What Ails My Airport And My Country Are The Same

With APEC almost upon us and the still on-going scandal that is the laglag bala scam still raging at the NAIA, it is worth pondering the state of our international gateway airport and what is says about our country. You know what they say about the eyes being windows to a person’s soul? Well, a country’s airport is a window to its governance and well-being.  Think about it.  The first impression that a businessman or tourist has about a country is from its airport.  Apart from serving a merely functional purpose, an airport is like a calling card or a handshake for a person, or a website for a business or company. People take cues and form their opinions from these first impressions, consciously or not.

What impression do we get from the airport of Hong Kong, for example? Bustling, modern, energetic– you can almost feel the electricity in the air, with people walking briskly and purposefully through the terminals.  You are brought seamlessly from the airport to the center of town via a super-fast express train. True enough, the same airport traits apply to Hong Kong itself.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, recognised the role of the airport in promoting a country’s image.  He personally saw to it that anybody arriving in Changi airport got the distinct impression that Singapore stands for cleanliness and order.  You can see it in the immaculate and orderly airport the moment you arrive.  No detail is missed.  It is efficient as in any process engineer’s fantasy dream.  Even the trees and flowers lining the road from the airport to the city are manicured regularly, because as Lee put it, “I want every businessman and foreign investor to see it and get the message that the government of Singapore stands for no corruption and pays attention to the details.  The government will make sure everything is running properly, in the same way that we keep these trees and flowers trimmed and watered regularly.  You are therefore assured that the government will do all in its power to keep the business climate healthy, with the same due care.  Your money is safe.”

To this day, Changi Airport consistently ranks among the best airports in the world, and Singapore typically ranks among the top countries in the world for competitiveness and ease of doing business.

Now let’s take a look at Manila’s international airport.
Photo: UK Telegraph archive

There are valid reasons why NAIA has ranked among the worst airports in the world.  The first thing you notice is that you have arrived in an obviously poor country.  Now there is nothing wrong with having a limited budget, but poorer countries, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, have airports that are more modern and functional than ours.  India has a noisy and corrupt democracy like ours, but Delhi has a far better airport.  China’s second tier city airports are even much nicer than Manila international airport.  So are Bali (Indonesia) and Koh Samui (Thailand) airports, which take in high volumes of tourists.As a young person entering the work force, one is often told to invest in a nice suit or barong.  Practical fashionistas will tell you to buy the best shoes you can afford. The Manila airport is the equivalent of somebody wearing a sando and tsinelas to a job interview.  It says, “I am only good enough to wash your car, water your garden and watch your kids.’  And we wonder why our Asian neighbors are snooty and look down on us.

The minute you land you feel unsafe, feeling that nobody is in charge here.  The bathrooms, though already improved from years ago, still cannot match world standards (at least now the taps work and there is usually running water).  The immigration lines are slow, the people manning them always seem to have just come back from a meal or a siesta.  Your bags take forever to come out on to the conveyor belt and you fear somebody has opened them behind the scenes.  Once you get out, it is chaos, with a throng of people in sandos and slippers teeming behind barricades, waving and jeering, as if from behind prison bars.  Relax folks, these are just excited Filipinos who may or may not be meeting arriving loved ones who bear gifts from abroad.  Honestly, some of them are just there because they have nothing better to do and they feel like people watching; others are looking for prey to scam.


Philippine mayor and wife gunned down at NAIA terminal 3 last Dec 2013. Photo: AP

You will be approached by various suspicious looking characters offering everything from sex, to a ride to the city at 10x the normal taxi rate (but hey, you get to skip the taxi line which is a mile long and does not seem to be moving).  You will see rich locals navigating these hardships easily.  They have their coping mechanisms: the friendly airport contact who gets a christmas gift every year, the car and driver that has been waiting perhaps a full hour ahead of time.


Travellers take precautions against bullet planting gang. Photo: Viralviews

To be fair, things have improved.  As I was growing up, I have seen that toilet in the Arrival section of NAIA blossom from piss-reeking mess in the seventies and eighties to its current acceptable state now.  I remember the fear and nerves my mother and lola used to experience on arrival and as they were about to face NAIA’s immigration and customs personnel.  I remember we used to insert a 100 peso bill in our passports, which the airport people would take without blinking.  After a while, in my rebellious teenager years, I would get angry at my mother for bribing the people when we weren’t even doing anything wrong, but that was the attitude during the Marcos years; everyone feared people in uniform because they did abuse their positions to make things difficult and fleece money from travellers.

Nowadays, I don’t think anybody hands money clipped with their passports anymore. Customs is a breeze now, with the Philippines emulating the “Nothing to Declare” lanes of other countries’ airports.  You don’t get scammed anymore as a matter of routine, but as a matter of bad luck and an exception.

In other words, the Manila airport, our common international gateway for visitors and returning Filipinos, is an accurate barometer of the state of the Philippines. There has been some improvement, but that is off a very low base.  Overall, the airport, like the country, is mismanaged to the point that makes people want to shout and wring necks.  The airport’s, and the country’s, managers are oblivious to reality and are deaf to feedback. The most frustrating part of it is that they don’t know any better; they actually think they are doing a good job.  Why?  Because they are in power and power in the Philippines is an ends in itself; they don’t need to earn it or prove anything, it is theirs by right.

However, even as the Philippines’ rulers remain deaf, complacent and arrogant, the people are becoming increasingly aware and short of patience.  As more Filipinos have lived and travelled abroad it has become painfully obvious that life does not have to be this hard. In most other countries, you don’t get stuck in traffic for 5 hours whenever it rains. The streets don’t flood, the trash gets collected, the basic government services work.  Even in some of our neighboring countries, you dont have to habitually lock everything down at night for fear of being robbed and murdered in your sleep.  If you work hard, along with a little luck and perseverance, you can be comfortable, feed and educate your children. There are parks and facilities for recreation in other cities as a matter of the people’s right, and not only as a privilege for those who can afford it.  There is ample water, electricity and yes, internet access.

With the recent unfolding and resurgence of the laglag bala scam, we are reminded that our airport, and our country, has
fallen so far behind.  We are reminded that our leaders are ineffectual and are only nominally in charge.  Finally, we are reminded that our culture and outlook have degraded, through countless years of numbing abuse, have degraded so far that we have lost the facility of holding our leaders accountable.  We have lost all feelings of entitlement–that we deserve better.  After all, living in a mess for years on end does that to a people; they become cowed and fatalistic. The most common expression you will find among Filipinos now is the shrug. Nobody knows, nobody cares, we are all just guilty bystanders as our leaders continue their arrogant rule.

 What the airport needs is what the country needs.  Our problems have to be analyzed like a computer problem and solved as a system, not piecemeal.  We have to learn to recognize what are root causes and what are symptoms, and not confuse one for the other.  Then we have to try different solutions, much like you iterate solutions for a math problem. We may have to be willing to make sacrifices and question our basic beliefs. If we find out it still does not work, we take our learnings from that failure and go on to the next experiment, the next possible solution.

We should watch and see how our leaders solve (or not) this laglag bala problem. That will be yet another sign of their capabilities and their approach to problem solving. What holds true for the fate of our airport, holds true for the fate of our nation.


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