By Joey Salgado
Airports are first impressions. For a country that has depended for decades on tourism for revenues, our government seems to be unbothered by the necessity of making a good first impression on foreign visitors.
Every new administration spends millions for a new tourism advertising campaign - and a new slogan - but treats the upgrading of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) as an afterthought. It is only when terminals are shut down because of a power outage or the country’s airspace closed to international traffic because of a glitch that airport officials scramble to action, or pretend to. They form task forces to mount investigations, offer lame excuses coated in technical mumbo jumbo, ask for money they should have had the foresight to include in their budget requests, everything except apologize to the public and admit to their incompetence.
The problems plaguing the country’s supposedly premier airport are not new. Congestion has always been a problem. Basic facilities such as toilets have always been poorly maintained. One sees computer-printed signages taped to walls and monobloc chairs. Regular equipment maintenance is spotty, it not non-existent. That’s on top of the usual bunch of crooks, petty tyrants, and incompetents having a run of the place.
Two successive administrations have failed to address these problems. It’s as if NAIA is being left to rot. Meanwhile, local and foreign travelers are left to suffer while the authorities preside over the airport’s death throes.
How do we sort out this mess? For starters, why don’t we end the practice of appointing new people to head highly-technical government agencies with each change in administration? In short, stop treating government as a job placement agency.
Every new administration brings in a fresh batch of political supporters, friends, relatives, friends of friends, friends of friends of relatives, neighbors of relatives, the whole sorry lot, to government. It’s part of the culture of political payback. We have no quarrel when a competent person, someone regarded as an expert in his field, gets appointed. But that is hardly the norm. Consider that in a previous administration, it was said that a barangay official from the appointing authority’s home province landed a technical job at a specialized government agency. When summoned to a congressional probe, the guy couldn’t answer a single question.
Aside from being clueless to the ways of the bureaucracy and this basic concept called transparency, some of these appointees do not have the managerial or technical background or expertise needed by the agencies or departments. The executive department, especially highly technical offices, requires people who can hit the ground running. But this assumes the appointee is eager to learn. There are those who bask in the perks and privileges of their government jobs, especially travel and representation allowances, with no regard for accountability.
In the case of the NAIA, it’s also about time we let the private sector manage it, a private-public partnership insulated from the shifting winds of politics. Government can retain ownership of the airport, but the operations are privately managed. If you look at the top airports in the world, most of them are managed by private companies. The Mactan-Cebu International Airport, highly acclaimed by both travelers and the travel industry, is operated by a private consortium, GMR Megawide.
The idea of “privatizing” the NAIA has long been in the works. Several consortiums have been awarded contracts in the past, only for government officials to rescind said contracts or freeze the ball for reasons they alone can answer.
The President says London should be a benchmark. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if NAIA becomes the next Gatwick, Changi, Dubai, Hong Kong or even Mactan. Just make NAIA efficient, make it comfortable. Make it work.
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