re not a full carrier like PAL either. We are in the middle, we are a specialized airline because that’s what’s lacking in the industry. We have premium airfare but we are adding value to our customers.
“We differentiate our services through the customers’ journey. There is a peculiar type of passengers that we cater to. Our distinction is that we take care of the passengers from end to end. Hindi lang kami flight, we are also concerned with the health and well being of our passengers. For instance, bubble flight passengers are contacted a week after they return to Manila from El Nido for health checks and follow-ups.”
From Island Transvoyager to AirSwift
The 18-year-old airline started as Island Transvoyager (ITI) in 2002, then exclusively servicing the El Nido Resorts of Ten Knots, which Ayala Corp. later acquired, and the airline was rebranded as AirSwift and began offering commercial flights.
I remember flying to El Nido in 2014 when it was still using the Soriano Hangar on Andrews Ave. in Pasay City. The boarding pass was made of wood with the seat number carved on it, which you returned when you landed.
Back then El Nido airport had a kubo for a terminal and when you arrived, you were greeted by singing ladies (most of them elderly women) and a carabao. Seriously, a carabao was part of the welcome.
There was also only one spot at the airport where you could get a decent mobile signal—literally under a tree beside the kubo. It was rustic and so very charming. El Nido just a few years ago was, in every way, a getaway from the city.
When El Nido became more popular and began attracting luxury travelers, and with Lio estate being built, they constructed a new runway, airport and terminal.
AirSwift has only four ATR aircraft (two 48 and two 72-seater) but their inter-island routes from its El Nido hub were scheduled so well they connected international tourists to the country’s top destinations with flexibility. With the pandemic, AirSwift is eyeing more routes but this time from Manila and possibly from Boracay.
Salvador said, “Upon the invitation of the Department of Tourism (DOT), maybe we can connect Boracay as well to other major destinations in the VizMin areas.”
Book your flights on AirSwift’s website.
Banner photo from Tripadvisor