What’s the Point of Commercial Billboards in our Airports?

So I am writing this at the pre-departure lounge of the Davao International Airport as they are announcing that my flight’s boarding time will be “delayed for a few minutes.” I take a deep breath and try to not freak out about the fact that I will be late for the event I am attending in Manila. Think of calm thoughts, I silently tell myself. It is hard, though, because everywhere I look I am assaulted by advertising billboards.

Yes, assaulted is the word that comes to mind because I literally feel under attack by these  advertisements. There is practically no part of any wall in our airport that is not completely covered by some billboard selling something. And it is more than an eyesore. It is a disaster.

I was here during the inauguration of this airport and it was very nice. I was very proud to have a world-class airport in my beloved city. Then slowly this very nice airport got turned into a public market with billboards posted everywhere seemingly shouting at me all at the same time. The experience always gives me a headache. Not a good thing to happen to you when traveling.

Apparently I am not alone in feeling like this. No less than the Senate President of this country, Senator Franklin Drilon, feels strongly about these billboards, too. He made his feelings known October last year during a Senate finance subcommittee hearing on the proposed budget of the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC). The senator asked William Hotchkiss III, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP): “You know, our terminals look like EDSA with all the billboards all over the place. Why is that? Why is there such policy? Are our funds not enough for us to seek ways to earn additional income?”

Hotchkiss said there was no such policy but it was a practice being done in the terminals when he assumed his post. He tried to explain that they needed the billboards for “tourism purposes.”  But Drilon argued that these commercial billboards have nothing to do with tourism. He even noted that he had seen political billboards inside some of the terminals.

When asked how much income the government gets out of these ads and where the money goes, Hotchkiss said they got P101.28 million in 2014 and they expect to get P102 million in 2015 from concessionaire and rent income and that they go to “improvement of the terminals.”

So on top of the regular budget appropriated for airport maintenance, they have hundreds of millions of added income from these billboards. But I have yet to see marked “improvements” in our airport terminals.

And what about the terminal fees we pay? Where do they go? How come oftentimes the air-conditioning units in our airports do not work? No water and toilet paper in restrooms. Even the x-ray machines are often out of order. Forget about “improvements,” just give us an airport where everything works as it should.

So can they blame us if we think that the income from these billboards must be lost in corruption?

Drilon described the billboards all over our airport terminals as “overwhelming” and “ugly” and strongly urged CAAP and DOTC to minimize if not totally eliminate them. And I agree. These commercial billboards do not improve our airports — not in the income government gets from them nor in making airports look better. And they do not serve any purpose in improving our travel experience.

In the end of that October budget hearing, even Hotchkiss conceded and agreed with Drilon that commercial billboards should be lessened. He did not say it is necessary. He also denied it is a policy. So what the heck are they still doing in our airports then?

(First appeared on Mindanao Times, January 21, 2016)