Probably one of the best persons to pass judgement on the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 1 is a frequent flyer.
Fortunately, I’ve been living with one for many years now.
And so today, I’d like to share with you the thoughts of a frequent flyer on why our airport terminal has been cited as one of the worst and most hated in the world. The writer is my hubby, who frequently goes to Berlin to teach Internet journalism and whose travelogues have been published in various publications including Silver Kris, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine.
Here is his story, which appeared in Asian Dragon magazine recently and which the magazine is allowing me to post online.
NAIA: Is it terminal?
By Alan C. Robles
When they die, frequent flyers who were good go to Changi Airport. Flyers who were bad end up in NAIA.
Am I saying that the Ninoy Aquino International Airport is hell? Of course not. As far as I know, hell doesn’t charge for the suffering.
But NAIA requires departing passengers to pay a “terminal fee”, currently 750 pesos (US$17). This collection is supposed to go to a fund for improvements to the airport.
Excuse me? Take a moment to rub your eyes. Breathe deeply…You all right? Ready to continue? Yes, you heard right, for improvements to the airport. The very airport where, last year, the toilets had no running water. Instead they each had an attendant standing beside a large full barrel, waiting to offer distressed passengers a dipper of water and lots of toilet paper.
Ghastly as it was, that arrangement was still probably better than this year, when there was no toilet at all in the gate I was in — it had been completely shut down and barricaded and everyone in need had to climb a steep flight of stairs to use a small toilet near one lounge.
My best guess is that the “improvement” the terminal fee is supposed to finance is sentimental in nature and really means “keep everything looking the way it did a generation ago.” How else can anyone explain the fact that nearly 30 years after it opened, NAIA (or to give it its current alias, NAIA Terminal 1) still looks and feels the way it did in the 1980s? To be more specific: small, crowded, squalid, shabby, depressing, decrepit, dirty, with a general air of inefficiency, inadequacy, decay and indifference.
When I think about it, I suppose I’d have misgivings about an airport whose main claim to fame is that somebody was murdered in it. Not exactly what you’d call a Unique Selling Proposition (“our airport: millions of departures and the occasional assassination”). Furthermore, after that fateful day in 1983, Ninoy Aquino went on to become a national icon. But the airport stayed a dump.
I have used NAIA for decades now. If Terminal 1 could talk, I’d imagine it saying a few choice things. “Roll over and die” would be one “Why doncha just shut up and go on out of here” would be another. “Well who cares what you think?” would be a third. What amazes me is that through the decades no management has even come close to putting up halfway decent facilities.
In the 1980s, Singapore’s Changi (my favorite airport) was already streets ahead of NAIA and since then it’s widened the distance to light years. Changi has lounges, plenty of comfortable seats, wonderful shopping and dining options. Also private baby care rooms, play areas and a nifty 12-meter slide for children. Of course it has WiFi, and it’s free, as you’d probably have guessed. But wait, the airport also has hotel cubicles, rest areas, showers, and a swimming pool — I am going to cry now. I once used one of Changi’s free computer terminals and filled up a feedback note to management saying how cool their airport was. I got a thank you reply the day after. Can you imagine anybody from NAIA thanking anyone? NAIA, which last time I was there this year still had no WiFi my devices could detect, whose free computer access seems to consist of an empty table with some wires sticking out of it disconsolately? And whose children’s play area is a small sad hole in the wall?
Singapore Changi now has a rainforest lounge. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll say this: “Hah! A rainforest in Changi? Only now? Don’t they know NAIA has been a jungle for years?” At Terminal 1’s departure concourse, passengers are herded like animals and have to form crude lines snaking around in bewildering patterns. One night, waiting to board a long-haul flight, I saw birds flying through holes in the ceiling (jungle wildlife). In the 1990s, a foreign passenger died of a heart attack caused by an epic failure of air conditioning and a rise in temperatures (jungle heat). Around that period, a section of the roof also gave way, inundating a corridor with cascading water (jungle waterfall).
And what’s a jungle without loathsome beasts? In 1997 a man drove over to NAIA to fetch his arriving brother and got into an argument with airport guards and police officers about parking. The guards ganged up on him, dragged him to a detention cell under the complex, roughed him up and then emerged a short time later to sadly reveal the man was so depressed that he had committed suicide by hanging. Although the murderers got 30-year sentences, it’s not a story you’d want to put in a NAIA brochure — which anyway does not exist.
Surely NAIA must have some good points? I can think of a couple. First, I haven’t lost my bags yet. Though I do remember years ago, I was with a large group of arriving passengers who were told to wait in front of a certain belt for our luggage. It took us a few minutes to realize that our bags were actually arriving in a belt on the other side of the hall. There was a mad scramble.
Second, NAIA is an award winning airport. It’s made it at least two years in a row in Sleepinginairports.net’s list of “Ten Worst Airports In The World.” In fact this year it’s number one. Among the remarks about NAIA: “Bribery and theft exists. Airport taxes are collected, but the money does not seem to go towards the betterment of the airport.” One commenter related: “When I asked a security guard where the smoking area was he told me to follow him…and took me out on to the tarmac (so much for security) where he then insisted on a bribe before he let me back into the terminal. How does one say ‘no’ to a security guard with a gun?”
I have seen an arriving passenger ahead of me tuck a US$5 note into his customs form and passport which he then handed over to the inspector, who returned the documents less the currency. You mustn’t ask me to prove this because I didn’t have my video camera running at that time.
Everybody else in the country except Terminal 1’s management has known it for decades. NAIA is not a jewel in the country’s travel crown. NAIA Terminal 3, the German-designed complex down the road that’s supposed to be Terminal 1’s successor, has been mired in a legal squabble involving corruption for 10 years now. Until it goes fully online, most travelers are stuck with Terminal 1. My goal each time I’m there is to spend as little time as possible in it. But because when departing I try to be there three hours before my flight, I spend a lot of time hanging around. There’s not much to do — the duty free shops are small, the massage services are expensive, the food stalls grotty and horribly overpriced. Early this year two sandwiches, a couple of sodas and a canister of chips cost me PHP 700. On the international budget flight I took, a full meal cost the equivalent of PHP 540.
Transport links, tourist maps, guides and printed information are virtually nonexistent, if you arrive in Manila with nobody to pick you up, you’re at the mercy of highly-priced airport taxis and touts.
Dear transport and tourism authorities, you can do whatever you want to boost our visitor figures and our country’s image but could you refocus your radar on this simple fact? NAIA is the first place in this country visitors will see. And also the last. All our goals, targets and exciting projects will be affected by those impressions.
But the question I’d really love an answer to — the one I’ve asked myself each time I’m inside NAIA is this. Just where do those terminal fee collections really go?