PHL’s airport of the future must be built now

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Six (at one point, seven) of the world’s 10 best airports are in Asia, and the first three are also in the region. What do all of them have in common? They are destinations by themselves, almost entirely resembling resorts, built by architects and engineers with impeccable design, efficiency and utmost passenger comfort in mind.

They were intended to give more, not just what any people would probably think what a normal airport is—duty-free shopping, departure lounges, boarding gates, nothing more. But there’s more.

Singapore’s Changi Airport, as everyone knows, is an attraction by itself. It is an airport that you don’t mind getting marooned for hours, or days, because you will never run out of things to do in this “resort” of an airport.

From the time it was opened in 1981, it now serves over 24 million passengers a year with a wider selection of shopping, dining and relaxation choices, designed to give passengers the best airport experience of their traveling time. Bottom line is, it has not exceeded its terminal handling capacity and keeps rolling with the times.

After a revamp in 1991, it added Terminal 2 and has become a nonstop entertainment hub. No wonder, it’s been consistently named Asia’s best airport, and then, as world’s best.

In 2008 it launched Terminal 3 and positioned itself as a “Green Terminal,” with natural skylight and attractions you would never expect to see in an airport. Imagine butterfly, fern, sunflower, cactus and orchid gardens featuring over 200 varieties of foliage and butterfly species, making you feel invigorated even if you are in the middle of a busy airport.

This year Changi opened Terminal 4 and brought a whole new world of innovations that redefined people’s travel experience, which, in turn, defied our expectations on what an airport should be.

Changi Airport is literally a tourist attraction by itself. Inside, the terminals are all connected by a network of trains, so getting around is pleasurably convenient. It is also profuse with attractions, enough to make you linger or probably change your flight arrangements and stay within with its incredible confines.

It also has a 4D cinema, entertainment deck and a slide. On top of that, there is a free Internet kiosk, free city tour available if you have at least five hours of transit, which runs daily at regular times and goes for two hours. Similarly, all the rest on the Best Airport list offer the same, in varying degrees of convenience, comfort and efficiency.

More than 70 million passengers passed through Dubai International’s three terminals in 2014, making it the busiest airport in the world. The yearly passenger figure is expected to hit 100 million by 2020, when the emirate hosts the long-awaited World Expo.

Since it opened in 1960, Dubai International Airport has evolved to become not just a vital airline hub, but also an experience in itself. Nowadays, even if passengers don’t have time to get out and experience the city, the airport offers more than enough through entertainment and other indulgences to spend the hours between connecting flights.

Ah, when can we have an airport similar to them?

Will we continue to hear about plans and more plans? Why didn’t we think about it 20 years prior? We’ve heard about a number of proposals to build our “dream” airport in Laguna, Sangley, Bulacan, eastern board of Quezon province and Clark. Will they all just be plans?

If we want to make it big in tourism, we should think big and address some lingering issues now, like air traffic brought by congestions on runways of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia). We need more than just two runways to declog arriving aircraft during peak hours. For as long as these are treated with short-term, Band-Aid solutions—until the next term, we will not emerge on the airport efficiency category list, and tourists, who judge a country by the kind of airport they see, will shy away.

Great airports boost a country’s tourism program. It is the first thing tourists see the moment they step out of the plane. It goes without saying that it is the window to our soul, and is often used by a nation as a way of expressing pride.

“Every major airport is a status symbol trying to demonstrate the wealth and power of a country,” Richard Gammon, global director of aviation and transportation of HOK (Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum), the largest US-based architecture and engineering firm, said.

Mega-airports take long to build. Beautifully designed airports need great architects and interior designers who benchmark their work on some of the world’s best. Efficient airports need the best engineers and manpower to run. If we want our tourist target figures to leapfrog to a number it has never been, we must do something we have never done—build that dream airport now, because it will take years to finish.

A super airport could have gotten us into fourth spot in the Asean Tourist Arrival ranking. Indonesia has long claimed it. Vietnam has overtaken us and Cambodia is breathing down our neck. Without a super infrastructure, all our tourism promotions, advertising and marketing efforts will go to naught.

We heard about building a new “aerotropolis” in a 2,500-hectare property in Bulacan to eventually replace the Naia with multiple runways serving 50 million to 100 million passengers yearly. We heard about a consortium planning to reclaim 2,500 hectares of land in Sangley Point, Cavite, to be converted into a new international airport, seaport and industrial estate. Likewise, a group has also offered to assume operations and develop Clark Airport, modernize the facility, build new terminals and have three parallel runaways over a 50-year concession period. We are waiting with bated breath.

Whether it is in Sangley, Clark, Bulacan or wherever, our government officials must think of the next generation of Filipinos and our country’s pride.Our next-generation airport must be built now and the government should not prolong it any longer.

New generation of airport design is increasingly focusing on the airport as a destination, instead of just a thoroughfare. “We spend so much time in airports now and architects are revisiting how to make airports friendlier places to spend that time, and creating the ideal guest experience from checking in to arrival time,” Gammon said.

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