Terminal in Manila

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on January 22, 2009

An hour and a half in an immigration queue does terrible things to the mind

“The line at Immigration is all the way back to the doors,” a friend who visits the Philippines regularly on business called to complain over the weekend. Fortunately, for my friend, he arrived at the old Terminal One of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport early for his flight. Or perhaps not so fortunately. He managed to get through the long immigration queue on time for the scheduled departure of his flight. But not everyone booked on the flight arrived at the airport as early.

As a result, the frustrated consultant wound up cooling his heels in the Thai Airways business class lounge until his flight left an hour and a half after its scheduled departure. Of course, “cooling his heels” is not exactly correct either. Because the airline lounges are so small in the cramped Terminal One, “we were shoulder to shoulder” my friend related to me Monday. The number of people crowded into the lounge made the small space uncomfortably warm, a condition further worsened by the chronic inefficiency of the Terminal One air conditioning system.

Meanwhile, airline staff were swept up in a frenzy of activity shepherding frantic passengers from check-in counters through Immigration and to the lounge or public waiting areas, struggling to do what they could to get the flight off the ground. And if you’ve been through Terminal One recently on your travels, you know that the day my friend spent Terminal in Manila isn’t an unusual one. Rather, it’s the norm.

Long lines at immigration counters are not an inconvenient phenomenon unique to Manila. Several years ago I complained loudly to Tokyo immigration authorities as they routinely opened counters to returning Japanese at Narita while forcing incoming tourists and business visitors to wait patiently in a limited number of slow-moving lines close to midnight.

For years, Hong Kong and Bangkok airports were also problematic. No country to this day seems able to match Singapore’s near-instant immigration processing, although Malaysia in my experience comes close. In recent years, however, Hong Kong and Bangkok have improved markedly, especially Hong Kong. Lines are still long, but they move rapidly because queues are systematically organized and immigration processing is efficient. The result is a solidly positive first impression for new visitors, and a smile on the face of those returning.

And that is why immigration processing is no small matter, whether a visitor is coming or going. Airlines learned years ago through customer surveys that passengers made to wait in long lines at check-in counters quickly became unhappy troopers. Worse, they stayed unhappy not just throughout the flight, but the next time they contemplated making a reservation. For a long time, passengers were doomed to bad service until airlines began to wake up to the reality that happy passengers often became loyal customers.

It would be easy to blame poor service at immigration on new procedures implemented as a result of the global war on terrorism. But the reality is that the immigration process at Terminal One has always been a nightmare. And it’s not just that the processing is slow. It is often surly. It can even be profane on occasion, an experience I’ve had to suffer through more than once as an inspector speculated aloud about my reasons for living here.

But to be fair, the immigration experience can be equally nightmarish at Terminal Two, also called the Centennial Terminal, especially for arriving passengers who can find themselves not only in long lines, but lines backed up the stairs due to the narrow dimensions of the “Immigration Hall,” which is actually nothing but a not-very-wide hall that leads to the baggage claim area. This is because Terminal Two was not supposed to be an international terminal, and doesn’t really have an Immigration Hall at all.

Many expect the immigration issues to be largely remedied when Terminal Three is finally opened. Few would speculate at this point on a date for that to happen, given the repeated delays over what, the past half decade? The reality, however, is that even in the new terminal, when it is opened, immigration processing will remain an issue for passengers unless visitors are processed efficiently by sufficient numbers of professionally-minded inspectors equipped with the systems and software they require for the job.

Tourism is an extremely profitable industry. Business travelers are investors who create jobs and build businesses that pay taxes and contribute to social development initiatives. Like its neighbors, the Philippines wants these people to come, and to keep coming. It therefore makes a lot of sense to make sure their first impression on arrival is a positive one, and the last one at departure, too. Immigration is a serious issue. It’s an economic issue, and needs to be addressed.

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