The confirmation by Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya that the rehabilitation of Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport is finally underway is a belated but much welcome piece of good news. Even better, the project to overhaul the airport has been awarded to a team that will now include the design group of Kenneth Cobonpue, Budji Layug and Royal Pineda on one hand, and the architectural firm of Leandro V. Locsin & Associates on the other.
One may recall the flap that happened last year when industrial designer Cobonpue, furniture and interior designer Layug, and architect Pineda disseminated via the social media a blueprint for a redesign of Naia that immediately captured public attention. The design sought to bring what an online travel article had dubbed “the worst airport in the world” to 21st-century standards by expanding and reorganizing the structure for smoother traffic flow, refurbishing facilities into modern amenities now standard in other top-tier international airports, and creating pockets of greenery and open spaces via a tropical garden and tree-lined walkways.
Cobonpue, Layug and Pineda’s innovative concept was the result of eight months of pro bono work. They said it had the approval of the Manila International Airport Authority and former Transportation Secretary Jose “Ping” de Jesus, both of whom solicited recommendations for the airport’s makeover. The trio’s patriotic gesture was hailed by many as an example not only of the private sector stepping up to lend a hand to the government, but more so, in this case, of world-class Filipino talent (Cobonpue, Layug and Pineda are internationally acclaimed for their design work) coming together for the urgent cause of revamping the country’s crumbling international gateway.
But when it came time for the government to respond, it did so in a typically clumsy manner. Without so much as an acknowledgment of the designers’ efforts or the merits of their work, the transportation department then under Mar Roxas eventually announced it had tapped the services of Leandro V. Locsin & Associates for the airport makeover. While the move made technical sense—Locsin was the original architectural and engineering firm that designed Naia Terminal 1, thus “the firm’s insights will be of valuable help in minimizing disruption to operations,” said Roxas—the way it all unraveled, with Cobonpue et al. seemingly unceremoniously set aside, left a bad taste in the mouth.
That was in November 2011. A year and a half later, the government has made a turnaround by announcing that the triumvirate has been called back to join forces with the Locsin firm as the project finally gets underway. “They were temporarily set aside, not rejected since there was no bidding yet,” said MIAA general manager Jose Angel Honrado.
It’s the right move, and it’s about time. The P2.8-billion rehab of Naia Terminal 1 is a gargantuan project that needs the brightest minds—and the cleanest hands—if it is to be finished on time (within two years) and according to the aspirations of a country that has pegged tourism as one of its main economic drivers. Built in 1983 by the late National Artist Leandro Locsin, Naia is the world’s 34th busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic—some 27.1 million in 2010 and 32.1 million in 2011. That figure is dangerously close to the projected 35-million annual capacity of the airport, so an overhaul, and not only the piecemeal renovations done from time to time, is clearly long overdue.
And since the government has now embarked on revamping the physical structure of Naia, it would do well to consider the other problems that bedevil it. Just outside the decrepit arrival gates, for example, are that other source of embarrassment—unscrupulous cab drivers who, most likely with the connivance of airport authorities, fleece visitors and tourists with exorbitant rates or, in a few cases, rob them outright. The swarm of hangers-on allowed to intercept arriving passengers is not only an invitation to lowlifes to mulct and mug the unsuspecting, but is also, at the very least, a perennial eyesore.
In the end, no amount of physical facelift will redeem the country’s premier international gateway if the experience just outside of it remains inconvenient, even dangerous, to passengers. If Naia is in for a makeover, let it be the whole enchilada.