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Airports and competitiveness

A country’s international airport is not only the gateway to a country, it is also the first and last impression a visitor—either foreign or Filipino—gets of the country. For this very reason, it is imperative we get our country’s airport strategy right. Part of that strategy includes fixing the sad state of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport or Naia.

By now, many of you must have read or heard that Naia has fallen further behind in an online survey and is now ranked one of the five worst airports in the world and the worst in Asia. The basic complaint has to do with the old facilities and the less-than-friendly service passengers receive. Overall, Naia delivers a less than satisfactory travel or customer experience for the passenger, especially when compared to that of other international airports in Asean.

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At the National Competitiveness Council, we believe that solutions can be arrived at to address this problem in relatively short order in a manner consistent with a long-term airport strategy. It is necessary to fix Naia for several reasons. First, we need to create a better first impression for visitors. Second, we will eventually need more passenger capacity within our total airport system. And third, we need to recognize that airports play a role in projecting our national brand.

MIAA is actually composed of four terminals. Naia opened in 1981 and was originally designed to handle 4.5 million passengers per year. It reached its capacity in 1991 (yes, 20 years ago) and with some improvements, its capacity was expanded to 6 million passengers. Naia handled 7.3 million passengers in 2010.

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Terminal 2, originally designed as a domestic terminal, handles domestic and international operations. Its capacity is 7.5 million passengers but it handled 8.9 million in 2010.

Terminal 3, originally designed as an international terminal, serves domestic and international traffic. While it continues to be mired in a long-running legal battle and has never been fully opened as an international airport, it already services 9.5 million passengers. Its capacity is 14 million passengers per year.

Domestic Airport services small carriers and has a capacity of 3 million passengers. It handled 1.4 million last year.

Out of a total capacity of 31 million passengers, MIAA’s four terminals already service 27.1 million people and should reach capacity within two years, with Naia 1 and 2 highly congested.

Clearly, all four terminals need to remain in operation for many more years. Even if Terminal 3 were opened, there is no way to shift all the capacity from Naia to Terminal 3. And even if Clark were opened, it seems inconceivable that all traffic could be diverted even with a high-speed rail link between Manila and Clark. At the very least, it would take years to complete, so fixing Naia and fully operating Terminal 3 makes so much sense now. The needs are immediate. With that in mind, the team set out to create a renovation design with Naia’s own engineers and architects.

The basic mission was to transform Naia into a “boutique” airport in comparison to the region’s larger international airports and improve passengers’ travel experience to and from the Philippines in terms of service, comfort and facilities. The whole idea was to create a new “Modern Filipino” gateway to the Philippines to welcome and send off visitors. Rather than try to compete on size, the concept was to compete on service and customer experience. No thought was entertained to change the structure of the building or to expand its present size since maintaining the structural integrity of the building was of paramount importance. The solution was to clear some structures and for the airport to streamline steps which passengers have to undergo. While this does not add any space to the overall structure, it smoothens out the flow of movement within the terminal.

While the oft-quoted problem of bathrooms is being addressed in batches, one other problem often cited is the lack of food outlets and restaurants. This can be easily addressed by rationalizing the mix of restaurants and shops throughout the terminal. As it is, most shops and restaurants are not up to par with those seen in other international airports.

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The problems are not limited to the terminal’s interior. One of the worst problems lies right outside. When one exits, those not being picked up by a hotel car—which is the vast majority of passengers—have to walk down a steep ramp to the Arrival Extension level to be picked. For people walking down that ramp, the experience is more like being dragged down by your own luggage.

For the greeters outside, the experience is not much better. An open-air parking lot blocked off by a fence from the arrival extension keeps crowds away—either under sweltering heat or soaked by rain. Considering that greeters travel great distances and wait, it makes sense to design a better area with stores, restaurants, and shade and seating areas so people can be comfortable. This is possible since the space is available, to begin with.

Much of the design work has already been carried out by a team. It’s time to get started to fix our country’s gateway.

Guillermo M. Luz is private sector co-chairman of the National Competitiveness Council. e-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: airport, ninoy Aquino international airport, Tourism, Transportation, travel
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