There are two renewals which I don't look forward to. One is for my driver's license, where I have to endure long slow-moving lines every three years. I hate falling in line. Who doesn't, right? But what beat all the lines I queued up for in the four LTO offices I've had my license renewed in was the one in the old Department of Foreign Affairs compound more than four years ago. I was overdue to have my passport renewed. I dreaded the thought of it, but I needed my passport for an upcoming business trip to Australia. It was my first time to go overseas as a UPOU faculty and the person coordinating the thing was incessantly pestering me about it, which, as I look back, I am actually thankful for, by the way.
So, I forced myself to do it. I woke up early and took a drive, eventually making it outside one of the DFA building's gates just before 7:00AM. I asked a security guard for directions and he directed me to the department's covered basketball court. Much to my surprise (not to mention dismay), the court was packed with people and it took me a while to take care of all the documents and then actually find the end of the line. The queue was snaking across the court from end to end. I was finally able to join the queue outside the damn court. That took nearly three hours to go through. I spent another two hours inside the actual DFA building waiting in line. I haven't forgotten how somebody puked in the waiting area and the rest of us had to smell it for half an hour before I mercifully made it to another stage of the application process. I finished the process just before lunchtime. Inhaling the smell of vomit notwithstanding, I still thought I came off lucky. Others don't get through that fast. I just went back to my car and thought to myself, god, I'm glad I won't have to go through that again for another five years...
But yes, you guessed it. My five years were almost up.
Due to my ignorance back in 2009, I did not know that, as a government employee, I was actually eligible to avail of what is called the Courtesy Lane. Presumably, I would only have had to deal with a shorter and faster queue. The DFA also seemed to have significantly increased the speed and efficiency of the whole passport application process. They now have a nice online appointment system that allows you to choose from a number of offices. They even have one at SM Megamall.
I was told that it wouldn't be necessary for me to set an appointment, but I wasn't going to take any chances. I chose the day and time and set my appointment online, anyway. I was tempted to try the Megamall branch. But with me not being sure that there is a Courtesy Lane there, I chose Office of Consular Affairs building along Aseana Ave for a 7:30AM appointment.
So, once again, I anxiously drive early in the morning, making it to the area just before 6:30AM.
The gates were already open and the lines were already accumulating. Did I mention I hate falling in line? After having my forms verified, I asked where the Courtesy Lane was. Upon showing my UMID as proof that I worked for the government, I was directed to another door. It was by the door on a nearby bench I waited for about half an hour, writing a blog (not this one) to bide the time. My group was ushered in Door 5 and to the second floor at around 7:15AM. I got my counter number at 7:25AM -- #7001, the first among the regular group. Well, what do you know? The actual application process started five minutes early.
I felt pretty relaxed. Even though there were a few people ahead of me who were slowing the queue (I may had been the first among the regular group, but there were other groups ahead of us). It was still early, and I was having a seat in a sparsely occupied air-conditioned room. I even had the time to help out the lady ahead of me who lost one of her receipts (it slipped through her daughter's things under a bench) and after her thanking me, consequently listened while she gently, but a bit too loudly reprimanded her daughter for being careless. I don't think she actually paused from talking the whole time. You know how some mothers are... But that's ok. The overall mood in the room was light. I saw other people in the queues helpful to each other. The people in the booths hardly smiled, but were otherwise polite.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that there's still a copier machine to accommodate those who didn't come in prepared. And yes, there were those in front of me who had to make use of it, including the lady I mentioned. Me, I had all my documents in good order and photocopied. And so, everything went smoothly on my part.
By 8:15AM, I was already by Gate 4, the exit, leisurely thinking about where to eat breakfast instead of lunch. I was done in less than an hour and have no horror stories to tell. I'm sure there will be people out there who will beg to differ (like that whose story is recounted here), which would indicate there is still room for improvement. But from my own experience, along with everyone else I was with in the Courtesy Lane, I was very happy with how quick and painless the process was -- a complete turnaround from my experience back in 2009.
I acknowledge the fact that I availed of a perk and may have gotten off easier than most people. But one thing I haven't mentioned yet was that I first heard about the Courtesy Lane from my dad, who had his own passport renewed shortly after mine. He was both a senior citizen and government employee, so he was spotted easily and promptly sent to the Courtesy Lane, but it still took him well beyond an hour to finish. I also have been hearing and reading good things about how it's pretty fast in other branches. Good feedback is actually easier to come by than bad ones, which by itself is remarkable. That is why I plan on having my passport renewed elsewhere and maybe even forego the Courtesy Lane in 2018. Or maybe I can accompany someone sooner just to see. But for now, it's nice to see a government agency dramatically improving their service. I wish more of them did the same.