And it’s not because they’re a bad airline. It’s because they fly into and out of Manila’s NAIA Terminal 2, which is a disaster.
See, my Manila trip this week was a business trip. My company normally books Cathay Pacific for the route. Cathay Pacific flies into and out of NAIA terminal 1, as do most international flights. So it’s not only a crappy old terminal but the lines at immigration can be ridiculously long and slow moving.
I asked my company if I could fly Cebu Pacific instead. It flies into and out of Terminal 3, which is a new terminal and not heavily used. You zoom through immigration. Plus it’s the closest terminal to where I’d be staying. And it’s a “budget” airline. The ticket price would have been at least HK$1,000 cheaper than CX.
But I was told this is against company policy. We are not allowed to book our own travel. The company only uses a single travel agent and that agent can’t book Cebu Pacific. And, no, they can’t make an exception for me, even if it would save the company money.
As it turns out, there were no available flights on Cathay for my return flight, so they booked me on Philippines Airlines instead. Same price as Cathay.
Hong Kong to Manila
Philippines Airlines doesn’t get to use Terminal 1 at HKIA, it uses Terminal 2, which is not really a terminal, it’s a series of check-in counters surrounded by a crappy over-priced shopping mall. After you check in, you have to go down two sets of escalators, walk under the train tracks, and up three sets of escalators to get to Terminal 1 to go through immigration and security and go to the gate.
On arrival at NAIA Terminal 2, it took one hour to get my luggage. The staff said the bags were being x-rayed, and apparently this was one bag at a time, and I don’t know why this was even necessary. Weren’t the bags x-rayed before they were put on the plane? Did they think that terrorists somehow snuck on the plane in mid-air and hid bombs in the suitcases?
Oh, and there was no air conditioning there either. Finally one woman, Asian, started screaming at one of the staff there. She was holding her young son. “How can you do this to us? Look at the babies! Look at the babies!” Well, she may have been right, but she was screaming at a guy who just worked the luggage belt.
So someone else, Caucasian with an eastern European accent, started screaming at her. “Don’t use that bad language! What’s wrong with you? You come here and you think you can yell at people because this is the Philippines? You wait like everybody else!”
Bags arrived, entertainment over.
Then you walk past customs and you’re immediately outside. Where there are no ATMs. There are only currency exchange counters giving you crappy rates. I changed just enough to cover my taxi ride to the hotel, since I already knew there’s an HSBC in the same building.
And then there are no meter taxis. Only “coupon” taxis, which charge on average 2 to 3 times over what a metered taxi would cost for a ride into town. And even if I’m getting reimbursed for the taxi fare, something in me won’t let me pay those kind of stupid rates. So I had to schlep upstairs to the departure area and grab a taxi that had just dropped people off.
Manila to Hong Kong
The World Economic Forum is meeting in Manila. Roads are closed and there’s gridlock everywhere. Even worse than usual. But I know this in advance and so I head to the airport plenty early. At one point, when the taxi was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on EDSA just before Makati, the driver turned to me and asked me what time is my flight. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’ve got plenty of time. You can see I’m sitting here relaxed and not nervous.” It ended up taking 90 minutes, which was the exact amount I thought it might take.
But once I got to the airport, it took more than an hour to check in and go through immigration. And yes, you guessed it, no air conditioning. It was 35 degrees outside and within 30 minutes I was a sweaty mess. I think I would not have wanted to sit next to me on the plane.
So you line up to check in. Then another line to pay your airport tax, because apparently they can’t figure out how to collect this when you pay for your plane ticket, like almost every other airport in the entire world. That was a short line.
Then onto the miles long line for immigration. The sign simply said “Immigration” with an arrow. After 10 minutes on the line, a guard told me that line was for FIlipinos only and not for foreigners, and that I had to go all the way to the other end of the terminal. “Where’s the sign that says this line is Filipino only?” I asked. I knew it was pointless, he’s just the guy standing there, not the guy in charge of signs.
The foreigner line was even longer. I’d say easily 100 people on the line for just two counters. And then for some reason they let a tour group of about 20 people cut the line. All I could do was stand there and sweat.
The only saving graces were that once I finally got through immigration, the security line moved fast and there was a well-air-conditioned smoking room right next to my boarding gate.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. I know the Philippines is a poor country, the government is rife with corruption and a lot of people avoid paying their taxes, leaving precious little left over for decent infrastructure.
But on this trip I also went to the new SM Aura mall at the Fort, which was huge and modern and everything worked perfectly. I went to Greenbelt, which is always a great place for shopping, eating, drinking, hanging out. And at the SM Mega Mall they added an entire new higher end building and even though it wasn’t finished yet, the bits that were working were all world class.
Maybe what they need to do in Manila is let SM and Ayala build the airport?
Oh, since I was asking about some roaming alternatives in a previous post, I guess I should let you know that I went the path of least resistance and decided to only go with a local SIM card. The problem then was that I had to go to 6 different 7-11s and Mini-stops till I found one that had the nano SIM that fits the iPhone 5s. It was from SMART and half the time I couldn’t connect to the Internet at all (even with good reception) and when I could get online, it was mostly so slow that it was next to useless. So a waste of money, but just a couple hundred pesos, around US$5, no big loss.
A Fun Taxi Ride
Taxi rides in Manila are always fun. Actually I never have a problem getting a driver who will use the meter (except when it’s raining). Mostly they’re nice and we have good conversations.
Thursday night, I waited to go out until almost 9 PM. I was hoping that the traffic around Ortigas and along EDSA might have died down by then. But with the World Economic Forum and lots of road construction, it was still seriously bad. I had to wait 15 minutes for a taxi, and the driver told me it was gridlock everywhere and that I was lucky to get a cab in just 15 minutes, at the malls they’re waiting 2 hours.
So, yes, he hit the meter right away, but he didn’t want to take EDSA and he didn’t want to take C-5. He took me through back streets and barangays, down roads filled with kids playing ball in the street and cats lying out in the middle of the road scratching themselves. Every time we’d hit a main street he’d cry out, “Oh my god, traff-eek!” But I had to say to him, “You really know Manila!”
And then we got to Rockwell. And all of a sudden he practically started crying. “My stomach hungry, sir! My stomach hungry!”
No, he wasn’t trying to hit me up for money. He wanted me to get out of the taxi in Rockwell and switch to another so he could go eat. “So many other taxi here sir, easy for you. My stomach hungry!” At first I refused. I tried telling him that I hadn’t had dinner yet either. That didn’t mean anything to him. Then as we turned onto the road that leads from Rockwell to Burgos, and it was bumper to bumper, he started up with the “Oh my god, my stomach hungry sir!” again. So finally I paid him and got out.
So I get another taxi and finally reached Greenbelt. There was a massive line of people standing there at 10 PM waiting for taxis. I felt lucky to have reached there while some restaurants were still open. I had no idea what I wanted to eat and ended up having some surprisingly good pasta. Then I thought I’d go and have a drink or two over at Sticky Fingers, but the cover band there seemed to have received a list of all the songs I hate and by the time they got to 99 Red Balloons, I couldn’t take it any more and got out of there as fast as I could.
Fortunately, by midnight, things had gotten somewhat back to normal. I had to fight off the swarm of ladyboy hookers who congregate around Landmark late at night, as always, and the first taxi driver that stopped for me had no idea where I was going but the second one was the best driver I had the entire trip and I told him that, handing him 200 pesos and telling him to keep the change (the meter was at around 113).
Anyway, I’m glad to be home.