Cebu Philippines Web Portal OP-ED: THE LOW-SECURITY ZOO

Diligently checking cars for two weeks after a terrorist attack elsewhere, and standing around doing nothing for the rest of the year, is not a good way to ensure security. It's also not good to accept bribes from rent-a-car companies.

Cebuanos are rightly proud of their international airport. It serves as tiny Cebu's gateway to the world, and, as provincial airports go, it isn't bad. Staff are fairly friendly, by the standards of international airports, and this web portal gets positive feedback from, for instance, travellers in wheelchairs.

However, both Cebu's future as a tourist destination and any pride in our airport will come crashing to the ground sooner or later unless something is done to improve security. The current situation is as if the global war on terror never happened, and as if other parts of the Philippines have never been afflicted by any form of terrorism, domestic or international.

The situation is so ridiculous it is actually quite comedic: as soon as a bomb goes off somewhere else in the region - say, Davao, Manila, or Bali - security at the airport will be very tight. Every car entering the airport will be carefully checked; no matter if it is an open jiffy carrying a Japayuki and her dozen or so relatives, most of them consisting of small kids, security staff will use mirrors to check the underchassis, and spend a few minutes poking about the faux Luis Vuitton luggage.

This is good. Security should be tight irrespective of who is passing through.

The problem is that about two or three weeks after the tragedy, depending on the number of casualties, the security staff will go back to their usual way of preventing international terrorism: waving all cars through while engaging in amusing banter with each other.

You can almost imagine the scene; a fat, balding chief of security is busy with his mistress when an aide rushes into the room. "Boss, there's been a terrorist attack in X City!" The chief of security jumps up right, his cheeks still smeared with lipstick. "Beef up security!" he shouts. "Check every car, tricycle and stray dog!" The chief of security lets out a sigh of relief and wipes the sweat from his brow - with his mistress's handkerchief. He then hurries to the nearest church to give thank to the Lord that Cebu was spared, and confesses his sins while he's at it.

This would all be quite funny if it were not a crime of gross negligence to not do your job properly, especially when people's lives are at stake.

Another cause for concern is that the secondary security check within the airport itself - as opposed to the preliminary check on the airport road - is only at the entrance to the Arrivals area. Do the authorities think, perhaps, that it is acceptable for a bomb to go off as long as it is in the Departures area, where only people who have already spent their money in Cebu will be affected?

It is wrong to assume that, having thus far been spared a major atrocity, Cebu is immune to terrorism. Unless security is tight all the time - even in the middle of the night, even during the off season, even months after the most recent headline - that immunity won't last forever. We have been lucky so far. If we are careful, we will continue to be lucky. But the fact is that the authorities are far from careful.

It is not just security that is the issue, either.

The arrivals area of the Mactan-Cebu International Airport is an extreme example of how not to organize an arrivals area. If local government officials in India or Kazakhstan are planning an airport, they would be well-advised to visit Cebu for a lesson on the worst possible mistakes to make.

One problem is blatant racism.

Cebuanos are by nature friendly and gregarious, and place immense value on family ties. Plus, there is the fact that the national economy is in such a mess that the only way to make a decent living is to go abroad. As a consequence, arriving flights are greeted with large numbers of people, i.e. a crowd.

The airport authority's way of dealing with this crowd is to put everyone behind large cross-bars, the way you would isolate monkeys at a zoo. A couple of very strict security guards is on hand to ensure that the monkeys do not leave their enclosure and cross over to the exit, where arriving passengers come streaming out.

The exception is if you are foreign or foreign looking; a brusque "Excuse me!" in an American accent will easily get you past the guards and towards the exit.

The Cebuanos, meanwhile, have to resort to jumping up and down and screeching at their arriving relatives, over three lanes of traffic.

Why can't the authorities do what virtually every other international airport has done, namely extend the exit pathway, with a barrier to separate the welcomers and the passengers? All they'd need to do is put up a low fence - perhaps even just a velvet rope - parallel to the road, extending for about 100 yards.

This would not just provide ample space for the welcomers, who could line the fence and greet their relatives in a civilized manner, but also allow taxis to park in the arrivals area and pick up passengers without having to make the passengers lug their suitcases across the road and up two flights of stairs to the departures area (which, of course, is currently the only place you can get a cab).

This is a simple and easy solution, which could be implemented right away without any problems.

Of course, there is the little matter of a curiously positioned parking area for 5-6 rent-a-car vehicles just next to the arrival area, and the fact that the presence of taxis within sight - as opposed to up the stairs in the departures area - will cut down on the income for the rent-a-car companies, who currently have exclusive access to arriving passengers (via canvassers within the airport building itself).

Hmm. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? How many people are being paid how much by the rent-a-car companies?

April 7, 2006


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