Holding pattern

Standard

IF THE Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA 1) isn’t the worst in the world, it should certainly rank among the worst. On any given day, it looks more like a street during market day at Divisoria district than the gateway in and out of a country where, we’re told, everything’s more fun than anywhere else. The crowds are mostly made up of OFWs on their way back to their places of work in Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia with, as usual, entire barangay in tow, which makes getting into the airport and checking in a task worthy of Hercules.

But let’s not blame the OFWs and Filipino culture — which, among other practices, makes seeing off one’s kin and neighbors mandatory — for the bedlam. The fact is that the OFW phenomenon has been in place and has been steadily growing for over four decades, despite the law which says that the export of labor should not replace authentic economic development as a source of Filipino employment.

The OFW phenomenon notwithstanding, if past Philippine administrations had had any foresight and capacity for planning, they would have long ago realized that NAIA 1 had already outlived its usefulness by the time Ninoy Aquino was shot on the tarmac, being too small and too badly planned (you have to cross several check-in counters to proceed to immigration, where a handful of harassed officers have to process the departures of thousands of people, for example) to handle the vast numbers of Filipinos and foreigners arriving or leaving the country.

To compound the agony of departure, everyone has to pay the P750 airport- use tax that the Philippines, now almost uniquely among ASEAN countries, still charges people for the privilege of leaving these sacred shores. The agony continues when one is forced to wait hours for one’s flight because dozens of planes are awaiting their turn to take off, there not being enough runways to handle all the comings and goings.

One can wait as long as an hour beyond flight time at the pre-departure lounge, and another hour in the plane itself as it waits for its turn to take off. In cases too numerous to mention, flights whether domestic or international have been delayed for as long as four hours. As for NAIA 2 (the Centennial Airport) and NAIA 3 (otherwise known as Arroyo’s Folly), the bedlam is catching up with them too – that and the usual theft and bad maintenance of toilet and other facilities that for some reason afflicts practically every public building in the country where the faucets and doorknobs aren’t bolted down.
Some think we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves (or the government). Thailand’s Subarnavhumi airport, rated the tenth best in the world by travelers, has its own problems too, though only during the peak season. Flights have been delayed there not only from taking off, but also from landing because of the air traffic — but only for as long as 20 minutes as the planes circle Bangkok air space in holding patterns as other planes land and the planes run dangerously close to losing fuel.

On the ground, the immigration counters could be similarly jammed as the NAIA counters are, when several flights simultaneously disgorge their human cargo. Thailand is after all one of the prime destinations of tourists throughout the year, especially during the first quarter when it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and Americans and Europeans want to hit the beaches to get rid of the fish- belly white hue of winter in favor of summer tans.

That may be true — there is no way one can plan for such eventualities as two dozen flights coming in at the same time — but at least the Thais are better organized. They usually succeed in keeping the planes in holding patterns for ten or 20 minutes tops, rather than the 30 to 40 minutes that’s by now standard for NAIA. On the ground, they put an immigration officer on every counter, where at NAIA some counters remain closed despite the crush of humanity either trying to leave or trying to get into the country where everything is more fun.

To which slogan I have no objection, although it’s missing the two words that would make it precise, which are “for foreigners,” the more accurate statement being “It’s more fun in the Philippines for foreigners,” which means it’s considerably less so for Filipinos. But so what? The slogan’s fairly accurate in that it’s really more fun for foreigners in Boracay or Cebu, even if they’d rather stay clear of certain parts of Mindanao, and foreigners after all are what the Department of Tourism wants to attract.

But let’s be careful what we wish for. Attracting tourists and keeping them coming requires a bit
more planning acumen than past administrations have demonstrated. Getting them to and from the
airports more efficiently, for example, in addition to building better airports should be among the questions Philippine tourism authorities should be looking into, among such other problems as making sure tourists aren’t robbed on the streets or stabbed in their hotel rooms.

The last time I was in Thailand, one either took a taxi, a hotel shuttle, or the airport bus from the airport to Bangkok. Since last year, and despite the floods that wouldn’t leave the capital for weeks and weeks, the Thais have put in place a train system that whisks tourists from the airport to the central district in minutes at 120 kilometers per hour. That’s a scant five years after they completed Suvarnabhumi and immediately put it among the ten best airports in the world.

Sure, it may be more fun in the Philippines for foreigners, but how do we get them here and how do we make sure they’ll be back or won’t badmouth the country to their friends and relatives and even on Facebook and Twitter, when, as our neighbors do things that can be accurately described as amazing (as in Thailand) or incredible (as in India), the country’s going nowhere and is still in a holding pattern?

(BusinessWorld)

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