It was not until today that I realized the changes in the Manila NAIA Terminal 3.
I was going to fly to Iloilo solo aboard AirPhil Express, formerly PAL Express and short for Air Philippines, the low-cost carrier of Philippine Airlines (*Update 4/2013: they changed the name again this year to PAL Express).
Finding the right gate for my drop-off was easy. From outside, it was visible that the Cebu Pacific check-in counters were near Gate 1. I asked to be dropped off at Gate 2 when I saw the AirPhil Express check-in counters inside. Gate 3 was nearer to the counters but it was closed. I did not go beyond Gate 3 and the AirPhil Express counter so I’m not sure what other airlines are there. As far as I know, NAIA 3 was for domestic travel in the Philippines and other Philippine low-cost carriers (LCCs) were stationed there. The flag carrier Philippine Airlines (all domestic and international) occupied the whole NAIA 2 Centennial Airport for its use. It is always best to check the tickets for the correct one before going to the airport. There is a NAIA 1, NAIA 2 or Centennial, NAIA 3 and another Domestic Terminal (one "airport", 4 terminals) and it can get confusing even for locals like me. (*Update 4/2013: some PAL Express flights are assigned to NAIA 2 now, depends on the destination so check your ticket).
My 1-hour flight was scheduled at 5 a.m. My mind was made up and I was planning to catch a later flight. In TV and from stories, I knew airlines would happily accommodate the changes and it wouldn’t cost a dime. Unfortunately, the airline personnel told me that I had to pay a lot more to get on that 10 a.m. plane. I was ready to go since I didn’t need the extra calculations and him repeating over and over if I still wanted to change flights after I told him no more. I told myself I would reconsider taking an early flight next time because the check-in time is usually in the afternoon and I only plan to sleep the morning away in the hotel anyway.
Check-in time should be at least 45 minutes before a domestic flight here. I was surprised that the airport was bustling at 4 a.m. But then I thought LCCs don’t earn money while the plane is on land. It took some time to get in the airport because of the long line outside. Check-in clerks were also busy with flights to San Jose, Davao, Iloilo and Cebu at this early hour. There was already a line for the Iloilo flight too. The paging system was announcing non-stop that the Cebu Pacific flight for Iloilo was calling passengers for boarding. They beat AirPhil Express with an earlier flight although I’m not sure if the LCC strategy to have lower fees would attract people to board that 4 a.m. flight.
I didn’t remember this now-organized side of the airport being opened last time. It spotted the passenger terminal fee booth easily and paid P200. There was another boarding pass check then a scanner where you have to take off your shoes. I knew Delifrance would be there for that breakfast treat. I ordered an egg mayo sandwich in a croissant. I felt a little mugged when I paid for that 350mL bottled water for P30. While having my breakfast, I noticed that there were 3 stores selling a wide selection of travel essentials and branded slippers such as Havaiannas, Sanuk and the like (great move for them) to my right (so do not panic if you forgot your travel essentials, only if you don't have money). The restroom was located after one of those stores.
I proceeded to Gate 131. Gates 131-134 were located immediately down an escalator after the bathroom. I shouldn’t have waited a long time to fall in line when the boarding call was made. The first ones to the door got to ride the first shuttle to the plane while we had to wait around 10-20 minutes more on the bus for any more passengers. I guess all flights in NAIA 3 would require a shuttle ride to the plane so there must be a time allowance for that too. The buses looked like old Japan buses from the inside.
When I got to the plane, I realized that there were no first class or business class passengers for LCCs (it actually made sense). The plane was full and we all preferred budget (no meals too). We were boarding a plane because we needed to get somewhere quick without any frills. I also forgot to request for an aisle or window seat so I ended up in the middle and at the back. So much for traveling while my brain was still booting up in the early morning. I guess I was also busy noticing the improvements of NAIA 3. I even forgot to take pictures. Even airport personnel were accommodating and more service-oriented. The place was well-lit and I also couldn’t see the cracks on the walls anymore.