Roaming the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1

The Urban Roamer hit a bit of a delay for this piece (with jetlag and work in the way) but as promised, today’s entry shall take a closer look at the storied structure and the primary terminal of the metropolis’ primary hub. Of course, we are referring here to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1.

And what else is there to say about NAIA Terminal 1? After all, it is the one structure almost every traveler between Manila and the rest of the world is very much familiar with. As the primary terminal of a primary gateway, it has provided travelers a first and last impression of Manila and the country as a whole for almost 40 years now.

To clear some misconceptions though, NAIA Terminal 1 is not Manila’s first international terminal. The honor would go to the former airfield in what is now Grace Park in Caloocan which became operational in 1935. .Soon after, it was followed by the opening of Nielson Field in what is now Makati. We have discussed about Nielson Field previously, which you can check out here. Needless to say, for a time, Manila had two competing gateways: Grace Field in the north and Nielson Field in the south. However, World War II  brought significant damage to these facilities. And they never recovered since.

Grace Park Airfield which was located east of Rizal Avenue Extension (image via

So in 1948, all of Manila’s airport operations were moved to Nichols Airfield, now known as the Villamor Air Base, in the Pasay-Parañaque area. As passengers and officials made do with the existing facilities for the airport, plans were being made to build a new international terminal, a task that fell upon the hands of Federico Ilustre, then the supervising architect of the Bureau of Public Works. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s the same architect behind the Quezon Memorial Shrine, which is perhaps the better known of his works that survive today.

Ilustre’s Manila International Airport terminal building was built on the site of what is now Terminal 2 and was completed by 1961. Inspired by the postwar International design, the airport imbibed the design of the times with all the brise soleil concrete goodness. The new airport terminal coincided in time as more local and foreign passengers were coming in and out. However, the terminal was short-lived as a fire in 1971 caused significant damage to the airport.

Manila International Airport by Federico Ilustre (image courtesy of PInterest)

A new terminal building was finished quickly but it was a smaller structure and a temporary one until a bigger terminal would be built. For this project, the government tapped the services of Leandro Locsin, who made a name for himself with his design for the Cultural Center of the Philippines main building, among many, many others. Like many of Locsin’s work, the structure that would become the Terminal 1 we know today would have that contemporary concrete design, which has been dubbed as “brutalist architecture.”

The new Manila International Airport terminal was completed in 1981, in time to serve the growing needs of travelers to and from the country. Not long after, the structure bore witness to a what would be a major turning point in Philippine history: the assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. at the tarmac outside the airport terminal. Of course, we know what happened next as succeeding events culminated to the People Power Revolution of 1986. Despite the changes that came, the association between Ninoy Aquino and the Manila International Airport remained. And in 1987, that association was firmly entrenched when the airport was officially renamed as the Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA.

By the 1990s, the NAIA Terminal was experiencing problems meeting the growing traveler demands. At the same time, its facilities were no longer up to standards as it soon fell in the rankings among passengers. To address this, plans were made not only to build new terminal buildings for NAIA but also for the renovation of the existing terminal.

NAIA Terminal 1 still serves its purpose as an international gateway, though one can feel that despite the presence of 2 additional terminals, it still feels a bit cramped. It seems clear that the terminal can no longer meet the growing needs of the hub. So how will it be addressed? The answer seems unclear. On the one hand, there is a plan to expand all the terminals of NAIA and build a new runway to accommodate the growing air traffic. Then there’s the plan to build a new Manila International Airport, this time down south at what is envisioned to be a reclaimed land off Sangley point in Cavite.

Whatever the case may be, NAIA Terminal 1 still has this old-flavor charm that deserves to be preserved one way or another, regardless of the future fate of the present NAIA. With all its shortcomings, it is still a landmark that has become part of the city’s fabric.

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