Speaking to attendees at the APEX Asia Conference in Singapore this week, Mr. Tan Lye Teck, Executive Vice President, Airport Management for the Singapore Changi Airport Group shared the challenges of providing passengers at the aerotropolis a smooth passenger experience while preparing for unprecedented growth.

“An airport is like a swan, which is very graceful above water but under water is paddling furiously,” he said.

The simile fits Changi well.

While on the airport come amusement park and high-end mall runs smoothly, its core operation, as a major air travel hub, by necessity makes day-to-day operations complex.

Tan Lye Teck told APEX Asia attendees that planning ahead of demand and embracing automation are essential to prepare for a future which could see air passenger numbers more than double over the next 20 years.

A Lot of Room of One’s Own

“In 1981, we had the benefit of opening a terminal with space to provide a comfortable experience,” Tan Lye Teck says.

Since that time, the airport has expanded into a second terminal, followed closely by a third, and has broken ground on an ambitious Terminal 4: The Jewel.

Tan Lye Teck says that, when it comes to building airport cities, oversized matters.

“We talk a lot about legroom, but in the airport space per passenger–square metre per passenger–is also important to us. For us, space or capacity is the starting point. It’s hard to provide comfort if everyone feels congested,” he says.

To avoid congestion Changi builds capacity well ahead of demand.

While the airport currently hosts approximately 54 Million passengers a year, it has capacity for 70 million. Tan Lye Teck says none of it is wasted.

“During daily peak hours, all our gates are used. All our check-ins are used,” he says. “We cannot wait to reach 70 million passengers before starting a new terminal. It takes 6-10 years to add a new terminal, between design and construction.”

Happy Matters

The greatest priority for the swan of Changi is to avoid ruffled feathers from passengers and airline customers, Tan Lye Teck says.

“It’s something that something perhaps is taken for granted, but many passengers come through the airport we’d first like to ensure that they get the fundamental objectives. Meaning that they get checked-in, confirm that they have a seat,” says Tan Lye Teck. “Their bags are checked-in and we..ensure that they’re more relaxed along the way. This was part of the planning, to make departure process as smooth as possible.”

Automating the travel process is the next step in passenger experience enhancements at Changi’s existing terminals, Tan Lye Teck says.

“We are now ramping up self-service processes so we turn fast self-check-in, self-bag drop, automated ID verification and self-reporting. It was a very steep learning curve,” Tan Lye Teck says. “Five years ago, we were initiating automated service, but the situation was very different from today. There was sufficient manpower, enough physical space. There was no push whatsoever to go into self-service. There was also thinking among carriers and among ourselves that, in Asia, passengers preferred to be served by an agent and not a machine.”

But the airports regional and international customers had their own ideas of what the travel experience should be like.

“Our passengers, as world travelers, were becoming exposed to self-service processes elsewhere, in America and Europe. Certainly our passengers who come from those regions are used to [automation] and expect it,” says Tan Lye Teck.

At the same time, he explains, “We had a manpower crunch..and suddenly we found ourselves rushing to introduce self-service processes.”

“We wanted to do it in a way which is as passenger-friendly as possible as intuitive as possible. We wanted to introduce it in a way that people have as positive an impression of self-service as possible. We do research to ensure that the [systems] can be readily adopted and liked by users. Today we have already made in-roads,” Tan Lye Teck says.

Part of the credit for the launch of automation at Changi goes to Qantas’ Low-Cost Carrier brand, JetStar Asia. In keeping with its low-cost model, the airline required installation of self-service drop in and check-in in Terminal 1, which were introduced last year.

The airport’s home-town airline, Singapore Airlines, began offering automated services in Terminal 2 in the middle of this year, and will introduce self-service check-in at Terminal 3 shortly.

Other carrier partners are requesting similar set up for their passengers and Changi is working with those customers to establish new automated self-service stations.

“This is the big movement of change at Changi airport,” says Tan Lye Teck. “We foresee other systems put in place to ease automation, to serve passengers better and faster.”

Photo Credit: Artist rendering of Changi's project Jewel expansion. Changi Airport Group