Just when the harried probinsiyano like me starts to breathe more easily as he nears the airport, glad to be leaving behind him the monstrous traffic of Manila that provides daily evidence of official incompetence, he must face a no less daunting crucible— that horrible experience called “checking in.” I write of my experience as a frequent flier to and from Tuguegarao, the capital city of Cagayan. So, what I describe is not some isolated incident but what is disturbingly the common experience of all who are crammed into Naia 3.
I regularly take Cebu Pacific because it has more flights to Tuguegarao, uses larger aircraft, and flies in and out of Tuguegarao earlier. Philippine Airlines by contrast arrives late in the afternoon, if it ever arrives at all, and flies out five minutes before “sunset limitation” into the turbulent skies of late afternoon. Never mind that Cebu Pacific must routinely delay its departures because of traffic conditions at the airport. It is not to blame for that. Government is, for the gross stupidity of maintaining four terminals using only one or two runways!
It used to be the case that every destination had its own counter, with other counters helping in whenever there was a surge in the number of passengers. But, contrary to all good sense, the company seems to have a “herd-fetish” because now, all passengers to all destinations, whether terrestrial or extraterrestrial, must mill around the same counters. And that long, agonizing wait is the piece de resistance of the perfectly honed scheme of torture visited on the passenger. Every effort is made to keep the lines long, and the passengers cursing under their breath as they await their turn. No, it is not that the personnel are overwhelmed. In fact it is not uncommon to see a group of them huddled in some corner taking up the spirited discussion left off by Parmenides and company: the insoluble problem of the one and the many!
As passengers mark the agonizingly slow march of minutes with children scampering, shrieking, peeing and pooping all around you, threatening to divest you of your last shred of sanity, your benevolent disposition notwithstanding, murder soon seems an attractive proposition when you see the employee at the “Last Call Counter” doing nothing because there are no last calls, smiling sympathetically at the passengers begging her to pay them heed, which she will never do because they are not on “last call”. In total disbelief, I watched as a counter clerk, who obviously had some trouble with a passenger’s ticket, had to consult another employee. The modern marvels of communication notwithstanding, he made use of stone-age means: he left his desk, smiled sweetly at the bedraggled passengers, gave them a “pabebe” wave as he made his way to his superior’s lair. It was a full 20 minutes before he returned to his station and, from the look of puzzlement on his face, still bewildered by the very same problem that sent him wandering off in the first place. I was irate because I was next in line. Soon it was my turn, but as luck would have it, the computer system had to be rebooted at just that instant. This gave the counter clerk the excuse to take one more excursion, this time to check on the latest escapade of Alden and Yaya Dub. Soon there were giggles in one corner where airline employees had once more congregated, this time to speculate on the reasons that Nora Aunor was not running for President. The result was nothing less than a long line of annoyed passengers dangerously nurturing a taste for lynching, with only three counters attending to them.
Another clerk finally arrived. She was cheerful and courteous but impertinent. Aside from asking me to recite a litany of what I had packed into my luggage, she read off a list of endangered species that I might have concealed in my bags: parrots, cockatiels, hedgehogs, chimpanzees, moon bears, gorillas! I preempted her on what I correctly foresaw were the next questions: Did I have open heart surgery lately, or probably a brain replacement? Even before I was asked, I gave assurances I was no zombie. The passenger in front of the neighboring kiosk was not as fortunate. The clerk wanted to be assured of her health in embarrassing detail: Any lumps anywhere? Did her last sexual activity compromise her cardiac functioning? Was she in full possession of her mental faculties? I wonder why passengers must be harassed by questions like this that would better be asked of candidates for public office!
Finally, I made my way to the assigned gate, my cabin bag in tow, and clutching a bag of pasalubongs with my free hand. Finding an empty seat, I plopped down, thankful that my ordeal had come to an end, but the canticle of gratitude came too soon. Not long after, we were told that the gate assignment had been changed, and we were to haul ourselves up a flight of steps to another gate. This time there were no more seats available, because, in its supreme wisdom, airport management had decided that it would make for a tourist attraction to have all passengers of 20 destinations waiting at the same gate! Delightful, don’t you think?