First Impressions

First Impressions

Only late last year did I resume traveling abroad – for business, I must add, not for pleasure – and I remember thinking, “come to think of it, NAIA isn’t so bad.”

I know the Philippines’ key air gateway has many issues, most important of which is the fact that it is beyond capacity, both in passenger traffic and in aircraft traffic. But, I thought, maybe our expectations for what our airport should be has been heavily influenced by what our neighboring countries’ airports have to offer, and our urge to have the same things they have.

I suppose Singapore’s Changi airport has distorted a lot of those expectations. Generally acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, airport in the world, it feels most of the time less like an airport and more like a shopping mall slash tourist trap slash utopian something. Makes sense, considering Changi does not just act as a gateway to Singapore, but a key stop for many long-haul routes. There is the opportunity to keep passengers happy by keeping them as comfortable as possible – and maybe they can convince some to take a five-hour tour of the Little Red Dot.

Changi certainly goes above and beyond what is expected of airports, but then, the other international airports I’ve been to do their job pretty well, slight misgivings aside. The Hong Kong International Airport, for instance, may be a sprawling, intimidating, cold superstructure that reflects the city’s infatuation with the free hand of the market, but as a passenger, I think it gets the job done, and efficiently. And it’s not just the airport complex itself, but the transport network that goes in and out of it. The HKIA Airport Express provides me with a speedy option to go to the city center, and it’s come particularly handy in my many trips there in recent years. Airports in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Seoul and Taipei also have such links, providing passengers with more efficient options for continuing their journeys. Singapore doesn’t have a dedicated airport link – but Changi is connected to the standard MRT network, since the city is small, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

By that standard, NAIA does the job, but barely. I mean, you are at least welcomed into the country, inconveniences of slow baggage claim aside. But our airport has been creaking at the seams for so long, getting in and out of the airport – and between terminals – is a struggle, even by car, which is something considering how Manila has been car-centric for decades. Between that, and the very clinical look of most of the terminals (although admittedly the Leandro Locsin-designed Terminal 1 has kept some of its warmth) it’s easy to make a punching bag out of NAIA. Rats? Bugs? Bullets in your luggage? National stories, all contributing to our collective shame as a nation. Is this the face we first show to foreigners? And considering other airports in the country, like Cebu and Clark, are doing a much better job at it.

There must have been a collective sigh of relief when the government announced that it has finally signed a deal with the San Miguel conglomerate to rehabilitate the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The PHP 170-billion concession deal involves the expansion of the airport’s annual capacity to 62 million passengers – including the construction of a new terminal at the site of the old Philippine Village Hotel – and upgrading facilities and equipment to further facilitate the movement of passengers. Also in the works is a new elevated access road from Magallanes to NAIA, aimed to further alleviate traffic to the area.

First impressions do matter, and this new deal fuels our obsession with the state of our country’s major gateway and how it presents itself – how it presents all of us – to travelers. At least from a convenience perspective, it all should do wonders. But I can’t help but think if addressing these first impressions is all there is going to be about these plans. Greater terminal capacity and enhanced connectivity between these terminals is one thing, but the fact remains that NAIA has no room for expansion. It still effectively only has one runway serving almost 280,000 flights and over 45 million passengers last year. (NAIA has two runways, but the secondary runway mostly caters to propeller-powered and private aircraft.) A critical bottleneck hindering the airport’s effectiveness will remain, and its knock-on effect on all the rest will continue to be pronounced.

Also, how will the investment in NAIA factor into our plans for a new air gateway to the country? The San Miguel group is in the midst of constructing the New Manila International Airport in Bulacan – it will have the capacity, but again, car-centricity means the only viable route going there will be by private vehicles rather than public transport. We also have no clarity on where the increasingly competitive Clark International Airport, and nascent plans to expand Sangley Point, factor in.

But, I suppose, as long as I arrive in Manila in a facility that doesn’t look like a dirty hospital, in an airport that genuinely welcomes me back home rather than just enduring my arrival… it should be a win, somehow, right?

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Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications director of SCMAP, and editor-in-chief of its official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at

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