- By Nicolas Yong
- BBC News, Singapore
Every few weeks or so, Hiskandar Zulkarnaen drives to Singapore’s Changi Airport, his wife and two young children in tow.
Their destination: Jewel, the 1.5 m² shopping center connected to Terminal 1, designed by the famous Canadian architect Moshe Safdie and his team. Her children especially love the seven-story rain vortex, the tallest indoor waterfall in the world. A Disney-themed light and music show is also a favorite. The family then stops at Terminal 3, a few minutes away by shuttle or electric train, for kid-friendly carnivals with rides and games.
“I have yet to experience another airport that deliberately markets itself as a leisure, retail and dining destination,” Zulkarnaen says, comparing the trip to Changi to visiting Orchard Road. , the famous shopping street in Singapore.
Welcome to what is the best airport in the world, according to Skytrax, a consultancy that rates and reviews airports.
Skytrax claims to conduct the world’s largest annual airport customer satisfaction survey, where travelers rate service and facilities at more than 550 airports. Changi has made the Skytrax rankings top 12 times, including eight top spots in the past decade. It regained its crown in March after tracking Doha’s Hamad International Airport and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport for the past two years, earning praise from Skytrax for its “unparalleled passenger experiences”.
Before the pandemic, in 2019, some 382,000 flights took off or landed in Changi, carrying more than 68 million passengers. While still recovering its passenger volume, Changi is not just a travel hub: it is an almost iconic meeting place, loved by Singaporeans.
Ask Rachel Tan who regularly drives 15 minutes from Jewel to do her shopping. Outside of shopping, “you can sit at the fountain and enjoy the experience of being at Jewel,” says the 34-year-old lawyer.
Easily accessible by metro and bus, it’s not uncommon to find people spending their whole day in Changi. You can watch a movie, have a meal, shop for groceries, and even find a quiet place to study for an exam. Over the years it has also become a destination for wedding shoots and reunion dinners.
Other attractions include a climate-controlled rainforest, hedge maze and a 12m high slide. If you’re flying in and find yourself at the airport a little too early, the transit area has a spa, a movie theater showing free movies, and a swimming pool, not to mention the massage chairs and the butterfly garden.
The airport even has its own scent: a bespoke scent with floral and spicy notes that diffuses throughout Changi.
And just outside Terminal 4, there’s a life-size dinosaur exhibit that stretches for a mile.
In a country obsessed with rankings, whether of schools or local players, Changi stands out as a particular source of pride. An Indian journalist even tweeted that Singaporeans were “irrationally proud” of it, prompting a predictably pissed off response.
And Singapore authorities follow airport rankings “religiously”, says Shukor Yusof of aviation consultancy Endau Analytics. “It not only gives bragging rights, but cements their reputation as the destination of choice for airlines.”
Even though its check-in counters and duty-free shops have remained eerily quiet during the pandemic, the government was optimistic that Changi would once again become a travel hub, pumping over S$1 billion into the travel sector. ‘aviation.
Singapore’s transport minister said at the time that the industry played a “crucial role” in securing the city-state’s position as a global hub of trade and business.
“Changi is one of the best transit airports, if not the best,” says Zurich-based Alex Chan, who transits through Singapore up to four times a year on multiple business trips.
While Changi is “huge”, Mr Chan believes it is much better organized and more efficient than Frankfurt or Schiphol in Amsterdam. “I usually travel with a large group of around 60 people, but I haven’t seen a lost piece of luggage here yet. At other major airports around the world, it’s very easy to miss your connecting flight, but it doesn’t seem ever get to Changi.”
Despite a recent technical glitch that disrupted immigration clearance for several hours at land and air checkpoints, many international travelers choose to transit through Changi because the chances of their itinerary being disrupted are low, Shukor said. .
“If you look at the time, energy and investment put into a particular airport, Singapore has by far done the most,” he said.
In the 1990s, when the only thing to watch on Singaporean television were the drama soap operas produced by the state broadcaster, Changi’s iconic control tower was often the centerpiece of a new series’ opening shot. .
This invariably involved a character, who had been away for many years, landing in Changi and taking a scenic taxi home before exclaiming to his loved ones how much the country had changed. Changi, after all, opened in 1981 with one terminal and one runway.
And its appeal has endured. In 2019, Jewel received 50 million visitors in the first six months of its opening. A fifth terminal is currently under construction and should be operational in the mid-2030s.
“I don’t think any other airport in the world can boast that locals visit it just for the fun of it,” says lawyer and social commentator Adrian Tan. He says Singaporeans know it as well as the neighborhood kopitiam, or cafe.
Mr Tan wryly described the ‘national ritual’ when he landed in Changi after a long journey: notice how better it is than other airports, walk through immigration and smile when the stubs of ‘welcome home’ are heard, then go for local dishes like chicken rice “so that we can reassert our culinary superiority over the rest of the world”.
“That’s why Changi is great. He represents all that Singapore does best: efficiency and courtesy with a Singaporean flavor.”
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