Terminal 1 (T1) is the smallest and oldest of the three international terminals at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL). In this report, we’ll take a look at what departing passengers can expect from this facility, and we’ll see whether it’s still up to the task of handling some of MNL’s burgeoning air traffic nearly four decades after opening.
Note: For the sake of brevity, I shall refer to Ninoy Aquino International Airport (“MNL”) throughout this post using its three-letter IATA code. Terminal 1 will likewise be referred to in abbreviated fashion (“T1”).
The coverage of this report is limited to the departures area of MNL T1. T1’s arrivals zone and MNL’s other terminals will not be described in detail here. Separate reports covering Terminal 2, Terminal 3, and the arrivals zone of T1 are available.
This report draws mainly upon my own experience as a passenger departing from T1, and I plan to update the information presented here after each flight. Facilities, check-in procedures, flight schedules and other details may change at any time without prior notice.
IMPORTANT NOTICE!: This Airport Guide has NOT been updated to reflect changes brought about by the ongoing global health emergency. Because my last visit to MNL took place just before pandemic-related restrictions were rolled out, and because of the very fluid situation around travel bans and border checks related to the emergency, I shall make no attempt to describe the changes here. Please refer to the official websites and/or verified social media channels of your origin and destination airports, your airline, the relevant government agencies, and other reliable sources to collect up-to-date information that’s accurate for your specific circumstances.
Airport name : Ninoy Aquino International Airport (commonly abbreviated as “NAIA”)
IATA code : MNL
ICAO code : RPLL
Country : Philippines
Major city served : Metro Manila
Routes served : International and domestic
Terminals : Four. T1 is purely international, T4 is purely domestic, and T2/T3 are mixed-use. This report is solely focussed on T1.
Passenger traffic (total for all terminals) : 45,082,544 (2018)
Related links : Wikipedia / Flightradar24 / Sleeping in Airports
Report originally prepared after flight taken on : Friday, 01 February 2019
Report updated after flight taken on : Friday, 22 March 2019
LAND TRANSPORT CONNECTIONS
MNL isn’t served by trains. (Note that the railway stations mentioned in this Wikipedia article are too far away to be of any use to most passengers, and are in any case served by commuter trains not designed for people hauling luggage around.)
Road-based transportation is available in the form of buses and taxis, as well as vehicles booked through ride-hailing services (Grab being the dominant player).
Transport company UBE Express operates scheduled bus services between MNL and various points in Greater Manila. Refer to their official website or their Facebook page for current timetables and other announcements. I’ve never taken them myself – schedules and frequencies are quite poor for the route closest to where I live – but they might be a useful option depending on one’s point of origin and the timing of one’s flight.
For travellers going by road, the most straightforward route to/from MNL involves taking the new NAIA Expressway (NAIAX). This elevated toll road links the three largest terminals (T1/T2/T3) to the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) in the east and the Manila–Cavite Expressway (CAVITEX) in the west, and thence to other points in Greater Manila and beyond.
LANDSIDE ZONE (before immigration/security)
T1 is the oldest and smallest amongst MNL’s three international terminals. Completed in 1981, the building crept past its original annual capacity of 4.5 million passengers within two decades. It’s been pretty much bursting at the seams ever since, despite improvements that raised the ceiling to about 6 million a year.
The terminal’s cold, uninviting, depressingly bland façade – typical of the ugly Brutalist style favoured by the government of the day – really doesn’t deserve a closer look…
…so let’s just head straight inside.
There’s a security barrier right before the check-in hall, which is typical of airports in the Philippines. Note that this is in addition to, not in place of, the usual pre-departure security checks next to the immigration zone. Also, bear in mind that only passengers are allowed into the check-in hall; security guards posted at the entrances will inspect passports and tickets before allowing anyone through.
And here we are. The interiors were freshened up in 2015, but the terminal’s cramped footprint doesn’t offer much room for addressing the limitations of its hopelessly outdated 80s-era architecture.
Outdated the architecture might be, but I must confess to being somewhat enamoured of T1’s interiors. It’s got an endearing retro feel, a whiff and whisper of the classic airport from days gone by, unlike the shopping mall atmosphere of the world’s leading terminals or (closer to home) the boring, utilitarian sterility of MNL T3’s hospital-like design scheme. The soaring, airy, naturally lit interiors of T2 are my personal favourite, but T1 – for different reasons – isn’t too far behind in my book.
T1’s check-in counters are arranged along the edges of the main hall. This stands in contrast to the transverse islands one often sees at larger airport terminals, such as at MNL’s T3.
Check-in procedures and counter arrangements will vary depending on the airline. For example, in the case of my February 2019 flight with full-service carrier Korean Air (IATA code: KE), separate lanes were provided for First and Prestige (Business) Class passengers, as well as those who had already checked in online.
As for my March 2019 flight with budget carrier Jeju Air (IATA code: 7C), fewer counters were in use and no special lanes for premium passengers were set up. A separate counter was made available for high-tier members of their loyalty programme.
With limited exceptions, residents of the Philippines must pay a so-called “travel tax” of PHP 1,620 every time they fly out of the country. Some airlines offer passengers the option of pre-paying this tax online at the point of booking, and you may find it already included in the price of tickets purchased from local bricks-and-mortar travel agents. If you’re a resident of the Philippines who is subject to the travel tax and it hasn’t been settled in advance, you’ll need to visit the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) counter in your terminal – off to one side of the check-in lobby in T1’s case – and pay what’s owed before the airline can issue your boarding pass. You’ll be given two copies of the tax receipt, one of which is yours to keep; the other copy will be retained by the check-in agent.
Needless to say, the travel tax should be dealt with before checking in. Otherwise, you’ll be sent over to the TIEZA counter to pay the tax and then back to the check-in counters to retrieve your boarding pass. I should also stress that none of this is relevant to non-residents (like most foreigners on short-term visits), as they’re not subject to the tax in the first place.
With check-in formalities taken care of, let’s poke around and see what else T1 has to offer before we pass through immigration.
FACILITIES OPEN TO NON-PASSENGERS
T1 has two small areas accessible to the general public, one on either side of the main check-in hall. Both have security checkpoints at their respective entrances.
Bear in mind that if you walk out of the check-in lobby to access the public zones, you’ll need to go through the main security checkpoints again in order to get back in.
West Public Zone
There’s a cafeteria and mini-mart in this wing. Slim pickings served in not-particularly-nice surroundings, but I guess it’s better than nothing. (Wait until after immigration for proper café-style options.)
There’s also a small waiting area, bank booths, cash points, and government service counters.
East Public Zone
The main occupant of this wing is a branch of the Jollibee fast food chain. Mass-produced hamburgers, fried chicken, sugary drinks, etc. – in short, a health-conscious diner’s nightmare. Here’s a 360-degree view of the area (not mine; this was taken by another traveller in 2018):
FACILITIES FOR PASSENGERS ONLY (within the check-in lobby)
This part of T1 doesn’t have much to keep the travelling public occupied. The upper floor is used mainly as office space, so there’s no point in going up unless you need to deal directly with airline representatives. (Also, the lifts going up to that level are outside the passenger-only zone of the check-in lobby.)
Within the passenger-only area, you’ll find bureaux de change…
…as well as luggage wrapping services and telecommunications booths (near the exits leading to the two public zones).
The check-in lobby has two sets of toilets, accessed via corridors on either side of the glass doors leading into the immigration area.
And that’s about it. Let’s carry on.
The immigration zone is right through these doors.
You’ll find a standing desk supplied with departure forms on the left side, just after the entrance. It can get rather crowded over there, so I’d strongly suggest completing the paperwork (if your airline or agent supplies a blank form) before you even enter the immigration zone.
Here’s an image of the departure form (current as of March 2019):
Separate counters are provided for local and foreign passport holders, with special lanes set up for priority passengers and overseas workers. Staff will occasionally direct passengers towards counters with short queues, even if it’s for a different type of user.
There’s the usual gauntlet of security checks to go through after immigration, and then we’ll finally see ourselves standing in T1’s…
AIRSIDE/RESTRICTED ZONE (after immigration/security)
Main Retail/Dining Area
Most of T1’s shops and dining facilities are concentrated in the building’s mid-section, right after immigration/security. On the following satellite view, that’s the rectangular block connecting the (roughly) trapezoidal street-side portion of T1 to the two arms splayed out below.
Here’s a summary of the visual survey that follows. We’ll take the left passage from security, go straight down one side of T1’s mid-section up to the café zone at the end, then turn right into the parallel corridor on the other side, and finally walk back up the mid-section towards security.
Fresh out of the scanners and pat-downs, you’re immediately thrust into T1’s duty-free retail space.
A small waiting area’s been set up next to the duty-free zone, flanked by two shops selling food and beverages. There’s a liquor store directly opposite the Piazza café shown below. You’ll also come across an enclosed play room for passengers travelling with children.
Two cafés with dedicated seating areas are located at the far end. The photographs can be a bit misleading: at peak times, empty tables can be quite hard to come by.
Water stations with paper cup dispensers are available for anyone in need of a drink.
The main washrooms serving the mid-section are located hereabouts. Note that there are no public showers apart from those inside the lounges and the transit “dayroom” facility (more on that later).
You’ll also find stairs near the café area. This leads to an upper level occupied by a cafeteria and by the Club Manila lounge. The cafeteria’s smoking room was still functioning as of March 2019, but this might not be available anymore as I’ve read one April 2019 account stating that there are currently no airside smoking facilities left at MNL T1. (Government crackdown on smoking and all that.)
Turning right from the cafés and back towards immigration, you’ll pass a souvenir stall (not shown) before coming across the food shop in the next picture. Ignore the word “smoking” in the signboard: the shop’s enclosed smoking room is no longer in service and the sign was changed to reflect this a few weeks after I took the picture.
There’s a small waiting area right next to that shop, with souvenir stalls close by.
And we’re back next to the main duty free store. That’s the immigration and security zone in the distance, so the walk ends here.
There are two gates in the mid-section, numbers 1 and 16. They’re set on a lower level and can only be accessed by stairs. (No lifts are available for general use, though I suspect that special procedures are in place for wheelchair-bound passengers.)
No toilets down here, I’m afraid. Responding to a call of nature will entail a mad dash back upstairs.
Boarding Area – East Departures Concourse
With the exception of Gates 1 and 16, T1’s boarding gates are concentrated in the building’s two “arms”. Turning left from the mid-section takes one into the eastern arm, where Gates 2-7 are located.
Some of the terminal’s lounges can be found here, including one near Gate 7 operated by PAGSS. Note that PAGSS runs at least 3 different lounges in T1, with the Gate 7 facility being the most recently renovated.
Gates 2 and 7 are located along the length of the arm, accessed via stairs that lead down to isolated holding areas. There are toilets located near the top of the stairs, but there are none down at the side gates themselves, and with no escalator or lift it can be a bother to go back up for personal needs.
I didn’t use either 2 or 7 for this flight, but here’s a picture of a side gate from another flight I boarded previously at T1.
Gates 3-6 are clustered like spokes around a hub-like concourse at the end of the arm. Note that the escalator only goes down, so you’ll need to take the stairs on either side if you wish to go back up.
Unlike the much smaller, isolated boarding areas of Gates 2 and 7, this larger concourse is better equipped with passenger facilities. There’s a place to dine, a couple of souvenir shops, and a set of centrally located washrooms.
Gate and boarding arrangements will vary depending on the airline. We’ll take my experience on Korean Air flight KE 624 as an example.
Two lanes were set up for this flight: one for priority passengers and one for everyone else. Boarding for economy passengers was done section by section, from the back of the aeroplane towards the front.
Separate aerobridges were deployed for First/Prestige and Economy passengers, which employed a large Boeing 777. Smaller aeroplanes (and budget airlines offering single-class service) will likely be served with just one aerobridge.
Boarding Area – West Departures Concourse
The layout of the western arm is very similar to that of the eastern arm. Think of one as the mirror image of the other (except with different lounges, shops, and snack kiosks).
Near-identical corridor, with a set of lifts leading to an upper level where you’ll find T1’s so-called “dayrooms”: a basic transit hotel with beds for weary passengers.
There isn’t a lot of information available on these dayrooms, but here’s a local news video from nearly 4 years ago showing what it’s like in there. It appears that most of the rooms aren’t fitted with ensuite baths; guests would have to use the shared shower and toilet facilities at the end of the hall. That said, I’ve come across a different source stating that ensuite facilities are also available.
The building’s other lounges are located along the corridor, as well as Gates 9 and 15 (isolated holding areas similar to 2 and 7 in the other arm). At the tip, stairs and an escalator lead down to a hub that’s virtually identical to its eastern counterpart.
Japan Airlines’ Sakura Lounge and Thai Airways’ Royal Orchid Lounge are in this part of the terminal. Note that the MIASCOR Lounge – once a popular perk of local credit card issuers, and commonly featured in videos or write-ups of T1 – closed in April 2018 after the end of its parent company’s MNL ground handling contract.
A couple of parting notes for this section. First, I should point out that T1 isn’t equipped with travelators, whether in the departures area or arrivals. This might present a problem for people with mobility issues, but wheelchair services are available for those requiring assistance. As for passengers of normal ability, T1 is a relatively compact structure so navigating the entire building on foot shouldn’t pose much of a challenge.
Second, you may have observed buckling-restrained braces peeking out between support columns and punching through ceiling panels in some of the pictures above. These are probably the most important non-cosmetic components introduced during T1’s renovation, designed to improve the ageing structure’s chances of withstanding a major earthquake.
MNL in general, and T1 in particular, has received a lot of criticism over the years, to the point of being designated the world’s worst airport for a time (albeit via a public, non-vetted, non-authoritative survey run by a private entity with no official standing). Of course, given the limited space available at its congested urban location, the only long-term solution to MNL’s capacity issues is an entirely new airport. Groundbreaking for that mammoth project is scheduled to take place before the end of 2019.
Until that’s operational, the Philippine capital will have to live with MNL, where space constraints and eventual closure loom large over any plans for costly infrastructure investments. In the case of T1, the best that could be done – short of complete rebuilding – was the recent refit that brought its facilities closer to what the travelling public might reasonably demand of a major airport. With both cosmetic improvements and structural alterations, I do think that T1’s lifespan has been extended somewhat, hopefully at least long enough to allow for the completion of MNL’s replacement.
Even though passengers expecting a wide range of facilities will be sorely disappointed, T1 provides the bare essentials in a compact layout that’s easy to navigate. If you’re a traveller whose needs are similar to mine – in that I don’t like shopping, I’m happy with basic food and beverage options, I’m not likely to use sleeping pods or shower stalls prior to a flight, and all the entertainment I require is on my smartphone or tablet – then you will likely survive your T1 experience.