For years now, thousands of people have suffered at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, with a few occasionally complaining through the mass media about everything from dirty toilets to long immigration queues, all to no avail.
Then suddenly reports came out that we had been voted one of the world’s worst airports (one report said “five most hated” airports) for many reasons, including the dirty toilets, but also, allegedly, for rudeness, which perplexed a lot of Filipinos who believe we are always friendly and courteous. The reports triggered a pledge from the government to rehabilitate Terminal 1, and although another controversy has erupted over who is going to take care of the redesigning, there’s hope that we might see some changes.
I decided to check out the original source of this information, which seems to be an Internet-based site called sleepinginairports.net. After going through the site, I thought it would be a good idea to feature the “study” to talk about customer service in general, and what it might mean for the Philippines, especially the tourism industry.
Sleeping in airports
The funny thing is that this Internet site is dedicated, as its name suggests, to sleeping in airports. The choice of best and worst airports was based on the votes from Internet site visitors answering the question: “What is your least favorite airport to transit through for more than 6 hours or sleep in overnight?” This wasn’t a trivial pursuit on the part of the Web managers, given that many Filipinos (especially overseas workers put on super-cheap flights) have experienced the agony of having to wait for long hours for connecting flights.
In addition to votes from the visitors, the website owners also asked readers to send in more detailed reviews of the airports. Finally, the website used information about facilities as provided by the airports themselves.
Is an Internet survey valid? Ideally, for a survey to be called “scientific,” it has to use a random sample. You see this all the time in the better airports, where researchers are posted at several places ready with their surveys on customer satisfaction. They stand there politely approaching every nth (e.g. 5th, or 10th) passenger, depending on the researchers’ instructions. In contrast, in an Internet survey there is a “self-selection bias.” People select themselves to answer Internet surveys (or to send in comments about columns, smile). They tend to be more vocal, even opinionated, compared to Internet users who are not as proactive.
The sleepinginairports.net survey did use triangulation, which means they came up with additional techniques to get their information. This included reviews from site visitors (again with possible selection bias because you get people who tend to be really angry over some unpleasant experience) and the information from airports (also with possible bias since airport authorities want to project a good image of themselves).
The website explained the four C’s to be used for evaluating the airports: comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service. Notice that “rudeness” was not mentioned and in the write-up about the Naia, which got first and top-of-the-page mention under “Worst Airports,” there was no actual reference to instances of rudeness at our airport. Instead (and I think this was worse) there was mention of corruption, bribery and even alleged robbery.
The comfort angle was intriguing, with references to the availability of places where one could stretch out and sleep, the temperature inside the terminal, clean or dirty toilets and even Wi-Fi availability, which is so important to kill time now that so many people have laptops and iPads.
When it comes to courtesy, there were reports of guards harassing sleeping passengers in the other “worst airports.” I suspect though that it wasn’t just a matter of the staff allowing people to sleep in the terminals but about general perceptions around meeting the needs of customers. It’s not surprising then that the top airports were Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul Incheon, Kuala Lumpur, Amsterdam, Munich, Vancouver, Zurich, Frankfurt and Toronto. I said “not surprising” because there are four Asian airports on the list, all of which I have visited and I found impressive not just because they are well-built but also because they have courteous staff.
And the bottom of the heap? There was Manila Naia (Terminal 1, with a reference to Terminal 3 being clean and spacious), Paris Beauvais, Reykjavik Keflavik, Bergamo Orio al Serio, Kiev Boryspil, Frankfurt Hahn, London Luton, Pisa, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Los Angeles.
Notice how Manila stands out as the only Asian airport on the list, and although we ended up there because of all the other reasons I described earlier in this column, I wonder if the element of discourtesy was also there.
We are friendly, definitely, and we are a fun people, as the Department of Tourism has recognized with its new slogan. But we have to be careful, too, that we don’t go overboard trying to present ourselves as a fun people. Sometimes, we end up coming through as “chummy,” which is not necessarily a good thing. Chummy is getting too familiar, to the point of being discourteous. I have had complaints from visitors who say they love our friendliness but we also need to respect people’s need for some distance and respect.
I see “chumminess” all the time with our vendors when they deal with tourists, pushing a bit too hard to sell something by cracking inappropriate jokes. Sample: “Sige na, you buy five na. Americans are rich naman.” Just the other day a tiangge vendor, a complete stranger, tried not to give me back my change with, “Uy ha, happy Chinese new year. Keep the change?” No wonder immigration officers at the airport are forbidden from greeting passengers merry Christmas or happy new year; the tone is too chummy, too suggestive of asking for a bribe.
I do have one airport story to share, from Naia Terminal 3 (still rated better than Terminal 1 for now) to make my point. Going through security checks, I heard the guard requesting the man in front of me (British from his accent) to take out his wallet and belt. The man didn’t quite understand and asked, “I’m sorry sir, what was that again?” The guard retorted, “Wat?! You kennat anderstand my Englis? Gaddam.” He said this complete with a smile, but the British visitor was taken aback, first alarmed then irritated.
What impresses travelers about Asian courtesies is the element of formality and respect. Singaporeans don’t smile too much but are seen as courteous. We smile a lot, but the smiles can be discourteous. I couldn’t help think of SM Supermarket as a last example. When their staff stop every 15 minutes or so to clap their hands and shout out, “Happy to serve,” that is chumminess. I can live without that, but I definitely appreciate it when their cashiers use two hands to return change or a credit card.
Chumminess is trying to make customers go our way. Courtesy is going out of our way to help customers.
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