Good news. Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) Terminal 1 has two special assistance lanes for senior citizens, people with disabilities, and passengers traveling with young children. I was in the “younger” lane with lots of parents with infants and toddlers, while the senior lane had passengers all on wheelchairs.
I counted 11 of them in a row with airport personnel attending to them, or, rather, being harassed by them. The elderly can be quite demanding: I saw one hapless attendant dealing with two wheelchairs, one for each hand, even as one of the passengers was ordering the attendant to assist him in turning on his cell phone!
It was late at night so the lines were long, especially with the Christmas balikbayan rush. People were grumbling: The passenger behind me kept insisting that those on the regular lanes were moving faster.
Psychologists have figured that out long ago—how our perceptions can be distorted to give us the illusion about the grass being greener on the other pasture. Queues—in immigration, in supermarkets, in banks—set off these distorted perceptions and make people want to change their lanes, sometimes ending up in a longer line.
But today I’m writing about, not seniors, but airports and the race to become better than the others.
For the Philippines, it hasn’t been a race for top positions but to simply improve and get out of the cellar, what with that “worst airport in the world” award we got a few years ago for Naia 1, a position we’ve “lost”—thankfully—although we remain ranked quite low.
When I checked in at Naia 1 for this recent trip, I realized that I hadn’t been there for years. My UP driver confirmed that he hadn’t driven me there since I became university chancellor, which was in 2014, so it’s been almost four years since I last used that terminal.
Given that rather low baseline—meaning we were still the worst airport in the world at that time—I was in for a shock. The terminal has improved, tremendously. It helped of course that many airlines had moved to Terminal 3, and Philippine Airlines is mainly now based in Terminal 2 with some flights in Terminal 3.
There have been many renovations in Terminal 1, making it much more bearable. That has come with an improvement in the airport staff’s relationships with passengers. I suspect that in the pre-renovation Naia 1, the dilapidated and congested conditions just made it impossible for the staff to be nice. Change the environment in an office and you’ll find that even without HR (Human Resources) intervention, people become kinder to each other, and to themselves.
Talk about perceptions: I felt good about Naia 1 and was actually dreading the next two airports, both in China: Baiyun in Quangzhou and Xianyang in Xian. The biases, I knew, were coming from a last-minute change in my flights. Originally I was supposed to go to China via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific but a family emergency forced me to make a last-minute change.
An internet search for reviews of the airports were not much help as it led me to peek into reviews of Naia—still very unkind ones. No one seems to have been to Xian’s airport, but Quangzhou did have many reviews: sterile, boring, uncomfortable. But one review, by someone in Britain, did warn that Westerners tend to be prejudiced when it comes to Chinese airports simply because they’re in China.
To make a long story short, the airports at Quangzhou and Xian turned out to be better than Hong Kong’s and, certainly, many airports in the United States and Europe.
I think Westerners like to poke fun at Chinese airports because they’re actually envious of all the Chinese technologies. You have rows and rows of self-check-in counters, for example, with staffers on hand to help out.
Watch out in the airports if you see a staffer racing toward you on something that looks like a golf cart, except that it has a giant mop in front!
But the technologies I enjoyed the most in Chinese airports were those that try to make life more bearable for passengers, like a toilet seat that convulses after you use it, revolves, and comes out with a new plastic sanitary cover!
In Guangzhou I was dazzled by luggage trolleys that had a LED monitor built in, on which you can access flight times and look for shops… and even surf the internet.
But my favorite in Guangzhou was an orange juice vending machine—no, not one that spews out canned juice. It was for fresh orange juice and you could watch the machine “making” the stuff: one orange, two oranges, three oranges, my goodness, that’s the fourth, and a fifth. A bit pricey at 20 renminbi (P160), but well worth it for the tech gizmo experience:
The machine accepts cash and WeChat, which is something like Viber but much more advanced. We do have GCash, which is still very limited. WeChat, on the other hand, is now accepted everywhere—from the airport machine dispensing fresh orange juice to fish in the market, and taxi rides. My Chinese friends tell me, too, that they even give out their angpao—those red packs of money for New Year’s Day—through their cell phone’s WeChat!
Back to Chinese airports: There are all kinds of vending machines dispensing all kinds of products, even cosmetics for a last-minute touch-up. I found one vending machine that had Dole—not pineapple juice, though, but mango juice.
There are more tech wonders in these airports, but in Xian what I found most impressive was not quite techie: sleep boxes, tiny but still larger than those in Japan’s capsule hotels. Inside the little cabin is a bed, a TV set, a sink, and room to spare. There are signs inviting you to nap at 50 renminbi (P400) an hour, or if you want to stay overnight, at 240 renminbi (P1,920).
So, is there hope for Naia?
I’d like to think so, but I’m also realizing that airports speak of a country’s wider development ethos: from our infrastructure priorities to our views about human beings and their needs.
We go back to that perennial problem: dirty toilets, especially those for men, where the floor gives you the impression that a pack of male dogs had run through it, marking their territory.
Making my way through Naia 1’s semi-flooded toilet, I remembered a sign in Guangzhou’s male toilets (I’m translating from the Chinese): “Moving forward one small step is a giant step for civilization.” The scourge of Naia’s airports is the Chinese’s scourge, too, so for now they have to remind men to please move closer to the urinal…. and contribute to “wenming” (which, literally translated, is “civilization,” but which really comes closer to urbanidad or good manners that build on a consideration of other people).
That’s what airport development should be all about, from the wheelchairs, to water dispensers, to multilingual staff members, to helping men “shoot” better.
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