Rip-offs, frustration greet balikbayans

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - June 17, 2021 - 12:00am

Many balikbayans, having received full immunization against COVID-19 and more confident to visit their homeland to see family and friends after more than a year of travel restrictions, are starting to seek refunds on previously bought plane tickets.

Their eagerness apparently is turning to irritation the moment their plane touches down on Philippine soil. According to one balikbayan, upon arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from the US, they were made to wait inside the airplane for a doctor and his staff to check everyone’s temperature and vaccination records.

This would not have been a big problem if the plane carried just a few passengers. But if there are more than 300 onboard, going through each and every passenger inside the plane is guaranteed to add another hour of waiting to an already long trans-Atlantic flight.

Topping their frustration was having to be told that they had to undergo a 10-day quarantine because only vaccinations received in the Philippines allow them a shorter seven-day quarantine period.

With the protestations coming from Filipinos and balikbayans, the poor doctor and his staff had to contend with the unbridled anger. While admitting to understanding the righteousness of the complaints, the doctor insisted his hands were tied and he had to follow rules.

The passengers argued that the government had already reduced quarantine requirements for inbound travellers to seven days max starting June 16, which was a few days away from when the passengers arrived. In the end, the doctor gave two email addresses to which the complainants could send their grievances and appeals for a shorter quarantine period.

High prices

The travesty does not end with the quarantine issue. Apparently, they had to pay for a swab test (to be conducted on the sixth day of their quarantine) to a company that turned out to be only a contractor or agent for an actual laboratory facility.

The swab test cost was P4,000. A discount for senior citizens brings it down to P3,200. Those who can afford may take this amount lightly, but the moral issue is about some parties raking it in at the expense of returning Filipinos and balikbayans.

Clearly, the amount could have been lower given current rates today, which have significantly dropped compared to several months ago. Perhaps the extraordinary amount is for the service fee of the company interceding for the lab.

There was another long queue for all the 300-plus passengers to pre-pay their swab tests. Those who were first in line did not wait long, but those at the end easily lost another hour before their payment could be processed and were cleared to proceed to their assigned quarantine hotels.

The rip-off continued, according to the passenger, when booking for transfers to their quarantine hotels. The cheapest sedan was quoted at P2,200, and a van at P3,500 by another “accredited” airport transportation company.

To balikbayans who travel to the Philippines regularly, the “new normal” transportation cost simply represent another scheme hatched by some sleazy airport officials to earn “commission” from the higher fees. It just leaves a bad taste for our returning countrymen who feel they are being fleeced of their precious money.

Diverted flights

A breakdown in communication lines and chain of command also developed in a frustrating situation for some direct international flights to Cebu when the Cebu governor allowed swabbing upon arrival and quarantines for only two days if results turned out negative.

Apparently, this shortened quarantine period was not in accordance with the set protocols of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases. In a battle of wills, since the governor did not want to conform, the direct flights to Cebu were diverted to Manila.

One can imagine the inconveniences created for passengers. According to my informant, the mid-air diversions happened more than once, eventually forcing the Cebu governor to conform to the arrival protocols dictated by the IATF.

The chaotic situation was finally firmly resolved after no less than the President had to step in to say that Cebu must follow the travel protocols that the IATF dictated.

Some of the passengers who were able to enter with just two days of quarantine were smiling ear to ear.

Returning to near normal

Of course, such stories can just be viewed as hiccups in a situation where airline travel is trying to return to near normal. The pandemic is still a global health issue, and the reported emergence of new variants that are transmissible even in vaccinated persons are being closely monitored.

For a country whose main weapon in containing rising infections are lockdown orders, even at the expense of the livelihood of millions of Filipinos, it will take time for inbound travellers, even those fully immunized, to expect that strict quarantine measures will ease soon.

Our balikbayans are well aware of the travel protocol differences among countries, and try their best to conform to rules. It is in the unwritten procedures – having their temperature and vaccination cards examined inside the plane, excessively priced vehicle transfer rates – that throw them off.

Our airport officials should come up with better answers that take into account the incoming passengers’ convenience while complying with the general directives set by the IATF. This includes setting up reasonable prices for the mandatory swabs and other charges.

As one passenger who felt victimized vented out: “They (airport officials) think we are stupid, but they are stupid to think that way.” Robbery, indeed, happening in broad daylight.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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