Monday, April 21, 2008

Conditions at terminals could be better

This is my column today.

For many people, the summer months of April and May are for traveling, mostly to exotic locations—perhaps some secluded beach or mountain paradise. It’s the chance to escape the infernal heat that engulfs Metro Manila this time of the year. I personally schedule most of my lectures during the summer for practical reasons—there are no classes, work is usually lighter, and people are generally more laid back and receptive.

Many people think having the opportunity to travel is a blessing. This is true when one is traveling to certain places for the first time; otherwise, the novelty is reduced. And if one is traveling for work, it can become tiresome. But what really makes traveling tedious and often exasperating is the general pandemonium at our airport terminals. Passing through our airports—especially the ones in Manila because they are, expectedly, busier than those in key cities —is always an exercise in keeping one’s anger and impatience in check. There’s disorder, incompetence, utter lack of organization, and in general, lack of concern for the comfort and convenience of passengers.

I took an early flight out of Manila for Bacolod over the weekend and it seemed to be one of those days when officials threw away standard operating procedures (assuming that they did have some to begin with) in favor of Murphy’s Law at the Centennial Terminal. I understand that many among us simply grin and bear whatever it is that’s ladled to us by our bureaucracy, including pure and unmitigated inefficiency. A friend I was venting my frustrations on simply shrugged his shoulders and told me “What did you expect? This is the Philippines, remember?” It’s as if we’re a cursed people who are supposed to simply accept bad fate.

I am one of those people who doggedly insist that Filipinos can do better. Which is why I will continue to rant against inefficiency and incompetence whenever and wherever I see them. What is with the bedlam at our airport terminals?!

An airport is the first and last image tourists keep of any destination; it frames the whole tourist experience. People pay fees to use these terminals and therefore deserve better. The expectations are pretty much predictable—most of our terminals have been operational for a number of years and they operate most hours of the day. The officials who manage them—granting they have the capacity to learn—have presumably had ample time to practice and perfect their management skills. So what accounts for the fact that we still see the same confusion, the same disorder, and the same recurring problems at our terminals?

The argument that the problems are caused by human traffic is absurd. A terminal exists to cater to human traffic; the measure of a terminal’s success is in its capability to accommodate optimal and increasing volume of human traffic. The job of the people who manage airport terminals at optimal utilization, not to operate them at decreasing utilization rates. Any administrator who says the chaos at our airport terminals is caused by the influx of human traffic deserves to be relieved of his post simply for not having brains. I cringe every single time operators of terminals (airports, bus, train, etc) cite this justification during peak seasons for travel. Besides, everyone knows when these peak seasons occur and can anticipate these so people can’t use this as an excuse.

In addition, the schedules of flights, including the expected volume of passengers at given hours, are (presumably) available due to the wonders of information technology. Therefore, administrators can anticipate problem areas and proactively put in place the necessary mechanisms to eliminate the kinks in the system, move human traffic along at a faster pace, and in general make the whole experience less stressful and irritating for everyone.

Over the weekend, for example, the queues leading to the security gates were inordinately long. Despite my seeming crankiness, I assure you that I do have extreme tolerance for queues, so believe me when I say the queues were really unreasonably long. The main cause was not that there were too many people trying to pass through the gates. The problem was that many passengers were clogging and holding up the queue while looking for tickets, identification cards, fixing their baggage, etc., while security guards looked on helplessly. The problem was even more pronounced at the second security gates where everyone had to take off belts, shoes, watches, and other metallic objects; and after passing through the X-ray machines, repeat the process of putting them back on while still holding the queue.

The stringent security measures are not disputed. The problem is that people are not informed beforehand of the specific security measures and many are simply unprepared and end up clogging the queue. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to be aware of what they are expected to present to the guards or take off from their bodies. Friendly reminders and directions posted in conspicuous places would really be helpful. It amazes me that our terminals are unfriendly in this regard. It is as if we expect passengers to just sink or swim in the bedlam.

The second problem has to do with really bad space management. The queues tend to snake freely through whatever space is available inside the terminal and end up blocking traffic for everyone else or make it convenient for others to jump the queue. There are no spaces assigned where people can remove or put on shoes and other items that had to be subjected to security checks. People not only end up further clogging passageways, they also suffer the indignity of undressing and dressing in full view of the public.

Obviously, sanitation is another contentious issue. If people are expected to take off their shoes, is it too much to expect provisions to keep the whole experience more comfortable and sanitary? The absence of provisions such as a foot bath, or carpeting a specific passageway where people can walk barefoot rather than tiptoeing on cold, presumably dirty floor tiles, is indicative of the seeming low regard that we have for customer convenience and comfort. In other countries, a janitor is permanently assigned at these gates regularly spraying the tiles with disinfectant and cleaning every few seconds to assuage the fears of the more squeamish passengers.

The third problem is that the job description of the personnel (mostly security guards) assigned to manage human traffic seem limited to ensuring that people subject themselves to the security checks. The guards at the Centennial Terminal seemed oblivious to the long queue or that some people were jumping the queue. Obviously there’s a need to equip these guys with a little more critical thinking skills and definitely more customer service competencies.

I can go on and on, but as usual, I am running out of space. The gist is: It could be better. We truly deserve better.

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