The Wall Street Journal (Asia) today carried in its Travel section a story about Singapore Airport that all Singaporeans, myself included, would be proud of.
It would have been a perfect story if the sub-editor (or whoever was in charge) had removed the question mark from the heading, THE WORLD'S BEST AIRPORT?
After all, the story gushes about all the fantastic facilities and amenities of the airport, something that would be hard to match in other airports of the developed countries.
Maybe the ASJ just didn't want to get itself embroiled in any controversy. Here's the story...
THE WORLD'S BEST AIRPORT?
On a recent vacation, Andrew Tregonning and his wife, Gill, found themselves relaxing in a spacious rooftop hot tub. Nearby were countless restaurants and shops, many with tax-free merchandise. Next, they could take a bus tour, catch a movie or meander through a tropical butterfly garden.
Ah, the joys of the airport. The Tregonnings were en route from New Zealand to India and opted for a long layover at Singapore's Changi International Airport just so they could play.
"It's the first time we've ever done something like this," said Mrs. Tregonning. "It's wonderful."
Changi is arguably the world's most fabulous airport. Since it opened in 1981, the airport has notched more than 370 "best" awards world-wide from travel trade groups and publications. A look at its operations reveals much about how to run a top-notch airport—and ways other airports could improve.
The airport offers amenities found elsewhere only in airlines' fancy lounges for premium passengers. There are comfortable areas for sleeping or watching TV, premium bars, work desks and free Internet. A nap room is about $23 for three hours; a shower can be had for $6. If you want to put your feet in a tank with tiny fish that eat dead skin, that's $17 for 20 minutes.
The pool is free to guests of the airport's in-transit hotels; otherwise it's about $11 a person. A bus tour of Singapore is offered free by the airport. The tour is arranged so that passengers don't have to clear immigration—the airport retains passports so passengers don't run off.
Simple steps matter, like minimizing annoying announcements and honking carts and instead playing soothing music to reduce stress. Placing rival currency-exchange booths and clothing stores side-by-side stimulates competition. Touch screens in bathrooms let travelers send text messages to supervisors when toilet paper runs out, for example.
Changi figures such perks entice passengers to spend more money at the airport and select Singapore over other connecting hubs. About 750,000 square feet of concession space—approximately the size of a suburban shopping mall—provides 50% of the airport's revenue, helping to pay for amenities and keep down costs to airlines. The airport says its merchants recorded $1 billion in retail sales last year.
A four-story amusement-park type slide is even tied into retail. If you want to use the slide, you have to have a receipt from an airport merchant showing roughly $8 and up in purchases. Without that, you can only ride the bottom 1½ stories of the slide.
Terminal 3, the largest, opened in 2008 with skylights, a wall of windows and an interior wall covered in plants rotated out of the airport's greenhouse. It is a city unto itself: dry cleaners, medical center with everything from dental care to fertility treatments, a grocery store, pharmacy, flower shop, jewelry stores, clothing stores and an indoor amusement park for kids with a balloon bounce house.
The 18th-busiest airport in the world by passengers, Changi is smaller than New York's Kennedy Airport and Amsterdam's Schiphol but larger than Shanghai and Houston's Bush Intercontinental, and is a prime connecting point for flights linking north and south Asia as well as Europe and Oceania. It's not just a hub for Singapore Airlines, but also a refueling stopover for European and Australian carriers. So the airport offers plenty of activities for travelers with time on their hands.
"We wanted to transform the way travel is done and create a stress-free experience," said Foo Sek Min, executive vice president of Changi Airport Group Ltd., the airport's operator. It was "corporatized" into a state-owned company in 2009 and has had plenty of government support, since the airport is considered a key economic development element for the small, fast-growing island nation.
Mr. Foo's personal pet project: a butterfly garden. Soothing and relaxing, it's a two-story tropical garden overlooking gates for Singapore Airlines super-jumbo A380 jets. Since smoking isn't allowed indoors, the original concept was a smoking garden. "Why not do more?" he said.
Changi also has a private terminal called "Jet Quay" that is used by celebrities, private jet-setters, government officials, CIPs—Commercially Important Persons—and anyone else willing to pay. For about $1,150, you get jet-side limo service. For $231 you get the use of a private terminal along with golf-cart rides to gates. For $62, Jet Quay personnel will greet you at arrival and escort you through main terminal areas.
Few of the airport's 28,000 workers actually are employed by Changi Airport Group, but airport management requires new hires to go through a weeklong indoctrination on the airport, its layout and service standards and training on how to help travelers.
"Serving the customer well always correlates with earning money," said Mr. Foo. "Do you need a swimming pool in an airport? No. No one asked for that. We are creating the market, creating the demand. People choose Singapore because they can swim."
Bill Franke, former chairman of America West Airlines who now runs a private equity group that invests in airlines, knows Changi as both an airline operator, having founded Tiger Airways in Singapore, and as a frequent traveler. The quick baggage delivery, easy immigration and security set-ups, pleasant surroundings and sounds all contribute to efficiency, he said.
"When I come into Changi, there's a sense of comfort, a feeling which I don't have at other airports," Mr. Franke said.
Customer service is apparent. Feedback kiosks are scattered throughout. In bathrooms, seemingly always clean and appointed with small flowers, touch screens by sinks ask customers to rate the facility.
Mining company executive Kevin Swendson, heading home to Indonesia after a business trip to Singapore, stopped in at one of the airport's two movie theaters to watch "Fast and Furious 5." The theater has surround-sound audio, wide aisles for maneuvering luggage and patrons who quickly say, "Shhhhhhh!" to anyone talking.
"A lot of airports are boring like hell. But there's a movie here, massage here, food here. It's great," he said. His advice for other airports: "Just have a good imagination and a bit of spice. It doesn't seem that it would be that hard for airports to do it."
Those of you who'd like to read the story in AWJ, here's the link: