Returning to Changi Airport is nearly my favorite part of any trip away from Singapore. There’s something about the crisp efficiency and meticulous cleanliness that never fails to soothe my travel-weary soul. What makes Singapore’s airport such a pleasant place to be? The marvel that is Changi Airport is the result of carefully considered design, inspired engineering and purpose-driven innovation. As Skytrax's World's Best Airport award winner for the last six consecutive years, it’s clear that the devil is in the details. From ergonomically designed counters and chairs to a free wireless facility and hundreds of charging stations, it seems that every single moment of a visitor or staff member’s time at Changi has been painstakingly thought through.

Much of the credit for the most recent innovations at Changi can be attributed to their Living Lab Programme, where a multitude of challenges meet with creative and practical solutions. The lab’s purpose is to facilitate the development of technology-driven solutions in a live airport environment, focusing on automation and robotics, data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT), non-intrusive security and smart infrastructure management. A key goal at Changi is to simplify and streamline the departure and arrival experience.

Departures
In the new Terminal 4 (T4), opened in late 2017, Changi’s Fast And Seamless Travel (FAST) technology was introduced. This has had an enormous impact on getting through to departures as the whole process is automated through facial recognition from end to end. Travelers can now scan passports at the check-in kiosk, print tags and drop their bags, then pass through security, immigration and boarding within minutes. That’s not to say there is no human contact as there are plenty of staff on hand to help visitors navigate each part of the process and to ensure the systems are working the way they should.

The opening of T4 also saw the introduction of tomography-based x-ray screening machines – full body scanners – at the security checkpoint. This technology eliminates much of the waiting time for passengers as it is no longer necessary to take out electronic and computer devices from carry-on luggage and the 3D images they produce have greater accuracy. When the screener is alerted, the bag in question is routed separately from those that are safely cleared, allowing other passengers to continue on their way without delay. The automatic tray-return system frees workers from ferrying used trays back to the front, which means they can spend their time attending to passengers.

Efficiency on this level is not only reserved for travelers departing from T4, however. Check in kiosks and passport scanning at the airport’s other terminals have also been installed so that waiting times are reduced and bottlenecks at the security checkpoints have been eliminated by the decentralizing of scanning machines to the gate areas.

The Changi Experience
Efficiency in getting through immigration is one thing, but given the amount of time spent waiting to board a flight is quite another and, in wandering around Changi’s transit area, consideration towards this in the airport’s design process is more than evident. Art installations and entertainment options adorn the avenues lined with plant life and water features leading to departure gates, helping to create a peaceful and happy travel experience.

In fact, as an airport of the Garden City, the idea of ‘greenery’ and ‘serenity’ are pivotal to the Changi experience. Terminal 3’s rooftop Butterfly Garden, together with over 900 skylights, help to bring in natural light and reflect away Singapore’s heat. The skylights’ reflector panels are self-adjusting to maximize light reflected into the terminal, saving electricity. In Terminal 4, the 160-strong Boulevard of Trees and Green Wall – a vertical garden of 113,000 plants and four waterfalls – along with at least 10 other gardens throughout the airport, serve to improve air quality and regulate temperature. To top it all, these feats of engineering are maintained by an automated watering and fertilizing system which reduces waste and improves manpower efficiency.

A society of immediacy and the need to stay connected have also been considered as travelers have access to free WiFi, nearly 3,400 charging points for devices and more than 550 internet kiosks. There’s also an iChangi app with features such as GPS-enabled navigation to help folks find shops, restaurants and services, as well as directions to gates and baggage claim areas. Onsite, the app also links to a library of publications to be downloaded for onboard reading. Other technology touchpoints include the interactive digital walls and the Social Tree where visitors can share videos and photos of their Singapore experiences from their devices, creating a digital time capsule.

Arrivals
From the moment an arriving passenger’s plane is spotted by air traffic control, innovation runs the show. For an airport that handled over 62 million passengers and more than 370,000 takeoffs and landings last year, timing is everything. Sensors help aircraft and vehicles move safely around the airport tarmac while Artificial Intelligence (AI) helps to predict flights’ arrival and departure times, which improves the efficiency of boarding and disembarking processes as well as timely transport of luggage to and from planes. As a result, a significant saving has been realized in terms of both time and the environment by reducing fuel consumption by planes taxiing longer than necessary.
In Terminal 1, upgrading to an automated baggage handling system has meant that the airport can process a staggering 800 bags per hour with inter-terminal transport speed can reach seven meters per second. It takes an average of 12 minutes for luggage to reaching the belts of baggage claim after offloading.

Once travelers have claimed their luggage, a taxi dispatch system directs taxis in a fair and organized manner to the terminals’ taxi stands where and when they are needed, meaning you’re on your way within minutes.

Behind the Scenes
Behind any well-oiled machine is the people who operate it. Staff at Changi are well equipped to ensure everything runs smoothly. The Service Workforce Empowerment and Experience Transformation (SWEET) app provides airport staff with flight arrival and departure times and operational data to assist passengers, delivers internal information on safety notices and work procedures and facilitates real-time communication and feedback.

Even what seems like a minor detail can have a significant influence on the overall experience for visitors and increase productivity for staff. Many ideas that improve efficiency are deceptively simple. Some toilets have a central liquid soap container in each toilet area which automatically fills all dispensers while a system of sensors indicates when toilet paper is about to run out, reducing the need for frequent checks and time-consuming refills by the toilet attendants.

A pneumatic system feeds trash to a central disposing area from 12 points across Terminal 4, so cleaning staff no longer have to roll full trash carts long distances. Follow-Me technology, which helps direct smart vehicles, is used to improve efficiency and reduce manual labor for everything from food trolleys to luggage carts. New motorized dumbwaiter-style lifts eliminate the need for baggage handlers and gate attendants to manually carry heavy items like wheelchairs and strollers up and down the aerobridge stairs, reducing injuries and improving safety.

This level of attention to detail combined with innovative efficiency-enabling technology have resulted in a nearly legendary status for Changi Airport, the world’s sixth busiest airport for international traffic. It didn’t surprise me one bit to read that Fong Kok Wai, Executive Vice President of CAG’s Engineering and Development Group (EDG), declared that 70 plans had been drawn up for Terminal 4 before it was finalized. And with plans for Terminal 5 in the works and the addition of JEWEL – Changi’s shopping, dining, recreation and accommodation hub, expected to open in 2019 – it looks like Changi will be flying high for years to come.

Faith relocated to Singapore in January 2015 with her husband and two young children. She is a freelance writer and marketing consultant as the sole proprietor of F. Chanda Communications & Events. Faith enjoys exploring food, culture, nature and design through her travel adventures.

Photo courtesy of Changi Airport

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