In an editorial on Thursday, The Manila Times criticized the decision of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) to integrate the P550 ‘terminal fee’ charged to travelers passing through the country’s global gateway into the price of airline tickets, because of the extra burden this will place on Overseas Filipino Workers.
The new scheme, which was to begin on November 1 but was delayed for 20 days by a temporary restraining order, would require OFWs to pay the fee as part of their airline tickets, and then obtain a refund at a different counter; in some cases, OFWs who purchase tickets from travel agencies or overseas are likely to be unable to get a refund.
The reason the new program is a problem is that according to existing law, OFWs are exempt from the terminal fee; regardless if a refund is available or not, even charging them a fee in the first place is actually a violation of the law (which is the Migrant Workers’ Act of 1995, for those keeping score at home).
On that basis, the Times’ editorial was not entirely incorrect in complaining about it; MIAA chief Angel Honrado issued, and Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya (presumably) approved, an administrative order that was not properly thought out and ended up creating a legal problem that could have been avoided.
The Times editorial went on to characterize the imposition of the terminal fee on OFWs as a “betrayal,” because OFWs are the country’s “economic heroes”—the remittances they send back to the Philippines account for a significant part of the country’s GDP, and “have been one of the reasons our economy has ‘sound fundamentals.’”
Let me suggest a different way to look at the issue. The airport terminal fee is intended to help fund the maintenance and operation of the airport, much like a toll charged on a highway is used to keep the road in good repair. It is certainly debatable whether or not the funds from terminal fees collected are being used correctly—the embarrassing condition of the airport suggests they are not—but that debate is about application, rather than the justification for the existence of the fee in the first place.
Airport fees are commonplace, and in most places are assessed in the form of a ticket surcharge; what the MIAA implemented is, in fact, an improvement over the inconvenient previous scheme that required travelers to pay the fee separately. That weird feature of a visit to the Philippines has been bitterly criticized for years by foreign tourist and business travelers—who, by the way, outnumber the million or so OFWs leaving every year by a factor of three or four—and it is good that it has finally been changed.
Suggesting that imposing the terminal fee on OFWs is a “betrayal” seems a bit dramatic at the very least, and is not really justified. The law prescribing that financial and other burdens on OFWs should be minimized should only be applied to those burdens that are specifically directed at OFWs—specifically, the fees and procedural morass of the government’s institutions dedicated to OFWs, such as the POEA and OWWA. Exempting OFWs from a fee that everyone who uses the airport has to pay is not reducing a burden, it is providing a special privilege. And in providing that privilege, the government is actually placing a burden on everyone, by turning away a large amount of revenue that could (assuming, of course, it was in the hands of competent and trustworthy managers) finance the large-scale improvements the airport desperately needs, and probably more.
Again, the amount and expenditure of the terminal fee certainly needs to be critically
reviewed, but the concept is sound, and should be applicable to all users of the airport. If it is in fact truly a financial burden on some OFWs, then that should be addressed directly—perhaps by having one of the government’s alphabet soup of OFW-related agencies subsidize the fee—rather than choosing to maintain an inefficient and embarrassing system that inconveniences everyone else.