Changi Airport raises the bar to be world’s best airport

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Courtesy Changi Airport Group


Singapore Changi Airport does not rest on its laurels. Voted many times the world’s best airport in several surveys, it is continually raising the bar. Few airports are constantly expanding and upgrading their facilities the way that Changi commits itself to its development. Since opening at its present location in July 1981 with only one passenger terminal, Changi has expanded to three terminals with a total area of 102.8 hectares and capacity for 66 million passengers. The airport has already started constructing Terminal 4 and there are plans for a fifth terminal

Dubbed Project Jewel, the latest upgrading plans announced by the Changi Airport Group (CAG) will be a world showcase. Scheduled for completion by 2018 and costing S$1.7 billion (US$1.4 billion), the new bio-dome complex will feature an indoor waterfall, a lush garden and 300 shops which take up some 70 per cent of the total gross floor area.

Besides more check-in rows and self-service check-in kiosks, other facilities include a dedicated lounge for fly-cruise and fly-coach passengers, an air-conditioned pedestrian bridge linking all three passenger terminals, and a bigger taxi waiting area.

It will be a tough act to beat for rival airports eyeing to be the world’s best airport.

Why Project Jewel? CAG chief executive officer Lee Seow Hiang said: “To address the capacity bottleneck, we could have just pushed out T1 (Terminal 1) and built a multi-storey car park over it. But we felt we could do so much more.” Indeed, since Changi would have to expand to cater to growth anyway, why not seize the opportunity to add on the frills? Very much the way that cash-rich airports such as Dubai International are doing, which adds a different dimension to an airport being more than just a functional entity to facilitate air transportation.

Image comes foremost to mind when talking about something being a showpiece. You can’t look past the influence this has on how passengers rank an airport. Impressions of grandeur of an airport with the best and most of everything certainly help. But a white elephant would invite just as much derision for the kind of money spent on it.

In the 1980s through to the 1990s, the concept of the airport city became a key driver in the development of new airports. This continues to hold sway today. Changi and Hong Kong International are clear embracers of this concept that designs an airport as a destination in itself and as a place of interest for both the traveller and the non-travelling public. As important as the range of directly related transport facilities and their cutting edge technology is a slew of ancillary services and facilities that include a myriad of retailers and specialty shops, eateries and bars, airport lounges, gyms, swimming pools and spas that provide massages, cinemas, business centres, transit hotel rooms and events specially designed for transit passengers.

Changi is certainly not sparing any effort in that direction. One is apt to ask whether this might not be stretching the concept beyond its functionality unless the traffic growth justifies it. Changi handles on the average more than 136,000 passengers (both arriving and departing) each day. Of these, 30 per cent are transfer passengers. Last year it handled a record 5.12 million passengers. In the first ten months of this year, the number has already exceeded that figure. That is an encouraging sign, and Changi is probably looking to increasing the transit component, which is critical to its status as a hub airport. There are suggestions of fostering a growing link of the air business with cruises and ground tours.

In truth Changi faces stiff competition from Hong Kong as a gateway for North Asia and the Pacific and from Dubai for traffic to Europe. Although Changi continues to report traffic growth, the shift by Qantas last year of its hub from Changi to Dubai for its kangaroo route European traffic must have hurt Changi somewhat. To counter any similar move, it is imperative that Changi work on becoming a preferred choice of transit and transfer passengers. It is apparent that Project Jewel aims to make Changi a tourist attraction in itself, a must-see icon that in the expressed wish of renowned architect Moshe Safdie appointed for the design, “You must fly to Singapore because you’ve got to see that Jewel.” And, as recognised by Singapore’s transport minister Lui Tuck Yew, “We are operating in a dynamic and increasingly competitive environment. Passengers today are spoilt for choice as air hubs around the actively pursue new ways to boost their appeal as destinations and as transit points.”

However, the question of the airport as a destination in itself is still one open to debate as to whether it can exercise sufficient pull on its own to entice travellers to purposefully pass through the airport. You want to see the Eiffel Tower, so you go to Paris. It may not work entirely in the same way with an airport, although it is not inconceivable that all things being equal, a traveller may be influenced to choose a route that passes through a particular airport. This means an airport’s is secondary rather than primary, that the benefits it offers and enjoyed by travellers are more incidental than planned.

No doubt the odds of the Jewel bagging Changi the top airport award are high. While that is desirable, surely it is not the most important reason for the dressing up. CAG CEO Lee had said that the first driving force behind the project was the growing capacity constraints at the present terminal. And, of course, the competition that Changi faces from rival hub airports.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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