Portal of the jet age
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2016 - 9:00am

We’ve been using airplanes to travel domestically and internationally for over 80 years. Until the 1960s this travel was on craft powered by piston engines and propellers. Fifty years ago, we entered the jet age with carriers using the workhorse Boeing 707s.

The change in technology with jets and turboprop planes (essentially jet engines driving a propeller) led to the need for longer runways and bigger terminals. I’ve written before about our air terminals from before WWII to our current four terminals at the Manila International Airport complex in Pasay/Paranaque, but I recently unearthed an old stash of images and a feature in a construction magazine that justifies another look back.

Our first post-war international airport was the shack at Nichols Field. This is now Terminal Four (which recently has been upgraded and is now arguably the most comfortable of all four terminals, maybe also because it is not as big and crowded).

The operationalization of the airport’s second runway in the ’50s (the one that runs from SLEX towards the Manila Bay) required a better located terminal and one big enough to cater to larger volumes of passengers. A new Manila International Airport terminal was also needed, as the bigger jetliners were becoming the norm for international travel.

An article from The Philippine Architecture, Engineering and Construction Record October 1961 edition, reports the origins of original MIA terminal, “The Philippines, having long felt the need of a modern and fast air (system) … as a result of the increased volume of air passenger and freight services, had conceived the construction of a modern airport terminal building. With the able leadership of President Ramon Magsaysay and his competent advisers, (a plan was worked out) with the Department of Commerce and Industry through the Civil Aeronautics Administration.”

In 1954 Magsaysay gave the Bureau of Public Works the orders to implement designs prepared by noted government architect Federico Ilustre. Ilustre had apprenticed with Juan Nakpil before the war. After Liberation, he won the competition for the Quezon Memorial. He became the chief architect of the Bureau of Public Works, the precursor of today’s DPWH.

Construction started in September 1956 with the focus on the international finger that would have the capacity to service several jetliners for overseas destinations. The finger would accommodate up to five regular jetliners but there were no passenger bridges. Instead, people had to walk to their planes (much like they now have to do half a century later).

The main building was completed within the term of President Carlos P. Garcia, who inaugurated it in Sept. 1961, exactly five years after the start of construction. It cost P 7.25 million. This was when the exchange rate was two pesos to one US dollar.

The magazine featured the main spaces in the terminal including the lounges and waiting areas, all furnished with Philippine-made furniture. Ilustre also had the government commission Manansala to paint a mural depicting Filipino culture. It graced the main lobby along with a giant globe donated by IBM.

The magazine also reported that the building used 8,400 cubic meters of concrete and 120,000 tons steel bars for reinforcement. The complex boasted the use of mostly local materials except for key electrical equipment, some fittings, and an innovation called escalators (by Hitachi from Japan). Delays in construction were attributed to the difficulty in procuring the dollar allocations necessary for these purchases. Dollar use for importing was strictly regulated then.

Although the main structure was complete and operational, the remaining section of the concave structure was only finished under the next administration of President Diosdado Macapagal.

The Manila International Airport terminal was the most modern in South East Asia until the mid 1960s. Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur followed with larger facilities in the late 1960s. By the late 1970s the MIA was looking run down. This led to a full renovation of the building including the removal of the distinctive brise soliel panels on its façade. For a while it took the brutalist form popularized by the CCP.

The building suffered a major fire and two decades after it opened it was replaced by the current NAIA1 at an adjacent site, designed by National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin. Another two decades later NAIA Terminal 2 (Centennial) was built on the original MIA site.

NAIA 3 was supposed to open a few years later but it took a decade to get operational due to the controversies surrounding its construction.



The culture of jet travel has changed in the last half century. Many more Filipinos travel because of the OFW phenomenon and the rise of budget airlines. The golden age of jet travel where one dressed to the nines and were served meals with real cutlery are gone (unless you travel first class).

What has changed, too, is the fact that our portals to the country are now designed by foreign architects, interior designers and engineers. Few of our air terminals have permanent murals, sculpture or artwork by Filpinos. Billboards have replaced art.

What has not changed much it seems, or has come back, is the terror of going through inspections. The abusive customs and security personnel (not all of them of course) of the ’60s to the ’90s, have been replaced by a reported syndicate victimizing travelers with the “laglag-bala” scam. Travelers feel uneasy getting in and out of our terminals.

Philippine air terminals (in fact, all terminals of any kind) leave much to be desired in terms of amenities — especially toilets, art, efficiency, and the attitude of its personnel. Many of our terminals look like run-down government offices.

I hope that when we do have to transfer the complex, that these new portals to the Philippines truly reflect Filipino creative talent in architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and engineering. I long for an airport that also showcases Filipino art, not just rondallas at the gate but a total environment of warmth, hospitality and true service.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

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