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World's best airport: What it's like to spend 24-hours straight inside Singapore's Changi Airport

Traveller logoTraveller 5 days ago Steve Meacham

Changi has five gardens spread over three terminals. © supplied Changi has five gardens spread over three terminals.

Biggest isn't always best. Take "the world's busiest airport". That's Atlanta, both in terms of passengers and flights (104 million passengers in 2016, and almost 900,000 flights – mostly domestic). Yet, by the same, impartial Airports Council International criteria, both Los Angeles (81 million, 700,000 flights) and Heathrow (76 million, 475,000 flights) make the world's top 10. 

So why do so many discerning travellers go to extraordinary lengths to avoid both LAX or LHR? Singapore's Changi Airport (59 million, 360,000 international flights) quote a different statistic. It has won more than 500 "World's Best Airport" awards since it opened, including the Asia-based Business Traveller magazine version for 28 consecutive years and Skytrax's more socially media-driven equivalent for the past five years (2013-2017).

And, as the leading international air hub in Asia, it serves more than 100 airlines, with connections to 380 cities in 90 countries around the world. Every week Changi handles 7000 scheduled passenger flights, one every 90 seconds. 

Two more significant additions to Changi Airport will be launched soon. Terminal 4 will open this year, while the new Jewel shopping and entertainment mall now being built alongside Terminal 3 should open in 2018. So the Changi Airport Group (which runs the airport on behalf of the Singapore government) isn't resting on its laurels.

Terminal 4 will be the smallest of Changi's terminals. Most Australians won't visit it, unless they're headed for one of those intriguing "second tier Asian cities" that can be off the usual tourist track for many travellers. But it will boost Changi's handling capacity to 82 million passenger movements per annum.

Meanwhile, planning is already under way for Terminal 5 (Changi East) on reclaimed land which will add a third runway and handling capacity for a further 50 million passenger movements when it opens in the late 2020s.

"Changi is a superb airport", says Geoffrey Thomas, the Perth-based editor-in-chief of www.airlineratings.com. "It works so beautifully. That's because it's government-owned, and the Singapore government understands the importance of air travel to the national economy, and invests in the infrastructure to support it."

For Australians, Changi is one of eight key transit airports on the way to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Its two main rivals are Dubai and Hong Kong, Thomas confirms. "Airports reflect the strength of the local character, and Emirates is a very strong brand, though its days of being a trendsetter are waning.

"Passengers tend to go where the best product is," says Thomas. "For example, Singapore Airlines has Premium Economy, but Emirates doesn't. Likewise, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok airports have suffered because Malaysian and Thai International are no longer what they were."

An additional factor on the horizon is the introduction of even longer haul flights which cut out the need for a refuelling stop on the way to Europe. "Next year Qantas will introduce its Perth to London flight," Thomas says, "In three years, we'll have planes able to fly from Sydney to London nonstop. "But airline travel doubles every 15 years, so Singapore will be a hub for forever and a day – not least because it is a major financial centre."

So, with all of the above in mind, Traveller decided to test the phenomenon that is Changi Airport for itself, by spending a straight 24 hours within the airport to see what makes it so consistently "the people's favourite", as well as the workers who keep it functioning day in and day out.

Guess who drew the short straw?

MIDNIGHT THE BAGGAGE CAROUSEL

Changi has no curfew. My flight from Sydney arrives 20 minutes early, at 11.30pm. The airport's proud boast is that each bag will arrive from plane to the relevant carousel in 15 minutes – faster than most passengers can run from the plane to the baggage hall.

Sure enough, my overnight bag is gently circling when I arrive at midnight after going through the efficient Immigration procedure. Deep below us is an engineering marvel: a subterranean, fully automated, high speed conveyor belt "railway" capable of delivering 70,000 bags a day in 2000 individual trays at up to 25km/h.

A third of all Changi passengers are transiting – often to other terminals and other airlines.  Yet the chance of your luggage not arriving at your final destination is incredibly slim. All arriving bags are sent to "the inter-terminal transfer centre", where the labels are scanned by computers and dispatched to the relevant loading dock to be taken at the appropriate time (by humans!) to the correct transit plane.

Fans gather to watch the Pokemon Go virtual reality game mascot Pikachu parade during a promotional event at the Changi International airport terminal in Singapore on November 18, 2016. © Getty Images Fans gather to watch the Pokemon Go virtual reality game mascot Pikachu parade during a promotional event at the Changi International airport terminal in Singapore on November 18, 2016.  

1AM  THE TAXI CO-ORDINATOR'S STORY

NAME Thomas Chua

YEARS AT CHANGI Two

WHAT HE DOES Chua is one of a team of dispatchers working at T1, co-ordinating the number of taxis with the incoming flights. In any given hour, he'll dispatch around 600 taxis. So what's so special about Chua? He is in his 70s, and loves his job.

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "A couple arrived on a flight from Brisbane. He was handicapped and his leg couldn't fit into a normal taxi. So I ordered a larger taxi. When it arrived, the lady gave me a kiss and said, 'Thank you, Thomas!' That was a good day."

2AM  THE SNOOZE CHAIRS

Keen to have a cat nap? I am. Arguably Changi's best-kept secret is its five free "snooze lounges" with business-class-style seats.

3AM  THE MOVIES

Both T2 and T3 have a free 24-hour cinema, showing a range of back-to-back movies. There are 45 seats in the T3 version. Most of the audience when I visited were fast asleep – using the comfy seats to nap before their next flight. 

4AM  THE AIRPORT FIREMAN'S STORY

NAME Ng Xiang Hu.

TITLE Senior Airport Emergency Officer, Airport Emergency Services.

YEARS AT CHANGI Five

WHAT HE DOES Ng is in charge of some of the world's most useful multimillion-dollar monster trucks. His favourite is "the Stairway to Heaven" – an extended staircase able to reach the ever-higher exit doors of modern planes so passengers can evacuate more safely than risking the exit slides. 

Changi also has a wide range of "foam tenders": "We aim to put out a fire on a plane within 60 seconds of the foam tenders reaching it," Ng says.

They train for these emergencies every day.  But how many times has Ng had to deal with a real crisis? "Only once," he says. On June 27, 2016, SQ388 developed an engine problem on take-off. It jettisoned fuel, relanded, but a fire began in its left engine as it touched the runway.

Even then Changi wasn't closed. "Runway 2 is the emergency runway, but we have two fire stations, each serving a runway, so there's never any danger to other incoming planes," says Ng.

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "We put out the fire with the foam tenders and evacuated everyone, unharmed, with the Stairway to Heaven. It's what we train for."

5AM  BREAKFAST, SINGAPORE STYLE

Singapore's signature breakfast isn't gourmet, but locals love it. For $S5 you'll get toast, butter, coconut jam, two soft boiled eggs (with the white set but the yolk is runny) plus tea or Kopi. Most Singaporeans drink Kopi (coffee) sweetened with condensed milk. There's a bewildering range of options.

6AM  THE PAY-PER-USE LOUNGE

I'm beginning to flag, but I don't qualify for an airline business lounge. However, each terminal at Changi has at least one pay-per-use lounge. Ambassador Transit Lounge in T2, for example, includes a shower, lounge food, a free bar and a gym. Adults $S58 for five hours, children 3-12 $S29, infants free.

7AM  THE GREETER'S STORY

NAME Bay Fong Sy ("Fancy").

TITLE Supervisor, Changi Experience Agent

YEARS SPENT AT CHANGI Two

WHAT SHE DOES Her name badge, worn on that vivid pink jacket, definitely reads "Fancy" because visitors mispronounce her real name, "Fong Sy". Each Changi terminal has 18 "greeters" – eight of whom will be "roaming" in their lurid outfits so they can be easily spotted (male greeters wear purple jackets).

"A lot of our transit passengers get confused about which terminal they should be heading for," Bay explains. "Some might have short transit times, and need to get to their next terminal quickly."

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "Dealing with passengers who have a problem. Some will have missed their flights, or don't have the correct visas. Our job is to help them through a moment of crisis."

8AM  TIME FOR THE KIDS

Here in T2, children are making their own woodblock prints, inspired by a local artist. Each terminal has an adventure playground and TV lounges showing cartoons for younger children, plus gaming stations for older children. The Social Tree in T1 also allows families to store their digital memories and add to them each time they return to Changi.

9AM  VISIT THE GALLERY

I'd spotted Australian installation artist Janet Laurence's giant work, The Memory of Lived Spaces, when I arrived at T3. But Changi is full of artworks, including Kinetic Rain in the departure hall of T1 and Going Home, Chinese artist Han Mei Ling's colossal 7.5 metre tall metal sculpture of man, woman and child in the South Arrival Hall.

10AM  THE BOTANIST'S STORY

NAME Rose Chia.

TITLE Senior associate, Horticulture.

YEARSAT CHANGI 20

WHAT SHE DOES We meet in T2's rooftop Sunflower Garden, because it is her favourite of the five gardens spread over three terminals – with another soon to open in T4. "One hundred per cent of the plants in our terminals are real – no matter how fake they might seem," Chia says. "All these sunflowers were grown in our nursery."

Clearly sunflowers aren't native. But this rooftop garden in T2 is, Chia says, an invitation to explore the wider world.

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "I love guiding tours around our nursery when international delegates come to study at the Singapore Aviation Academy. They're always impressed, and want to develop some of our ideas when they get back to Nigeria or the Seychelles."

11AM  THE MASSAGE

There are eight massage/spa salons inside Changi. The newest is Heaven On Earth in T2, which opened in September last year.  It's an Indian wellness brand, so perhaps I should opt for the "Classical Indian head massage"? But my back is sore, so Wendy gives me a 30-minute upper body massage ($S52) using hot oils while I listen to Indian music. Bliss.

NOON THE SHOPPING EXPEDITION.

My idea of hell. More than 360 retail stores are spread over three terminals, with more to come when T4 opens. The Korean brand Shilla has the rights to sell all duty-free cosmetics and perfumes within Changi, offering products from 140 international brands as well as "cult Korean labels". It also runs the Victoria's Secrets and Bottega Veneta fashion outlets and the Maison de Chronus watch store.

1PM THE FOOD STREET MANAGER'S STORY

NAME Jimmy Pek.

TITLE Manager, Singapore Food Street, T3.

YEARS AT CHANGI Three years, but has 25 years of experience in hotels/restaurants.

WHAT HE DOES We meet over lunch at this Asian food court designed to resemble a typical Singapore 1960s street market. My beef and pepper fried rice with fried egg ($S12.90) is freshly cooked, delivered within five minutes and delicious.

There are 13 "hawker stalls" under Pek's command: noodles, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian, Korean, Chinese, local Seafood and BBQ. "If you want to eat authentic Singapore cuisine, we have it here," Pek says. "You won't miss out on a Singapore dining experience by eating at the airport."

In an average day, the 13 stalls feed 3500 customers – 4200 on a busy day.

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "An airline rang when it was experiencing a long delay boarding an A380 aircraft. Could our food street cope with 350 hungry passengers all arriving at the same time? 'No problem,' I said. 'Tell them to come with their boarding passes and we'll feed them'."

2PM THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN

This may not be the only Butterfly Garden in an airport, but it was certainly the first.  Heaf to T3 to see it – and experience it from both below and above the six-metre tall artificial waterfall. On any given day, you'll see up to 1000 butterflies.

3PM THE SWIM

Changi has one of the few airport open air swimming pools in the world – and any transit passenger can use the Aerotel Airport Transit Hotel facility (with hot tub and sun loungers) on the roof of T1 for just $S17 between 6am and midnight.

Since taking over the premises in 2015, Aerotel has totally revamped the transit hotel, with the biggest suites capable of fitting a family of five comfortably.

4PM THE MAKE-UP ARTIST'S STORY

NAME Ken Alcindor.

TITLE Christian Dior make-up/fragrance consultant.

YEARSAT CHANGI Three

WHAT HE DOES Born in Martinique, Alcindor is as French as frog's legs. He studied fragrances, skin care and make-up for three years in Paris before learning Chinese as his fourth language.

"Singapore is the centre of Asia, so a lot of my clients come from China," Alcindor says. "But we have visitors from all over the world. Men are usually just concerned with finding their signature fragrance." 

If you're a Dior die-hard, this is one of the few places outside Paris where you can experience the full range of the historical scents created by Dior, dating back to 1947.

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "Every woman is travelling for a holiday, or business, or to meet a lover. My job is to help each woman enhance her natural beauty so she can arrive feeling more confident and more beautiful."

5PM THE CACTUS GARDEN AND BAR

This open-air, roof-top garden in T1 is another of Changi's best-kept secrets. It's home to 40 different species of cacti from the Americas and Africa – and, yes, there's an open-air bar with a 24-hour Happy Hour. Australians, strangely, are among the most frequent visitors.

6PM THAT VITAL CONFERENCE CALL

Changi has business centres in each terminal, with computer access, photocopying and faxing services etc. But you don't need to pay: Changi has free Wi-Fi connection, 550 free internet kiosks and around 1600 USB/power sockets to charge your mobile devices.

7PM THE WHISKY TUTOR'S STORY

NAME Abigail Beja.

YEARS AT CHANGI Nine

WHAT SHE DOES DFS has exclusive rights to sell all duty-free alcohol, cigars and cigarettes in each Changi terminal – on the strict proviso that its prices are lower than any of the key 14 airport competitors in the Asia-Pacific region, including Sydney.

Both T3 and T2 have DFS showcase double-storey superstores, but the T2 version is newer, with a 913-bottle circular "library wall" of full liquor brands leading up to the free "Whiskey House" (sic) tasting floor.

Beja asks me to select three tasting glasses from the 130 whiskies on offer, so I opt for Japanese and Taiwanese single malts to compare with an original Scotch from the Hebridean isle of Islay. (To my surprise, I prefer Chita, a Japanese single grain whisky.)

Many customers (particularly those from Asia) are still exploring whiskies, Beja explains. So what do they buy? Indians prefer sweeter, blended whiskies, while Chinese customers generally opt for the most prestigious single malts.

The most expensive purchase? A full 21-bottle collection from the Dalmore Constellation series, created at the Highland distillery between 1964 and 1992. Yours for S$464,000 (prices change each month).

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "We had one Chinese customer, so casually dressed we thought he was in pyjamas. He asked for advice on buying whisky as presents. We explained he could only take two duty-free bottles back to China. He replied that he had his own private jet. He bought $S158,000 of spirits in less than an hour, mostly single malt whiskies." 

9PM: CATCHING THAT VITAL MATCH

Desperate to watch the Test match, US Open tennis final or an AFL game? Sure, there are bars. But I headed to the Xperience Zone in T2, sinking in a comfy seat to catch up on the latest international soccer action on large screens.

10PM: STOP AND SMELL THE ORCHIDS

Orchids are notoriously difficult plants to grow In Singapore's tropical climate, yet here inside T2 you'll find at least 30 species at the Orchid Garden. One of those – Vanda Miss Joaquim – is Singapore's national flower, chosen for its "vibrant colours, hardiness and resilience". Visit on August 9, Singapore's national day, and you'll witness a spectacular display.

10:50 PM: RAFFLES HOTEL LONG BAR TENDER'S STORY 

NAME Rebecca Zhu.

TITLE DFS T3 bar tender and sales person.

YEARS AT CHANGI Seven.

WHAT SHE DOES OK, I'm not actually at Singapore's most historic hotel. But no visit to this city is complete without a taste of the famous cocktail created in 1915 at the Raffles Hotel by barman Ngiam Tong Boon.

Here, in T3, there's a Raffles-approved replica of its colonial-era Long Bar (last orders are at 11pm so don't be late). You're not allowed to buy a drink here, just have a free taster of the pre-mix bottle you can purchase as duty free. ("So you can pour one at home and know you're getting exactly the same drink you enjoyed in Singapore," Zhu says.) 

Fortunately Zhu shows me how to concoct a genuine Singapore Sling – explaining, as she does so, that the cocktail was invented so gentlemen could buy their lady friends an alcoholic drink which looked a little like a fruit punch.

Zhu pours Bombay Sapphire gin, and adds pineapple juice, grenadine, lime juice, Dom Benedictine, cherry brandy, Cointreau liqueur and aromatic bitters. Needless to say, I slept all the way back to Sydney.

FAVOURITE CHANGI MOMENT "A couple in transit told me they had met in Singapore over a Singapore Sling. I said, 'I can offer you complimentary ones if you like?' They drank them, and gave me their email, and said, 'That's the taste of falling in love'."

THE WORLD'S 10 LEADING AIRPORTS*

DUBAI ...............................83 MILLION

LONDON HEATHROW......71 MILLION

HONG KONG.....................70 MILLION

AMSTERDAM....................63 MILLION

PARIS................................60 MILLION

SINGAPORE.....................59 MILLION

INCHEON, KOREA............57 MILLION

FRANKFURT......................53 MILLION

BANGKOK..........................41 MILLION

TAIPEI...............................41 MILLION

TOTAL INTERNATIONAL PASSENGER TRAFFIC, 2016

(*2016, SOURCE: AIRPORTS COUNCIL INTERNATIONAL)

FIVE CHANGI AIRPORT INNOVATIONS THAT INSPIRED THE WORLD

BROADBAND ACCESS

Changi quickly embraced new technology and by 2004, there were 200 internet terminals available throughout the airport – a record for any airport worldwide.

SMS FLIGHT ALERTS

In 2002, Changi became one of the first airports in the world to make flight alerts available via SMS.

AUTOMATED CHECK-IN

In 2004, Changi pioneered the world's first automated check-in system that integrated the check-in and immigration processes for departing travellers.

FIRST AIRBUS A380

In 2007, Changi became the first airport in the world to welcome the Airbus A380 (with Singapore Airlines becoming the world's first airline to fly the A380 between Changi and Sydney).

SMART TOILETS

In 2001, Changi introduced an electronic rating system where passengers were asked to use a touchpad to rate the toilets (ironic since the toilets themselves flush automatically, have touch-free sinks, touch-free soap dispensers and touch-free hand-driers).

KEY AIRPORTS ON LONG-HAUL FLIGHTS FROM AUSTRALIA TO  EUROPE

DUBAI

Number of terminals 3

Number of passenger airlines 90, serving 240 destinations

International passengers 83 million

HONG KONG

Number of terminals 2

Number of passenger airlines 100 airlines, serving 190 destinations

International passengers 70 million

SINGAPORE

Number of terminals 3 (4th to open October 2017)

Number of international passenger airlines 100, serving 380 destinations

International passengers 59 million

SEOUL (INCHEON).

Number of terminals 1 (Terminal 2 due to open Oct 2017)

Number of international passenger airlines 71, serving 115 destinations

International passengers 57 million

BANGKOK

Number of terminals 2 (plus a domestic terminal)

Number of international passenger airlines: 100, serving 109 destinations

International passengers 45 million

DOHA – HAMAD

Number of terminals: 1 (a second due to open in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup)

Number of international passenger airlines: 28, serving 170 destinations

International passengers 37 million

KUALA LUMPUR

Number of terminals 2

Number of international passenger airlines 60, serving 180 destinations

International passengers 36 million

ABU DHABI

Number of terminals 3

International passengers 24.5 million

Number of passenger airlines 32, serving 102 destinations


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