No Free Lunch

Needless queues and competitiveness

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“The Manila International Airport is the only place where you have to line up nine times—count them—before you finally get to board your plane to travel abroad,” lamented Assistant Secretary Geronimo Sy, head of the Office for Competition in the Department of Justice. We both recently addressed an audience of judges in the Roundtable on Competition Policy and Law, organized jointly by his office and the Philippine Judicial Academy. “Everywhere else I know, you only need to line up three, maybe four times at most,” he asserted.

And he’s right. Let us count the ways. When you approach the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to leave for abroad, your vehicle must first line up for a cursory “security check,” where the guard asks you to open the car’s glove compartment, as if that’s the only possible place you could hide a gun or a bomb. There may be several guns hidden under the car seats, or a suitcase full of explosives in the back, for that matter—but the guards will probably wave you through anyway like they do all the time after a superficial, almost reluctant, glance inside the vehicle. And this superfluous exercise does nothing but delay and bunch up the traffic leading to the airport terminal. That’s line number one.

On reaching the terminal, you line up as a guard looks over your passport and plane ticket to weed out nonpassengers from entering. Never mind that in this age of e-tickets, anyone with a laptop computer and a printer can easily fake an e-ticket anyway. And you need not even strictly print out your e-ticket to be able to check in, as long as you have your valid passport with you. Besides, ours is the only airport I’ve seen where nonpassengers can’t get into the check-in area (some passengers will need help with their bags from a companion, after all). That’s line number two.

A few paces later, you line up again as you pass all your bags through an X-ray machine. Everywhere else I know, they screen your checked-in luggage after you’ve parted with them at check in. And if they see something suspicious, they’ll either call you back to the counter to explain (it happened to me once abroad), or open your bag outright for inspection. (That’s why you need those  TSA (Transport Security Agency)-approved locks with that red diamond symbol, so the inspectors can open your bag without breaking your lock—which they will do without hesitation, if they must.) Well, that’s already line number three—and you haven’t even gotten anywhere near your airline counter yet.

Your fourth queue would be your first one elsewhere—as you await your turn to actually check into your flight. Happily, one can now dispense with this step for some domestic flights that provide for online check in. But you still can’t avoid this line even if you check in online for an international flight; at best you can just shorten your wait. But this is a necessary line, unlike the others so far.

Now if you happen to have bought your air ticket online, chances are your Philippine travel tax isn’t paid for yet, so the airline attendant sends you over to another line—at the travel tax counter of the Department of Tourism, where you dutifully pay P1,620 (more if you’re traveling business or first class and honest enough to say so). So you’re done with line number five (which not everyone needs to go through, but is increasingly necessary as more people discover cheaper tickets available online).

You go back to the airline counter to get your boarding pass, and now you’re ready for line number six, to pay the P550 terminal fee. The government has lately moved to eliminate this step and build the terminal fee into ticket prices—a welcome move, at long last. But alas, they haven’t quite mastered how to do this for international flights just yet. After that, you proceed to line number seven, for the obligatory immigration check—only the second queue you would have encountered had you been somewhere else. And some countries have even eliminated this altogether as the airline is tasked to take care of collecting your immigration departure card, if they even have one at all (really unnecessary in this age of computerization).

Line number eight is for the intensive security check on your body and hand-carried luggage, again an inevitable step nowadays wherever you are, especially after the infamous 9/11 incident in New York. And if you are traveling to the United States, this is not the last security check you’d go through either. You line up again, now for the ninth time, as you enter your departure gate, where the airline staff would open to manually inspect your hand-carried luggage—in apparent complete distrust for the airport security check you had just gone through.

Finally, your flight is ready for boarding, and you line up—either for your ninth or 10th time—to  get into your plane, at which time you’d be so exhausted and/or exasperated for having to line up three times more than you would in other airports overseas. Assistant Secretary Sy asks: “Has anyone bothered to figure out how going through so many unnecessary and avoidable queues costs us in terms of productivity and competitiveness?” And we all know airports are but one example among many.

I wrote in this column two years ago about all the unnecessary hurdles we Filipinos like to impose on ourselves, in things ranging from starting a business to obtaining some clearance or official document—in what I described as a seeming case of national masochism. In the name of productivity and competitiveness (not to mention kindness to our fellow Filipinos), can someone please tell me that things are finally changing?

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E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com

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