Airport blues: update and appeal

Beyond Brushstrokes
Marivic Rufino

Posted on June 16, 2014

FIRST impressions count.

The “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign has been successful in attracting travelers and balikbayan folk. We offer the most splendid, pristine beaches (three have been voted among the top 10 in the world). The subterranean river of Palawan is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. We have Batanes, Banaue and Sagada in the north, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol and the historic heritage churches in the provinces.

But despite all the hype by our Department of Tourism, the glow fades when businessmen and tourists arrive to experience the decrepit, decaying Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). It has been voted twice as the “worst airport in the world.”

The past summer months have been worse. The air-conditioning system in Terminal 1 conked out due to the renovation. The place is not only chaotic. It is like an oven. Passengers have fainted due to heatstroke and hypertension. The lame excuse given is that “the aircon has to be shut down because the dust will spread.” The airline staff say, “We have fans in the lounges.”

But what happens to those who do not have access to the lounges? We all have to suffer the oppressive humidity and sweltering heat whenever we depart and arrive.

Our infrastructure is inferior compared to the new, superior terminals and runways of our original ASEAN neighbors -- Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The younger ASEAN countries have much better infrastructure.

Once upon a time -- some 60 years ago -- we were considered progressive and prosperous. We used to be the envy of our neighbors. Now they have surpassed us. We have been frozen in a time warp.

The country’s economy is booming and we have been given high ratings by the agencies. But these ratings and numbers do not matter to the tourist. When he arrives, his first contact with the Philippines is our dilapidated and smelly NAIA terminal.

Our runway is bumpy. Travelers are shocked, dismayed and turned off by the decrepit facilities and by the chaos at the arrival area. The taxis are not even safe to take because passengers get ripped off or robbed by drivers and criminals.

Only the Philippine Airlines terminal and a part of NAIA Terminal 3 are presentable and very clean. One can hardly wait for Terminal 3 to be fully operational.

What is the point of trying to promote the country if we cannot even make a good, lasting impression?

Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong all have modern international airport terminals with excellent infrastructure and superior amenities. Malaysia and Indonesia have moved their airport terminals thrice to new locations farther away from their capitals. Singapore’s Changi terminals are among the most efficient in the world. A new one is being built.

The super runway in Narita, Japan, has the capacity and high-tech equipment to remove and clear any aircraft that may disrupt the smooth flow of traffic. The old Haneda airport also takes international flights and is attracting many Filipino tourists.

The NAIA 1 is terminally ill. Arriving there is a big culture shock for most passengers -- particularly if one flies in from Switzerland, Germany, or any of the Scandinavian countries where punctuality, efficiency and cleanliness are the norm. After a refreshing trip, one arrives with a thud. Back to reality.

A repeat appeal to the Transport department:

We should build a new world-class airport with two runways and an exclusive highway for convenient access. It should be located many kilometers away from congested Metro Manila. There should be interconnecting international and domestic terminals with all the facilities, infrastructure, highly trained and polite security staff and the best maintenance crew and equipment.

We should have friendly, efficient and honest staff to handle disabled passengers. Our service leaves much to be desired compared to other countries. In Spain, France, or Denmark, for example, passengers in wheelchairs are treated with respect and care. The staff do not expect tips but they request that the passenger fill out a form that rates their service. At NAIA, we have very good and attentive staff but there are a few bad eggs. Some mercenary staff (contracted by the airlines) ask for big tips from the handicapped.

Our terminals (NAIA and the other terminals in the country) should have decent, clean and fragrant lavatories with running water, basic amenities and efficient attendants. Cleanliness is basic.

The state of the airport reveals a lot about ourselves as a nation.