Monday, April 25, 2011

The stink at NAIA Terminal 1

This post is antedated. This was my column on the date indicated above.

In news reports over the weekend, Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Angel Honrado promised that all toilets at the Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport would be clean, would have running water, and would be provided with paper and soap in the next two to three months.

I don’t know whether we should laugh or cry.

On one hand, it is a relief to know that something is finally going to be done about the stink at our main international airport. On the other hand, the context around the planned “improvements” is dismaying.

First of all it is exasperating that the people in charge of the international airport are doing the planned improvements only because the stink has caught the attention of the global traveling community. The web site “The Guide to Sleeping in Airports” (sleepinginairports.net), recently ranked the NAIA Terminal 1 the fifth worst airport in the world (the top worst in Asia) for the year 2010.

Honrado took a swipe at the Web site that gave NAIA Terminal 1 a bad rap by labeling it as a Web site “geared toward budget travelers who slept in airports to save on lodging.” He said Terminal 1 could not accommodate airport sleepers, given the space limitations. What he was saying in effect was that the Website was barking up the wrong tree.

Not that I want to fight for bragging rights to having NAIA Terminal 1 declared as the worst airport, but anyone with half a brain, a fairly good eyesight, and a functioning nose can easily conclude that the only reason we didn’t rank worst overall was simply because we’ve had less traffic compared to the other airports in the list – and yes, because a large percentage of those who give feedback on the website are airport sleepers. If one were to read the comments made by travelers in the Web site, the complaints against Charles de Gaulle, Los Angeles, or even Moscow had to do with facilities that weren’t even available at the NAIA Terminal 1 such as wi-fi and yes, sleeping arrangements.

So Honrado makes it appear that as things are, he is in fact doing us a big favor that he is responding at all to global criticism on the state of NAIA Terminal 1. If we really come down to it, what the heck does he think his job is if not to make sure that the terminal meets global benchmarks in terms of facilities and services to those using it?

The stink at the NAIA Terminal 1 didn’t happen overnight and it certainly was there when he came on board as general manager. What took him so long to get around to fixing the mess?

Many columnists and bloggers (including myself) have been whining about the state of our international airport for quite sometime now. Cecile Zamora Van Straten also known as chuvaness (www.chuvaness.com) has been writing about the mortifying condition of NAIA Terminal 1 for the longest time now, even posting in her blog damning evidence of the decay such as the horrible conditions of its toilets.

Honrado also makes it appear as if the state of the toilets at NAIA Terminal 1 is the full extent of the problems. I have news for him. The filthy state of the NAIA Terminal 1 toilets is the easiest to pinpoint because it is so blatant that it assaults the senses. But no sir, stinking toilets are a problem, but there are more insidious problems that plague NAIA Terminal 1.

The other facilities at NAIA Terminal 1 are just awful. There are no decent places for lounging, or for eating, or even shops for browsing. The carpets are in the same condition as the toilets—filthy and smelly. There are not enough chairs so quite a number of passengers have to endure the onset of varicose veins from standing around too long. The last time I went through Terminal 1, my companion had to sit on his carry-on luggage because he didn’t have the courage to sit on the grimy floor and he was feeling the onset of a cramp on his legs. The unspoken rule at the Terminal 1 is simple: If you find a chair, guard it with your life. At the arrival area, one has to fight for trolleys and cough up money to be able to use them.

The personnel who work in the terminal seem like they have simply been drafted for the job without any consideration for the critical role they play as the first and last Filipinos that travelers coming in or out of the country encounter. Many of them are surly, cannot give answers even to the most basic questions, and yes, prone to corruption. Someone referred to them as thieves in uniform.

One cannot help but get the impression that everyone in the darned stinking terminal is angling for a tip! The attendants at the toilets are particularly more notorious and they are not even subtle about it, they openly accost people to leave tips. Foreigners pointedly ignore them pretending they don’t understand; but Filipinos cannot pretend not to understand Tagalog so we have to endure the usual sob stories about how miserable their lives are and being made to feel guilty that we have the means to travel while our kababayan are left cleaning up toilets.

A number of studies have established a direct correlation between employees’ ability to do their jobs well and the state of their work environment. These findings must be relevant in this case because the problems in the other terminals (2 and 3) are not as pronounced as those in NAIA Terminal 1.

The customs people are just as corrupt, perhaps even more so. The last time I used the NAIA, I came in from a trip from Bangkok. I bought a few (less than 20 pieces of clothing items I bought at the weekend market, nothing fancy or expensive) for relatives. For some strange reason, my luggage had a huge X mark done in chalk when it came out. You cannot believe the kind of trouble I went through as I had to conduct a very public inventory of the contents of my luggage. They didn’t find anything because there was truly nothing that could be taxed and yet the Customs people continued to hassle me, insisting that they were only doing so because the x-ray machine saw something. Someone suggested I pay a fixed amount, a suggestion I quickly melted down with the fiercest glare I could manage. After almost thirty minutes, I pulled out a pen and notebook and went through the motions of documenting the whole thing while dropping hints that I was going to write the customs commissioner about the harassment. They let me pass through.

My best friend who works for an NGO traveled to Cambodia recently. He seemed to have experienced a sudden charge of nationalism after having seen Angkor Wat because he decided to declare in his entry form a silver band with a semi-precious stone worth about 20 dollars that he bought in Cambodia for his partner. Boy, was he hassled by the Customs people—they even insisted that he pay five times the amount of the ring. Of course they let him go after he started making a scene.

The annoying thing is that these things happen only to ordinary mortals. People with political connections are treated like royalty and don’t go the aggravations at our international airports.

Honrado’s promise that conditions at the toilets at NAIA Terminal 1 will soon be a thing of the past is a step in the right direction. But it’s not enough.

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