For most of the past three decades, T1 tended to suffer from a poor reputation because of amenities that looked dowdy and tired, just as gleaming new world-class terminals began rising in Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and Bangkok. At some point that dowdiness crossed the line into outright decrepitude as the air conditioning became unreliable and ceilings collapsed. Her shoddy image was not helped by the unsavory human element — a sadistic combination of baggage theft, economic profiling by immigration officers, and taxi drivers who overcharged and connived with criminals. People who made it their business to fret about what foreigners think of us whined constantly about the terminal, as well as the chaotic Parañaque neighborhood that visitors had to drive through.
Very few people recognized it as it was happening, but at some point, airports became the place where our frustrations about the failures of our society came together, creating a hatred that concentrated with particular force on T1. From the start she seemed cursed: barely two years old, her tarmac was the scene of the most famous assassination in modern Philippine history, whose victim gave the airport its present name. Her French designer Paul Andreu later went on to design Charles de Gaulle airport’s terminal 2E, which collapsed in 2004, and when Filipinos made the connection between 2E and T1, they nodded knowingly. When an organization called Sleeping in Airports rated T1 the worst place in the world to bunk down while waiting for connecting flights, Filipinos acted all embarrassed over the terminal’s many shortcomings, never mind that people who sleep in airports by choice sound at best like poor travel planners and at worst, cheapskates from the fringe who won’t even pay for a hotel room to ensure their own comfort. The resulting T1 backlash was an extraordinary exercise in loathing from a public that was beginning to travel in large numbers and believed they deserved better.
In her defense — even though she was commissioned at the height of a dictatorship — T1 might actually be the most honest, least corruption-riddled structure in the entire airport complex. She was constructed with little drama in three years and served her purpose well, at least until hitting full capacity in the 1990s. Whatever her shortcomings in the years since seem more like the faults of a public culture that doesn’t invest in upkeep and doesn’t plan for the future. By way of contrast, Terminal 2 ended up being given over exclusively for the use of Philippine Airlines, by then a private airline, for reasons that have never really been adequately explained. Meanwhile, T3 cost much more than expected, and ended up in legal disputes that took several presidential terms to unravel, leaving an interval of 11 years from the start of construction to the servicing of its first flight. A further six years passed before it could be brought to the point where all its gates were usable. If T1 reeks because her toilets don’t work, then T2 and T3 smell of something else altogether — opaque deals, misplaced protectionism, bureaucratic incompetence, and the inability of messy democracies to get even simple things done.
The peculiar arrangements surrounding T2 and T3 kept many of the foreign airlines from accessing the most modern of our facilities and became a good part of the reason why T1 had to bear the load of international traffic over the years. Even as her looks (never very pretty to start with) started fading and tempers began to fray over queuing and congestion, T1 held the title of international passenger volume champion, servicing about 8 million departing and arriving passengers in 2012 and 2013. Contrary to all expectations, that made her the most efficient of all the airport terminals, at least from the purely engineering standpoint of output over resources invested. By way of contrast, T2 and T3 handled only 4 million and 2.4 million international passengers in 2013, though they did accommodate domestic operations (by virtue of their association with PAL and Cebu Pacific Air, respectively) which meant they handled more passengers overall.
T1 will likely relinquish that title soon, after the major foreign carriers like KLM, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways complete their migration to T3. The government is planning to refurbish her so she becomes less of an embarrassment, with the repairs expected to be largely complete by 2015. No matter what final form she may take, it is possible that a decongested T1 could be a halfway decent place again, though she will never be the Changi or Suvarnabhumi of people’s (unrealistic) dreams. T1 will at least attract less abuse than she did in her heyday as the main terminal for international passengers. But in the continuing infliction of her special brand of discomfort on all users, T1 will surely remain a faithful mirror of the society that produced her. — Troy Medina
A semi-fond farewell to Terminal 1