The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) was ranked as the world’s third most stressful airport. Surprise, surprise.
But perhaps the real surprise here is the media mileage that has been wasted on a survey conducted by little-known tourism blog Hawaiian Islands. The “study” analyzed the “sentiment of [1,500] Google reviews of 500 airports”—whatever that even means.
We ought to be more discerning about the “studies” we cite. Not all surveys are created equal, and not all numbers constitute statistically significant samples. And in a world of over 40,000 airports, a 1.25 percent sample size doesn’t quite inspire confidence. Yet in the same breath, as admitted by the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) senior assistant general manager Bryan Co, “there is no denying that there are stress points in Naia.” Indeed, anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of flying out of Manila’s gateway would only confirm that the place is no gemstone.
The other week, I had briefly visited my brother, Miguel, who is a project executive with the Asia-Europe Foundation in Singapore. After our fill of hawker food, we arrived early at Jewel Changi Airport for my Cambridge-bound flight to see the awe-inspiring Rain Vortex. I sat there at the base of the indoor waterfall and thought to myself whether Naia would ever reach that level of modernity.
I believe Naia very well could, though it wouldn’t have to. Naia doesn’t need to be ranked at the top of any list. The Filipino people are neither clamoring nor expecting it to be. We don’t need any seven-story water cascade, magnificent as it may be. In truth, all we ask of Naia is for it to be efficient.
As a frequent flyer myself, I have a few suggestions.
Flying out of Naia is like playing a game of labyrinth on an NES. It involves mapping out six complex networks, with each maze leading to a next challenge.
Level 1: The foot of the departures area. Unfortunately, your pre-flight woes begin before you even step foot on airport grounds, as Naia security personnel point their flashlights into your vehicle as you pull in. Now, make no mistake: Security measures are necessary for the safety of all airline passengers and crew. However, neither do I see the purpose of the “plain view” probe. In all my travels abroad, never have I encountered this type of security check. The MIAA should avoid redundancies in security measures.
Level 2: The Naia door. Similarly, it is only in the Philippines that I have had to run my luggage through an X-ray scan to simply get into the airport. The same luggage, mind you, that would undergo screening post check-in.
Level 3: The check-in counter. Congratulations, you’ve made it in. But alas, yet another serpentine line awaits, this time, to check in to your flight. The MIAA should institutionalize self-check-in service kiosks throughout the Naia complex. Only Cebu Pacific offers this service in Terminal 3. Naia management may be centralized in the MIAA, but that is not to say it is standardized by it.
Level 3.5: The surprise tax. Just when you thought you’ve made through to Level 4, the airline ground staff instructs you to pay the travel tax and queue anew at the other end of the hall. Though I understand the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza) now offers an online payment system, the fact that these remain separate transactions exemplifies the inefficiencies in Philippine travel. This step could be avoided altogether if Tieza were to simply incorporate the travel tax with the ticket price or, better yet, for legislature to get rid of the taxing Republic Act No. 9593 requirement altogether.
Level 4: The immigration desk (aka the “Big Boss”). The music slows as the worst has yet to come. The meandering line to the immigration officer awaits. There are many concerns, but one aspect I most wish to highlight is the battle of egos. Time and again, I have witnessed immigration officers adjust their level of respect depending on the indicated occupation of the passenger and their facially assessed socioeconomic status. The MIAA should conduct capacity-building seminars to do away with power-tripping and discrimination.
Level 4.5: The departure form. The immigration officer will then ask you to surrender that green flimsy piece of paper, which you have yet again forgotten to fill. Ironically, however, most of the information sought is already found in your passport or could have been provided online. Departure forms are a waste of paper and a potential data-privacy risk.
Level 5: The landside screening. If there is one step that any airport is to take its happy time, it is here. Safety first!
Level 6: The gatehouse. Finally, you’re at the gate waiting for boarding. This is where the MIAA can get most creative. To improve pre-flight quality, Naia should better utilize open spaces and empty schedules. Predeparture is a rare occasion where to-do lists are left blank—at times, hours on end. The MIAA doesn’t need to install modern devices or fancy TV screens to keep us entertained. Rather, what we need are quiet spaces. Indeed, sometimes, less is more. All airports should thus have libraries, and the MIAA would do passengers good by installing reading rooms where local and foreign travelers alike would find resource materials on the voyages to come and the journeys from whence they came.
Naia has bid me adieu on countless occasions, but it will always be the country gateway which, for all its faults, has welcomed me home. I believe it can improve. Naia may be no Jewel, but with all its potentials, it is a diamond in the rough.