In my younger years, the old Ninoy Aquino International Airport, now referred as NAIA Terminal 1, was a popular landmark, a Filipino pride, an architectural masterpiece, one of the newest and modern in Asia. It was designed by no less than National Artist Leandro Locsin, a renowned Filipino architect, artist, and interior designer. Actual construction started on the second quarter of 1978 and completed in 1981.
Throughout the years, most Asian countries built their new airports and state-of-the-art terminals that are relatively advanced and bigger in the likes of Singapore’s Changi, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi, Hongkong’s HKIA, Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA, New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi, South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, etcetera and etcetera. And so NAIA Terminal 1 was left out and the once famous structure is now dubbed as outdated, old-fashioned, crowded and cramped terminal.
In fact, for second year in a row, it was hailed as “World Worst Airport” by SleepingInAirports.net and was also included in CNN.com‘s own list of hated airports. I kept my mum, I uttered not a single comment. No objection nor affirmation because I have yet to experience flying in or out of Manila through it. Not until late last year. Thanks to the cheap fare of Malaysia Airline from Manila to Kuala Lumpur, I was able to experience flying out of Manila via NAIA Terminal 1 and experienced on my own how “bad” it really is.
Cheaper than the Low Cost Carriers
I had to go to Kuala Lumpur for my flight to Kathmandu and good thing that there are lots of airlines flying from Manila to Malaysian capital, legacy and low cost alike. With the help of Sky Scanner Philippines, I was able to compare and choose the airline that offers the best schedule and cheapest rate. To my surprise, legacy carriers beat the low costs!
I opted for the red eye flight of Malaysia Airlines (code share with Philippine Airlines), departing NAIA Terminal 1 at nine in the evening and arriving Kuala Lumpur International Airport past midnight, perfect schedule for my Kathmandu flight the next day and half the price of Philippine based low cost airline with the same schedule. At 90USD all-in fare (including travel tax) for a full service airline, it was a very good deal!
The Airport Experience
While I was excited for my return in Kathmandu, I was also thrilled by the idea of flying, for the very first time, through NAIA Terminal 1.
So I went to the airport early and headed straight to the check-in area which to me looks like a lobby of a hotel or a convention center. It is probably grand in the 80’s or 90’s standard but grand just the same.
The center area has seats that were full of awaiting passengers when I arrived. The ceiling is dotted with yellowish lights reflecting a dimmer ambiance similar to some hotel lobbies and theater halls I have been elsewhere. There were queues in the check-in counters on the sides and in front but it looked like everything was in order. Since I already checked-in online, I headed directly to the special lane of Malaysia Airlines for document checking and was cleared in no time.
I went past the check-in counters to the Terminal Fee Payment Area where there were at least four counters. The lines were short so I was able to pay the necessary fee quickly.
Then came the Immigration Area with only one line for passengers, quite long line. But with at least eight immigration counters, the turnover was quite fast. In around ten minutes, I was already in front of a young female immigration agent who carefully inspected my documents and asked some questions before stamping my passport.
Past the immigration area was the final body and baggage check with three x-ray machines all working perfectly. Beyond the final check are the duty free shops, restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, lounges and the pre-departure area.
My entire experience was smooth and hassle free. While I agree that the terminal needs improvements, I personally believe that it’s not that bad overall. I mean, it may not be at par with the new ones in the region but I think it is not the worst. I have been to some airports abroad which in my opinion and without biases are worse than NAIA Terminal 1.
So Why Was it Dubbed as Worst?
Now that I have experienced NAIA Terminal 1, I have valid reasons to refute that tag which I think was just a negative overall impression set by some of the famous international websites. Mind conditioning works, sadly on the pessimistic side for Manila’s main gateway.
The problem with NAIA Terminal 1 is not because it is a totally bad airport terminal but because it was left out in the region. I agree with my friend Ronnie’s statement, and I quote “It’s just unfortunate [that] Asia is filled with fantastic and new airports, so the comparison is very immediate and very obvious. We can bitch that it’s not as good as the others, but let’s not dig a grave and say it’s a hell hole.”
Sad to say, most Filipinos add fuel to the fire by attacking the inefficiency of the government and the system and criticizing it even if they haven’t been there yet and in other airports in the whole wide world. The worst part, local media loves joining the fanfare!
What Should be Done?
We can’t overhaul the airport completely unless we demolish everything and start building again from scratch. I am no structural engineer nor architect to say what should and should not be done but as a traveler, I wish there are more spaces inside since I find the pre-departure area quite crowded. Also, I wish they add more brighter shade lights, replace the old seats and couches, get rid of the old well wisher area and build a modern lounge, convert the area outside into a park with shops and restaurants, and put a lot of comfortable seats in shaded and secure public areas to pacify the airport sleepers!
For a country with a booming tourism industry, we need better airport terminals that can handle the increasing numbers and provide good impression. In the case of NAIA Terminal 1, structural and visual improvements are enough to give our gateway a good facelift. I believe there is still hope for NAIA Terminal 1, that we can make it better than what it is today. But I guarantee you, it is not the worst, and whoever say that it is, should provide proofs that they have been to every airport in the world.
My five cents! 🙂