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Focus: Changi Airport Singapore

5 Nov 2009 by Mark Caswell

Changi Airport has been voted Best Airport in the World at the Business Traveller awards for the last 22 years. Tom Otley goes behind the scenes to find out how the airport achieves its success.

Arriving into Singapore, late at night after a long flight from Europe, Changi Airport doesn’t immediately strike you as world-beating. Depending on your airline you might arrive at any one of the three terminals, ranging from Terminal 1, opened in 1981, to Terminal 3 (pictured below), which opened last year.

Each of the three terminals handles a similar number of passengers (around 20 million per annum), but in the case of T1 which is currently undergoing a three-year renovation programme, the interiors are simply a less cluttered version of the older terminals at Heathrow, albeit with carpets minus black tape hiding the rips, and with an unrivalled selections of shops and restaurants, a cinema and a swimming pool on the roof.

Take the Sky Train between terminals however, and visit T3, and you get a sense of how far airport design has come in 30 years. T3 is so astonishing, that if you ever have the chance to use Singapore Changi for a connection, I’d advise leaving a couple of hours between flights to give you time to explore. You won’t regret it, the place is a marvel.

Why? Well how many airports have a butterfly garden, koi carp pond (outside the Singapore Straits Bar), free internet access with more than 500 terminals for the use of all passengers, or a post van which circulates around the airport selling stamps and postcards allowing you to send messages to friends?

There are three cinemas, an outdoor swimming pool, three airside hotels and a five-storey high “Green wall”.  So popular is this 300-metre long feature that while I was watching a wedding party arrived at the airport and the bridge and groom had their photos taken in front of the wall – all the more astonishing since Singapore is hardly short of stunning vistas that might act as a background.  

Part of the attraction of Changi and particularly T3, is that you suddenly realise what airports can be like. One of the visions was to have a natural light in the airport, and this has been achieved through having a complicated system of computer-controlled “butterfly wing” skylights on the roof, and louvres on the ceilings of the terminal allowing for the optimal amount of natural light to come into the terminal so that inside it resembles the magic hour in the morning just before sunrise. It helps people with jet lag, apparently, is pleasant for those working in the terminal and also means the green wall and the plants inside the terminal get enough natural light to survive.

The building is air-conditioned – you can see some funny-looking porthole-like devices in stands around the terminal – and what’s interesting here is that they only air condition the building up to a certain height, with higher levels allowed to be considerably warmer. It’s a clever environmental point – why air-condition the higher levels when there’s no need to, and also of course it saves money.

In the immigration area to one side of the green wall is a large sandstone wall with a relief which says “Welcome” in dozens of languages, and there are a number of water features – no mean feat when other airports struggle to provide drinking water fountains. However although grand gestures such as these are fine, for travellers it’s the attention to detail which will impress. There are many areas of comfortable seating gathered around large flatscreen TVs. Normally these are places to avoid, since the TV dominates, creating noise pollution to passengers who are not interested in whatever programme is playing, but at Changi each of the comfortable chairs has speakers built into the arms of the chair, allowing the person sitting there to hear clearly, but without disturbing others.

There is shopping, of course, more than 200 shops in T3 alone, and these are organised into different zones – or “cluster shopping” as it is referred to – including a FIFA-licensed shop, Ferrari and luxury brands such as La Perla and Montblanc. I was walking around the area mid-afternoon, the quietest part of the day (peak periods are 0600-0900 for arrivals and then 2200-0100 for departures). As such, the airport seemed even more spacious than normal, and it’s clear that the shops and boutiques don’t spill out into the concourses.

For long layovers (minimum of five hours) the airport also runs a special two-hour bus tour of Singapore. You simply surrender your passport to the agency which runs the tours and then head out of the airport. There are three terminals in total at Changi, four if you include the budget terminal which is a free seven and a half minute bus ride away (they are very precise here). T1 is the oldest, having been opened in 1981, and is currently undergoing renovation. T2 completed its renovation in 2006, and T3 is brand new, of course. Connecting them all is the quiet and efficient Skytrain service which runs every couple of minutes.

Catching the Skytrain is easy, and so I also toured T1, wanting to see for myself the swimming pool on the roof of T1, and the outdoor spaces –  though many of them are frequented by smokers because of Singpore’s rules about smoking indoors (the same as in the UK – only in designated and contained areas).

But T3 was the main draw, and I finished the tour in the Butterfly Garden, which can be accessed from two different levels, and which has more than 1,000 butterflies, and nearly 50 butterfly species native to Singapore and Malaysia in an open-air enclosed garden with a curved roof made of stainless steel mesh. This keeps the butterflies in (well imagine how long they’d last with jet engines around) but allows for wind and fresh air. There’s even yet another waterfall. If they ever build a T4 at Changi, it will be interesting to see how they top T3.

For more information visit changiairport.com.

For a fulll interview with Foo Sek Min, Executive vice-president of airport management at Singapore Changi on our sister website, Air and Business Travel News, click here

Report by Tom Otley

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