Modern Living

Manila’s International Airport: Gateway to the world

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren -
Emerging slowly on the one side of the nation’s premier airport is a kilometer-long slab that will be NAIA Terminal 3. It has taken over a decade since its conception for the structure to get to this point. The project is still embroiled in controversy that threatens to ground the country’s flight to higher "developed" status – one already achieved by progressive Asian countries and reflected in their respective international airports.

Singapore’s Changi, Kuala Lumpur’s Sepang and Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok, high-tech, sleek and modern, rate as world-class terminals that welcome tens of millions of visitors (and investors) to their respective countries. Until the 1960s, Manila was the most progressive of Southeast Asian nations. The Manila International Airport was the most modern airport then. It has been downhill ever since, though a freefall slowed somewhat with the addition of two terminals in the 1980s and 1990s. Terminal 3 hopes to bring us at level with our neighbors and the world.
Of Airports And Terminals
The new terminal may be designated No. 3, but it is actually the fifth structure to rise in the complex. In fact, the airport in Parañaque is the fourth facility to have served the city. This is not counting Manila Bay, which the pre-war Clipper planes used as their aqueous runway. Let’s look then at a short history of airports in our city, the architecture of the terminals, and their urban planning to gain insight on their impact on our metropolis and its surrounding region.

Commercial aviation in the Philippines has a history that goes as far back as 76 years. The first regular air services were launched in 1925, not in Manila but in the Visayas. That year, Ilongo aviator Jose Tinsay ran a service across the 43-kilometer Guimaras Strait between Iloilo and Bacolod. It ran infrequently until the early 1930s.

This was followed by Andres Soriano’s Philippine Aerial Taxi Company (PATCO), forerunner of PAL, which started regular runs between Manila and Baguio in 1931 using single-engine aircraft. It operated for eight years servicing mostly the gold mines in the north.

Following up Tinsay’s first attempt was Don Eugenio Lopez, the sugar and shipping magnate, who launched the Iloilo-Negros Air Express Company (INAEC) in 1932. Within a year, regular services started between Manila, Bacolod, Iloilo and Cebu. This expanded in another two years to Zamboanga and Davao. INAEC’s fleet consisted of three-engine aircraft, which were much safer than those previously used by other services.
The Manila Airfields
Aviation in the Philippines boomed despite the great depression in the West. This was seen in the number of airfields that sprouted – about 60 airfields all over the country were operational by the end of the 1930s. The airports in the provinces were mostly grass or dirt strips with basic sheds used as terminals but they helped connect over seven thousand islands on this archipelago.

Manila had four airfields. Lopez’s INAEC used a strip north of the city, near the new Bonifacio Monument, called Grace Park (airfields were also called "parks" then). The second civilian airfield was Nielson. It was named after Lorrie R. Nielson, an American businessman, who with other expats, built the tower and airfield in 1937.

The architecture of the tower was in the late Art Deco style, also known as Streamline Moderne. The Jai Alai, the old Meralco headquarters and the Rizal Memorial Stadium are examples of this style. I can find no record of the architect of this structure, which thankfully has survived and been wonderfully conserved and adaptively re-used, as a library by the Ayala Foundation. (For this, the Filipinas Heritage Library of the Ayala Foundation was recognized with awards from the NCCA locally, and internationally from the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation for 2001.)

The two other airfields were military-owned. The first was located at the rear of Camp Murphy (now Camp Aguinaldo, near White Plains). The second was Nichols airfield at Camp William McKinley, which at the time stretched almost to the bay and was home of the city’s air defenses.

There was a fifth "airfield." This was actually Manila Bay, as long-range aircraft of the day were seaplanes. On Nov. 25, 1935, the first Pan American Airways clipper landed in Manila Bay and docked at the Manila Hotel. This launched regular services across the Pacific and was hailed worldwide as a landmark event for aviation. Regular passenger flights began a year later with the seaplanes docking in Cavite.
Aviation Boom Downed By War
In 1937, INAEC purchased its own seaplane, a Sikorsky S-43 amphibian. It carried 16 passengers and had steward service, the first in the country. INAEC was a success and carried 2,000 passengers a month by the end of the decade. It added Baguio as a destination in 1941. With the coming of the war came tragedy, as the entire INAEC fleet was destroyed in a Japanese raid 10 days after Pearl Harbor.

Competing with INAEC was Andres Soriano who, with other big investors like Juan Elizalde, incorporated Philippine Air Lines in early 1941. The first PAL flight took off from Nielson Airport on March 13, 1941. The destination was Baguio. That same year, services were started to Legaspi, Daet, Naga, Masbate, Tacloban and Cebu. Soriano even convinced President Manuel Quezon to support the fledgling airline. The government bought a 34 percent share in the company, increasing capitalization substantially. Plans were afoot to launch services internationally to Hong Kong but war struck. The PAL fleet was commandeered into service and became part of the famous "bamboo fleet" ferrying pilots and medical supplies before the country finally fell to the Japanese.

During the occupation, the Japanese continued airline service within its sphere of influence. There were direct flights to Tokyo. The Japanese improved both the Nielson and Nichols fields. These managed to escape much damage during the liberation and served to launch immediate post-war aviation operations.
Postwar Recovery And The First Mia
Both Andres Soriano and Eugenio Lopez were quick to restart, with Lopez leading in the first year. INAEC converted to the Far Eastern Transport Inc. (FEATI) and the first flights to Iloilo started in Nov. 1945 using Grace Park as a base. FEATI flights to Hong Kong and Bangkok began in May the next year, making the airline the first to go regional. I can find no records of the terminal structure though but assume that a tower and passenger waiting areas were provided.

Soriano quickly caught up with the first trans-Pacific flight to California on July 4, 1946 marking Philippine Independence Day. Political and business maneuvering forced a merger of the two companies the following year with Lopez selling FEATI to PAL for over P3 million. Despite threats from smaller outfits in the business, the skies were cleared for PAL to dominate the local domestic routes. PAL also had plans to break into the international arena, being one of the first world airlines to gear up for the post-war boom in travel.

PAL flew the robust but uncomfortable DC-3s and DC-4s out of Nielson airport. It resumed operations in Feb. 1946 after repairs to Nielson Tower and the airfield costing P 1 million. With longer-range pressurized aircraft like the DC-6s arriving in 1948, and a government directive, operations moved to Nichols field. Nichols became the official Manila International Airport that year with Nielson Airport and Grace Park closing down and eventually converting to real estate development.
The Fifties And The First Two Mias
The Manila International Airport at Nichols had a simple one-story terminal where the current domestic terminal is located. Improvements were added slowly and a second runway exclusively for international flights was added in 1953. Parallel to these improvements was a strong bid by PAL to compete against the big boys like Pan American Airways for a slice of the world market.

Andres Soriano’s PAL almost achieved this but for the intervention of Pan Am, which used its influence to block PAL’s planned round-the-world service. Support from the government was also not forthcoming, deciding as it did to direct PAL to improve the domestic network (although the government did not do its share to improve airport facilities in the provinces).

Despite the government’s neglect of physical facilities, aviation grew and improved. The Philippines was recovering from the war and the Huk interlude. A strong nationalist focus led to a quickly improving economy based on increasing efficiency in agriculture and an emerging industrial base. By the late 1950s, the Philippines was head and shoulders above the rest of Southeast Asia (before Western politico-economic forces imposed their hegemony on us). This boom was to be reflected in a new airport, a new improved portal to a proud Philippines.

Both domestic and international aviation increased so much that the MIA terminal was spilling over by the late ’50s. A decision was made to separate domestic operations and build a new international terminal a few kilometers south of the then current one. The job of designing the new terminal went to the Department of Public Works and its chief architect, Federico Ilustre.

Ilustre, a graduate of the Mapua Institute of Technology in 1936, was supervising architect of the Bureau of Public Works since 1949 and chief of the Division of Architecture from 1954 until the Sixties when he retired. He is known for his competition-winning design for the Quezon Memorial Monument as well as for a slew of civic structures like the GSIS and the Veterans Memorial Building, both on Arroceros St., and the Quirino Grandstand.
The New MIA, A Sixties Icon
The new Manila International Airport terminal opened in Sept., 1961. It marked the start of the jet age (although the so-called "jet-props" were in service since the mid-Fifties and a Pan Am jet clipper first landed in 1960). The new breed of jetliners – the DC-8s and Boeing 707s could now land in Manila and be serviced by a spanking new terminal.

Architect Ilustre’s design for the new terminal was in the international style fashionable then. The main mass was laid out in an arc reminiscent of Ilustre’s designs for government buildings along the perimeter of the Quezon City elliptical center. The building’s entrance canopies were expressive statements in cantilevered concrete while the façade was a composition of sunshade screens. The parking lot in front had a grand pool, space-age flagpole and neat Luneta-type landscaping.

The interiors of the new MIA, at 22,000 meters square, were expansive compared to its cramped predecessor. Ilustre provided a double-height lobby, which was embellished with a large mural depicting Filipino life (one of two, the other being on the second floor and depicting the story of aviation, both by Malang, but I may be wrong as I can find no record). A large globe of blown steel housing an electronic clock, that gave the time in various capitals of the world, was a popular attraction as was the Hall of Flags, one for each of the countries that flew to Manila.

The building also had the country’s first escalator (a Hitachi machine) installed. It led passengers to the facilities on the second floor. This level had restaurants, offices and even a beauty parlor – Belle’s Beauty Salon, so very Sixties! Well-wishers, who we know are legion per departing and arriving Filipinos, could go out to an outdoor deck to wave at passengers and gawk at the new-fangled jetliners.

The MIA was reported to be the most modern in Southeast Asia and also the most profitable. It yielded half a million pesos a month in rentals. It handled over a hundred flights a week and a maximum of 12 aircraft at a time (although it did not have skybridges). All in all, it was a proud product of Filipino architecture and engineering as well as a showcase of Filipino craftsmanship and public art.

Local folks flocked in droves to the airport in these first few years. The structure was a symbol of a nation knocking at the doors of modernity and self-reliance. Unfortunately, this illusion lasted only a few years. The political and economic structure of the country took a wrong direction and even an international airport could not steer the country to a better destination.

By the time I first used the terminal in the mid-Seventies, it had deteriorated into a symbol of the country’s sorry state – decrepit, inefficient, malodorous, and crammed with Filipinos trying to escape. The MIA had become a portal of a country held prisoner by wardens out to squeeze every drop of blood from an exploited citizenry while PAL became almost a private ferrying service for officials on jet-setting junkets. (To be continued)
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HCS Notes: There will be another of the popular HCS walking tours tomorrow, Nov.11. This one will cover fascinating Escolta, the famous pre-war shopping district of Manila. Tour guide will be the ebullient Carlos P. Celdran. Please call the HCS at 527- 21-98 for reservations.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at [email protected].










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