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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NAIA, When's The Takeoff?

Amidst the controversial ranking that gave us the "evil" side of fame again - notoriety - let me couch this post by saying that I am going by my personal experiences in NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport) in relaying what I am writing.

By now, the news must have spread - it certainly has over Facebook, and I didn't get to catch last night's TV newscast: We have been voted, officially, as having the worst airport in the world. (See

(Photo courtesy of

Let's consider the source of this poll: a site named "The Guide To Sleeping In Airports". ( I don't know about you, but I don't normally consider an airport as a "place to sleep". My notion of an airport is a place where people are frantically trying to catch their flight - and given the way most of us are subjected to endless security checks, I don't find it conducive to being relaxed, anyway. So I thought it best to check out their website, and they had this to say about their 2011 poll:

"Certainly there are worse airports than the ones listed below, but there is no use writing about them if our readers aren't going there anyways." (Their entire list of 2011's Worst Airports can be found here:

I know, I'm trying to find the silver lining. You may say that this is not a very "scientific" poll, or that it didn't include all airports so it would be "unfair" to say any results here encompass "the world". But it cannot be denied that on a relative basis - with whatever airports were considered for voting and used by travelers on this site - NAIA was considered the worst.

There's no way to sugarcoat around that.

In recent years, I have been traveling all over (locally and internationally), and have had a chance to use all three Terminals. And I will go through them by number, which incidentally is in the order of when they started operations.

Terminal 1 was the airport of my childhood, when my parents took us kids for trips abroad (which was their reward system for getting good grades). There was no Terminal 2 back then. (Let alone the third one.) It always seemed massive to me even then, and somehow, my mom always required us to be "dressed at our best". I always found the signages attractive, green lettering on a black canvas. I thought it looked futuristic.

Fast forward to a few years back: They still had the same signages! I suppose in an age where we are conserving resources, it makes perfect fiscal sense to keep hanging on to things that can be of use. But think of the impression this makes on people arriving to our country for the first time, and I imagine that they would be disoriented, thinking they had landed in some time-warped episode of Star Trek, but in reverse, where time moves backward.

I used the bathroom and the first thing I noticed were the chipped tiles - they always stand out, especially if the tiles are lightly colored. Two of the lights were out, the urinal I used didn't flush, and I felt like a game show contestant trying to guess which faucet actually produced water.

The carpets in the waiting area were showing their age: frayed, discolored in darker hues in many parts, and quite frankly, not very appealing. (It just looked dirty. Take note, I didn't say it was dirty.)

I got to see Terminal 2 once, when I boarded for a local trip to Cebu. I must say it was sparkly clean, and having seen other airports around Asia, the "modern" look seems to be defined as metallic, silvery, polished and soulless. The thing that immediately struck me was that it was smaller compared to the other two terminals, which made sense because, as I understood at the time, only Philippine Airlines planes were allowed in the entire terminal.

And when I use Cebu Pacific, the base is Terminal 3 (where every other local airline operates from). It has the same "modern" feel to it as Terminal 2. From a visual standpoint, it feels wider, which adds more to its "soulless" character. There are spaces there where you feel like no one has ever stepped foot in them. It has a "sparkling" sheen to it, so kudos to the maintenance people. And if you needed to stretch your legs, there are lots of spaces to walk around.

What I find odd in the arrangement is that the international flights are in Terminal 1 - where visitors get their first taste of Manila - which happens to be the oldest and the one with the most problems in terms of "items to update and repair". And since the website that did the poll was a foreign one, I will have to assume that the guests that made the complaints about NAIA had Terminal 1 as their point of comparison. Since all foreign flights are here, I can also assume that it must have the best space to accomodate that aviation volume - which should all the more spur the management to make its' facilities "world-class", as the world's eyes are seeing all of Terminal 1 in its' cheeky, unrefurbished glory.

I've been to Suvarnabhumi Airport (in Bangkok) and Changi Airport (in Singapore), as well as a couple of airports in China. I also saw Noi Bai Airport in Ho Chi Minh a year ago. And if I did not consider Terminal 1 in NAIA, we aren't that far behind, are at par or even surpass some of these airports in terms of modern facilities. I suppose we should take Changi Airport out of this comparison, as that will throw off the curve. But Noi Bai airport was dilapidated in parts, although I noticed that they were repairing areas in stages. (It may have a different feel and look if and when I go back to HCMC.)

The one thing we had  that I noticed was mostly absent in the other airports were the "security checks" that punctuated a lovely stay at any of our airport Terminals. Yes, I know it's "for security reasons", I'm not going to get into that. But you have to admit, that like the many security checks we endure on a daily basis to the bank, the malls, the theater, and even when you're crossing from one building of the same mall to the next, it certainly cuts down on any feel good feelings you may have to be asked to strip, be poked, scrutinized and made to feel like a terrorist. It doesn't help that there is a general perception that the ones conducting the checks don't really know what they should be looking for.

How is it that I am able to ride the subway from say, the Colonial District (where I usually stay when I'm in Singapore) all the way to inside Changi Airport (their Terminal 2, to be exact) without anyone frisking me at all? Not one security check. I confirmed this with Arthur and he, too, doesn't remember being asked what were the contents of his bag.

All those checks may just be an admission that Manila isn't a safe place. Or we're just praning. (paranoid) In any case, US airports have that same scenario, where belts, shoes and other paraphernalia are being placed in a tray, so this isn't an "Only in the Philippines" moment. Travelers, I imagine, would rate that as a negative.

But the worst part: the queues. They seem never ending! You have to pay for this. You have to line up for that. I went through that in college, so maybe I'm a little more tolerant of lines. But when there is a surge of arrivals and there are only 2 people manning counters (and there are more than 10 counters), you wonder why we have an "Airport User's Charge" and a "Departure Tax". (PhP 750.00 and 1,620.00, respectively.)

One time, our flight arrived around 5AM. When everyone got their luggages, we were surprised to find no one manning the immigration counters. That's right, you read right: NO ONE.

People naturally formed into lines (behind the thick yellow line), and when it was about 10 minutes, some Filipinos were just too impatient and went ahead and made a beeline for the exit. (I don't know how they'll explain that on their next trip, where their passports aren't labeled as "Arrived".) One airport official was furiously signaling for help on his two-way radio. If we had a terrorist with us, they would probably have a field day and announce to other terrorists how welcoming we are.

Did I forget to mention the rudeness and the irrational "calls" these officials make? I don't mind then thinking passengers are all potential terrorists - they're democratic that way - but when they look at a Filipina and see her bag is Louis Vuitton, and ask her "Bag mo to? Talaga? Magkano to?" ("Is this really your bag? How much is it?), that is just ridiculous. (I saw this in my trip before the last when we arrived here.)

And another time, we were in a really, really long line. Then an official announced that 2 new counters were opening, so the crowd dispersed into those 2 other lines. After about 10 minutes (and talking through those infernal radios), the same official announces that we all have to join back into the original line. (This was the first time I saw Caucasians getting all red from sheer frustration. Not a pretty sight. Accompanied by disparaging remarks about the ineptitude of the Philippines, which no one dared contradict, given that we were all frustrated.)

This confluence of factors makes it easy to see why we would be on the list of worst airports.

I just didn't think we were the bottom dwellers.

1 comment:

  1. That is exactly how i felt when i arrived in Manila, 6 years ago for the first time at Terminal 1. I still remember the initial shock and then thinking to myself if the international airport is like this, then go figure! Well, when i booked my first flight with PAL few months later, i was again surprised, but this time pleasantly! And of course few years later they opened the Terminal 3 which is my favorite of all.
    I always enjoy reading your articles and like your way of thinking and writing.
    sheri B