Transitioning from bad to good airport

6 Mins read

Consult Google and with 218,000 results, you get a whole range of descriptions of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), from the “most stressful” airport in Asia to being the world’s worst airport. Google was spot on why this is so. There has been underinvestment in Manila’s major gateway to the world, and it is so grossly mismanaged.

From 2010-2023, it was reported that the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) spent only P27.1 billion or P2.1 billion per year. Roughly, this is around 7% of its gross revenue against other airports in Asia-Pacific which allocate about 20% to 24% of their gross revenues for capital expenditure. Indeed, NAIA airports need more than a makeover, but a total rehabilitation.

Rappler once quoted BusinessFinancing.co.uk which ranked NAIA as the fourth worst airport in Asia for business travelers. It ranked 2.78 over 10, outranking only Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz International Airport at 2.72/10, Kazakhstan’s Almaty International Airport (2.62/10), and Kuwait International Airport (1.69/10). Business travelers must have experienced any or all of the following: delayed flights, long queues, filthy toilets, power outages, and corrupt security personnel.

Yet it looks like very few bureaucrats realized until recently that Manila’s airports, regardless of terminals, must be the reason why many tourists would skip what used to be the pre-war Pearl of the Orient. Or they were aware of this, but they would not lift a finger because the status quo worked in their favor. Navigating the short distance from NAIA to Makati, or Manila, could be a nightmare, period, something that even the catchiest tourist slogan cannot override, or mitigate. We are quite sure that it is not only in this country that traffic is horrendous, the streets unsightly, and evidence of sheer neglect by those in authority in great abundance. But that’s it, we waste hundreds of millions of pesos on tourist ads and promotion, but we can’t get the essentials of good tourism business right. Our signage in world-class tourist destinations are hardly useful, and in some cases, non-existent.

We have spent billions of pesos attracting foreign investors, or dividing society to amend the Philippine Constitution to get foreign capital to engage in business here, but our airports are not even welcoming. We cannot even reduce the number of signatures one needs to secure before a business starts operating, or increase our internet speed to minimum global standards.

Why, even a Filipino first timer who travels abroad and returns finds it traumatic that arriving passengers should be subjected to a gauntlet — from very few immigration desks to very few carousels. When flight arrivals are within half an hour of each other, one should be prepared to line up for at least half an hour and to wait for one’s luggage for another half an hour. Or even forever.

It is worse for those catching another flight to another part of the Philippines, or outside. Much worse if they have to do it from another terminal.

Manila is not exactly visitor-friendly based on what visitors see when they come out of the airport. In Singapore or Hong Kong, even in Kuala Lumpur, one can choose from various options on how to travel to the city proper. Cabs are registered and in queues, buses are available, and trains are linked to the city. Grabs or Ubers can freely pick up passengers. We have very limited and rather pricey options in Manila.

We are therefore excited to see how the plan of San Miguel’s Ramon S. Ang would pan out and put an end to NAIA’s ill repute. The project involves the rehabilitation of passenger terminals and airside facilities, the provision of facilities to allow for intermodal transfer at the airport, and the construction of a connection from NAIA terminal 3 to the Metro Manila Subway. Eight-level multipurpose buildings adjacent to terminals 1, 2, and 3 are to be built to house administrative offices to decongest the terminals by 30%. Parking slots for 9,000 cars will be made available.

It was said in subsequent announcements that the project now includes the construction of a new passenger terminal in three years. Indeed, if the rehab efforts would only work around terminal 1, no additional space for more check-in counters, immigration desks, custom security, and carousels will be created. NAIA’s four terminals even if put together, can be easily dwarfed by the new airports in the region, and elsewhere. Singapore’s Changi and Seoul’s Incheon airport strategies should be an excellent guide for future expansion. Both airports started small but grew over the years based on earlier expansion plans — justified by higher passenger traffic and enabled by accumulated resources.

Since we are not privy to the blueprint, it will be useful to ask whether trains will be installed to connect all the terminals, as in Singapore’s Changi or Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok, or maybe dedicated buses on dedicated roadways, as in Tokyo’s Haneda? London’s Heathrow terminals are serviced by both rail, the Tube, and by bus. Equally important, an integrated transport system to and from the airport would be ideal. A total solution is absolutely necessary.

It was just last Monday, March 18, that the concession agreement was signed. If the whole project development process for this Public-Private Partnership (PPP) that took only 12 months to complete is any guide, we should be able to see the results really quickly, too.

While three groups qualified to bid for the P171-billion contract, it was the consortium of San Miguel Holdings Corp., RMM Asian Logistics, Inc., RLW Aviation Development, Inc., and Incheon International Airport Corp. that clinched the contract.

If executed to the letter, the project should increase the current passenger capacity from 35 million a year to 62 million annually. The whole NAIA complex will be rehabilitated and modernized. Its runway capacity will be expanded to at least 48 air traffic movements at the peak hourly rate. Initially, the contract covers 15 years for the consortium to rehabilitate, operate, and maintain the airport and this may be extended by 10 years. The government will share 82.16% of the revenues. This would translate into, by some accounts, some P1.05 trillion for the next 15 years.

Definitely, as President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. said, this is an “investment in the future.” It is more than “fixing faulty escalators, infested seats and power outages within six months.” It is shedding our image as a laughingstock among the world’s airports.

What makes a world-class airport?

World design firm Gensler recently proposed that world-class airports are “beyond retail and dining offerings, sleep pods, or the latest ‘it-amenity.’” The hallmarks of a global airport start with how they reflect the livability, the quality of life of its own city. Quoting Skytrax World Airport Awards, Gensler cites the prime example of Singapore’s Changi Airport where various gardens punctuate the beautiful yet highly functional airport. This reflects the essence of Singapore. There is a fine balance of open space with what it calls unparalleled shopping, airline efficiency, and some unexpected surprises like a slide for adults! Gensler writes the same for Incheon Airport and Munich Airport.

To address this, we need to have some fundamental repairs of Metro Manila.

Gensler also talks about seamless connectivity. By this, it refers to passengers getting to and from the terminal. We wrote about this a few paragraphs back, and here, Gensler critiqued the airports in the United States where only 5% have connections to passenger rail. Since travel extends beyond air, it is essential that passengers can get from place to place because their time is not unlimited. Access to public transport is critical, and here integrating the airport with cabs, rail, and buses will afford the greatest mileage in passenger convenience.

Seamless connectivity should also cover mobile communication. Gensler cites the plus points of free WiFi, powering stations, and some convenient nooks for private conversations. Airlines should be supported with IT infrastructure to allow for the use of passengers’ smartphones to check in, change flights, and do airport shopping.

Gensler also raised the importance of ensuring that the airports are for the people, that airports need to be more progressive by addressing various needs of their visitors coming in and flying out. In San Francisco, they have yoga rooms. In some Italian airports, they have family rooms. Personalization, to Gensler, is also very important. Connecting with passengers through their personal devices on their flights, or change of gates, baggage updates could make a difference between a global airport, and just a primitive one.

Rethinking services is another criterion of a global airport. Passenger-friendly services, from curb-side check-in, to security, to information desks, are crucial if the global airport is to be customer-centric. Cleanliness is non-negotiable.

Finally, Gensler talked about “agile, yet invisible infrastructure.” It refers to the use of new technology like new bag-handling procedures, shifting security screening, and constant change of aircrafts. Strategic planning for the future is indispensable. Incheon’s more than 180-kilometer baggage handling facility is legendary for its super-fast and accurate bag tracking and delivery system.

These must be the key factors behind Skytrax World Airport Awards’ 10 best airports in the world in 2023 list. Singapore’s Changi Airport won the titles World’s Best Airport, World’s Best Airport Dining, and World’s Best Airport Leisure Amenities. Last year was Changi’s 12th time winning. The others are Doha Hamad, Tokyo Haneda, Seoul Incheon, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Istanbul, Munich, Zurich, and Madrid Barajas.

There are bad airports, and there are good global airports. This PPP project with San Miguel and Incheon will hopefully show us how to transition from bad to good.

Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former deputy governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was alternate executive director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.