Changi Airport, Singapore: Inside the world's best airport

Like the character Tom Hanks plays in The Terminal, about a man living at an airport, I have arrived at Changi to "live" there and test its claims of being the best. I'll eat, drink, shop and sleep here, but just for 48 hours. I'm not roughing it like Hanks' character, because I've checked in to the Crowne Plaza Hotel that is part of the three-terminal complex connected by a rather speedy skytrain system.

With jet engines roaring all around - a flight takes off every 90 seconds and 53.7 million passengers move through the airport each year - the hotel is that cliched oasis of calm. My room, with views of the control tower, is quiet and chic. There are classy restaurants in the hotel, trendy lounge areas and arrival and departure boards at reception so you can keep tabs on your flight.

There are also tropical rainforest gardens and a swimming pool with small vegetation-covered islands. Close your eyes and you could be in Fiji. After collecting my bags, I stroll to the hotel along a covered walkway from Terminal 3 and kick off my shoes in the room in no time. Moving through the airport is a cinch.

Timelapse: Inside the world's best airport

A day in the life of Singapore's Changi Airport, one of the world's busiest, portrayed in a stunning timelapse. Video: Changi Airport Group

Changi aims to clear passengers from the aerobridge within two minutes, through immigration within eight minutes and to have all bags on the carousel within 25 minutes, even from an A380 carrying more than 500 passengers. These time targets are easily met when I arrive. Changi is one of the most customer focused, hi-tech and connected airports in the world and last year it registered a record score in its category in the annual Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore, which is carried out by the Institute of Service Excellence.

I drop into the call centre where customer service is clearly paramount. Phones are being answered, replies are being sent to Twitter and the Facebook page is being updated.

Changi is also active on Instagram and aims to respond to social media posts within hours. Sometimes, the response is even better. While I'm there, a tweet arrives from a disgruntled passenger who says it is too cold in a departure lounge. The call centre takes immediate action by dispatching an engineer to access the problem.

And you should see what's going on in the toilets. All of them are equipped with touchscreen feedback kiosks with five smiley faces that ask users to rate the loos from excellent to very poor. A bad rating will have a cleaner scurrying to the scene within minutes and a wet floor could be mopped while the complainant is still there.

This feedback system is also in action at check-in, immigration, information counters and at food and beverage outlets.

It is part of a $US3.8 million "One Changi" centralised platform that allows the airport to respond to problems in real time, but also to share feedback with staff (such as toilet cleaners) and tenants (such as shops) so they can improve their performance.

Advertisement

At Terminal 1, I spot a bride and her entourage having their wedding photos taken. "It's quite common," says my airport minder. And why wouldn't it be?

There are five themed gardens at Changi, tended by 200 gardeners. The two-storey butterfly garden has jungle plants and 1000 butterflies native to Singapore and Malaysia. It has timber walkways and an indoor six-metre waterfall.

If the humidity plays havoc with the bride's make-up, she can always head to the rooftop sunflower garden with 500 plants, the orchid garden with a pond full of koi, the rooftop cactus garden with a bar, or the enchanted garden with four giant glass bouquet sculptures filled with plants. As visitors walk through this last garden, it comes alive with sounds.

All gardens are free, but if you want to relax by the airport's Balinese-themed outdoor rooftop pool it will cost $S14. There are sun lounges and cabanas around the water and a bar that also serves food.

It's a relaxing place to hang out while waiting for a plane, or you could instead check-in to one of the airport's three Ambassador Transit Hotels.

Sound-proof ensuite rooms, some with runway views, can be booked in a block of six hours for about $75 and then $16 for each extra hour. If you book in, you also get free pool access. It pays to book for transit hotels well ahead.

Besides lush greenery and natural light, Changi's three terminals offer art installations such as the impressive moving sculpture Kinetic Rain that has 608 suspended copper-plated raindrops, which are choreographed to move into different shapes.

There are also four cinemas, a four-storey slide, a nine-metre social tree on which you can attach a digital photo of yourself for posterity, fitness and massage centres, children's playgrounds, 350 shops and 120 food and beverage outlets.

Time-poor passengers can shop via the airport's online retail portal ishopchangi.com and pick up their purchases from collection points in each terminal.

Instead of trinkets and duty free, I try some of the regional food on offer. There are no Michelin chefs at the airport, but decent choices from humble snack food such as a mackerel otah ($2.60), honeyed pork ($45 a kilogram) that can be vacuum-sealed for international air travel and the dreaded durian fruit that you either love or loathe. I try two durian puffs ($2.40) and have to turn my nose up at them.

One of Singapore's prized cuisines is crab - either with pepper or chilli. And you can get it at the airport. I try a black pepper crab ($64 a kilogram) at Seafood Paradise and while it is OK, it actually fails to meet the lofty standards set by other Singaporean restaurants.

If you still feel the need to get out of the airport, there are free two-hour Singapore tours for transit passengers to places such as Chinatown, Little India, Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Hotel.

Skyscanner's recent "Future of Travel Report" says airports will eventually become entirely automated. Skyscanner says biometric scanning (instead of passports), self-service check-ins and digital boarding via mobile are just a few of the innovations planned, along with virtual concierges and stores with showroom products that you scan to buy and then have them delivered to your home, without having to carry them on the plane.

Many of these technologies are already being slated for use in Changi's fourth terminal, due to open in 2017.

Greg Fordham, the managing director of Airbiz, says: "In five years' time, there will be no need for a single human agent in the terminal. An entirely automated airport journey will see the passenger take complete control, while an optimised team of multi-lingual and multi-skilled airport staff will concentrate on assisting those who need it."

Let's hope one of those people on the optimised team is Tan Beng Luan. Changi's employee of the year in 2013 went to the aid of a Polish family left stranded at the airport, because of a mix-up with airline tickets.

When Beng Luan came across them, they had spent one night at the terminal, had nowhere to stay, no valid return tickets and their luggage had been lost.

She took them home to give them something to eat and somewhere to sleep, took a day off work the next day to take them sightseeing, located their luggage and then bought them three tickets so they could fly home. One of the family later wrote: "Tan Beng Luan, working in lost and found at Changi Airport, is the kindest and most helpful person I have ever met in my life."

The writer travelled as a guest of Changi Airport. changiairport.com

FREQUENT FLYERS' BEST AND WORST AIRPORTS

Darrel Wade, co-founder, Intrepid Travel

Singapore is a good airport but has lost some of its efficiency since the number of terminals has expanded. Cross-terminal transfers are not always as smooth as they could be. My new favourite airport is (unbelievably) LAX, or more particularly the Tom Bradley terminal. This skyrockets from being arguably the worst terminal in the world to one of the best. The design is spacious and modern, there is great food, lounges and shops. intrepidtravel.com

Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet founder

Changi gets all the kudos but it has a big drawback - it puts you through security at the gate, not with immigration like most airports. What happens if you go through that gate security and the flight is delayed? Do you want to go back through security and repeat the hassle? No, so you're stuck at the gate. What happens if an X-ray machine malfunctions? No problem if it's one of 10 or 20 at terminal security, but a real hassle if it's one of only one or two at the gate.

Adam Susz, Australian-based Boeing 747 pilot

Singapore is right up there as one of the favoured airports for pilots. Its operation is efficient and orderly. There are two parallel runways, one for arrivals and one for departures that separate and smooth traffic. Hong Kong's airport is up there, too, but there is some mountainous terrain. New York's JFK is among the most difficult. It's so busy and old.

Lee Abbamonte, youngest American to visit every country

My favourite is Changi, followed by Hong Kong, Incheon [Seoul] and Haneda [Tokyo] - Asian airports and airlines are the best. The worst airports are generally in Africa. Lagos, Nigeria, is the worst. It is filthy, confusing and full of people trying to rip you off. See leeabbamonte.com

Sue Badyari, chief executive, World Expeditions

My favourite is Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla that provides the gateway into Nepal's Everest region at 2800 metres. The runway is 460 metres long at a 12 per cent gradient and on approach it looks like a small Bandaid on the mountainscape. The 35-minute flight between Kathmandu and Lukla is simply stunning, with views of some of the most famous of the Himalayan ranges. See worldexpeditions.com

WORLD'S BEST AIRPORTS

CHANGI, SINGAPORE

INCHEON, KOREA

MUNICH, GERMANY

HONG KONG

SCHIPHOL, HOLLAND

TOKYO (HANEDA)

BEIJING, CHINA

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND

VANCOUVER, CANADA

HEATHROW, LONDON

Source: Skytrax World's Best Airports 2014 survey

TERMINAL VELOCITY: CHANGI BY THE NUMBERS

53.7 million passengers

12,000 free baggage trolleys

1000 butterflies

6900 flights each week

919 skylights in Terminal 3

100 airlines

550 free internet terminals (free Wi-Fi throughout the airport)

Comments