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How Changi Airport got to where it is today

IN March this year, Changi Airport clocked a record of handling one billion passenger movements since it started operations in 1981; we expect to handle 60 million passengers this year.

This, by any standard, is a sterling record because the numbers comprise only international passenger movements, as we don't have domestic flights. Changi Airport is today a world strategic air hub connecting Singapore to more than 331 cities in 80 countries. It is a vital infrastructure for Singapore's economic well being.

How did Singapore, a small island state with five million people, develop an airport to handle 60 million passengers per annum (mppa), which is the world's sixth largest international airport and has been awarded the Best Airport title more than 540 times?

We have been successful not only because we have invested heavily in the terminals and airfields in Changi. In the 36 years since opening in 1981, Changi Airport's par excellence performances must be attributed to the past and present people and the management teams running the airport.

We are proud and happy with our past accomplishments, but I often ask myself how we got here within 36 years and how we can confidently get to where we want to go? Can Changi Airport continue to grow as an air hub, given that the aviation sector is certain to face future business disruptions?

Our Human Resource Department informed me that more than 50 per cent of our staff have fewer than five years' employment service with us; 68 per cent joined us after corporatisation. The vast majority of our staff may not fully appreciate how we got here.

Having the privilege of being involved with Changi Airport since its birth, I am happy to share some background of its development and corporate history to serve as part of our institutional memory. Some, but very few of you, may know parts of it, but it is still beneficial to recapture some milestone events as a reminder.

A bold forecast

Singapore's first airport, Seletar Airport, was built in 1929. The second airport at Kallang was built in 1937. Interestingly, at the opening of Kallang Airport on Aug 31, 1937, the Governor of the Straits Settlements (to which Singapore belonged), Sir Cecil Clementi, made a bold futuristic forecast :"Looking into the future, I expect to see Singapore become one of the largest and most important airports of the world." That historic pronouncement was to came true several decades later.

In 1955, Paya Lebar Airport was built as Singapore International Airport. Ironically, when the Public Works Department (PWD) studied the various airport site options then, Changi was the best location, but the subsoil condition was tested to be too weak. Paya Lebar was eventually chosen.

Paya Lebar Airport grew rapidly, reaching double digit aviation growth in the early 70s, handling from about 1.7 mppa to 4 mppa. There was urgency to expand it to enable it to cope with the forecast of more than seven mppa by 1981, failing which we would lose our air hub status.

I was in Paya Lebar constructing the new airport parking apron and clearing the site for the proposed second runway. I remember that that was a politically sensitive job as we had to resettle more than 11,000 farmers which occupied the proposed runway site.

Turning point

A fortunate turn of our aviation history happened when our then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew flew over Logan Airport, Boston, in late 1974 and noted its advantageous location near the sea. He came back with the thought that by building the airport into the sea, we would have the flexibility to build additional runways into the sea without having to impose height restrictions on future buildings, at the same time mitigating noise pollution to land-scarce Singapore. He expeditiously instructed that we shift the airport construction to Changi, although we had already invested S$800 million in works in Paya Lebar.

That quick and firm turnaround was a bold and wise decision taken by the government. It altered Singapore's aviation history. If we had continued to expand Paya Lebar Airport, we would not have today's Changi Airport. Changi Air Base would probably continue to be a military air base, while Paya Lebar, with its severe growth constraints, was unlikely to have grown to become the best airport in the world. Singapore, therefore, would not have become the international air hub that it is today.

From a national development perspective, if we had continued with expanding Paya Lebar Airport, we would probably not have HDB Tampines New Town today.

Building Changi Airport

In 1975, when the decision was made to build the new airport at Changi, I was a young engineer in the PWD helping to build the second runway in Paya Lebar Airport.

PWD was the technical authority for all government public works, including the airport. Paya Lebar Airport was operated by the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA). I had the good fortune to be assigned the responsibility to rebuild the old British 2,000-m runway into our first ICAO international standard 4,000-m runway at Changi.

Ten years later in 1985, I was tasked to be in charge of the development of Terminal 2. In 1992, I left the public service to go into construction and real-estate business in the the private sector. My involvement with Changi Airport resumed when I was appointed deputy chairman of CAAS in 2004.

Building Changi Airport was a national project. PM Lee Kuan Yew was assisted by bold, pragmatic and committed senior civil servants to implement his visionary plan to build Changi Airport. At that time, it was the largest and technically the most challenging public sector project in Singapore. Howe Yoon Chong, then the chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority, convinced the civil service to fully support the very tight construction programme - "no spanners allowed!"

There was scepticism whether we really needed to build our terminal capacity to cope with 30 mppa or, for that matter, three runways systems. One senior member jokingly but cynically forecasted that if we do have to handle 30 mppa, all our children would have to become "bellboys and porters" to support the tourism industry. Howe Yoon Chong supported our forecast and boldly suggested that we plan for six runways instead. He was a man of long vision and large ambitions for Singapore.

Sim Kee Boon then took over the helm to supervise the development of Changi Airport till it opened on July 1, 1981. The project was massive and we had to undertake extensive land reclamation (about 70 per cent of the Phase One land had to be reclaimed from the sea), build the airfields, Terminal 1 and all the ancillary infrastructure simultaneously, so that the airport could be completed within six years. We were building an international airport of that mammoth size the first time and many new and complex engineering problems such as the underlying soft marine clay more than 30 m below most of the airport site had to be solved.

Sim Kee Boon was one of the most dynamic leaders I have had the good fortune to work with. He was a very shrewd and experienced civil servant. He was demanding but supportive, meticulous and yet robust in thinking. His best strength was that he was a very pragmatic leader. He supervised us like a hawk, questioning us on even very trivial details and often foiled me with some layman questions which, no matter how much I prepared myself, I often couldn't answer promptly. He was always surefooted but trusting and prepared to delegate. He ensured that PWD and the DCA team worked closely under his chairmanship of the Executive Committee for Airport Development (ECAD). He also took steps to ensure the co-operation and collaboration of the Police and Immigration Department in the programme as part of the "Airport Family".

Outstanding technical leaders

We had very outstanding technical leaders in the construction programme too - Director of Public Works Yap Neng Chew, his senior colleagues Goh Keng Chew, Chua Hua Meng , Arthur Seah, Ng Chee Yoong, Tham Sing Kuan, Chong Toh Goo and many others. They were experienced engineers and architects who were very committed and determined to complete this national project satisfactorily. They gave the team confidence. We also had close collaboration and assistance from government agencies such as the URA, PUB, Parks and Recreation, Environment ministry, Home Affairs ministry, Mindef, Ministry of Transport and the Finance ministry. Everyone treated Changi Airport as a national project.

I must confess that during that time, none of us dared think of building the best airport in the world. Our aim was just to complete it in the six-year timeframe (May 1975 to July 1981) given to us.

While we did seek foreign consultants to help us to review our master plan, we took full control of the project ourselves. There were also serious initial doubts that PWD had the technical ability to build the new Changi Airport. We had never engineered a project of such a scale before. Howe Yoon Chong maintained that we could and got PSA's engineering department (SPECS) to help us in the time-critical reclamation works.

Our architects and engineers travelled extensively to study airports all over the world to gain knowhow, understand others' mistakes and think through what would work for us locally. PWD finally completed the project, with the airport planning and engineering expertise remaining with us in Singapore. That was how the expertise in Changi Airport was developed in Singapore.

The big move

We finally completed the construction, got it tested and commissioned by end-June 1981. The airport's entire operation was moved from Paya Lebar to Changi from midnight on June 30, and the first aircraft took off from Changi Airport on the morning of July 1, 1981.

We fulfilled our undertaking that we would build the airport on time and at a total cost of S$1.2 billion! This was less than the cost of building the current drain for runway 3 now! Of course, this was more than 35 years ago.

The DCA operated the airport from its opening in 1981 till 1984, when Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) was formed as a statutory board to take over the operation. Sim Kee Boon was its first chairman and Tjong Yik Min, the second. In 2005, I was appointed the chairman of CAAS after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared with me his idea to corporatise CAAS. He gave us two years to do this. We worked with the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Finance to restructure CAAS into a corporatised Changi Airport Group (CAG) and a separate statutory board, which was again named CAAS. CAAS today continues as the government authority to regulate civil aviation, while CAG is a corporate entity responsible for the operation and development of Changi Airport.

From its opening in 1981, Changi Airport was managed under DCA and as a statutory board from 1984 till 2009, when it became corporatised. What were the operating strengths of Changi Airport all these years to enable it to achieve its remarkable performances?

First, we had to ensure that our infrastructures and facilities were always up to the mark, and that we had advanced capacity to cope with aviation growth. We were prepared to build ahead of demand. Our long-term investment philosophy was "Supply drives demand". We should never get backfooted with shortages of airport capacity. Sim Kee Boon taught us this.

But what makes an airport tick is not the hardware alone. Much more important were our systems and software to ensure that Changi operated as perfectly as possible to serve international airport users. We focussed zealously on the efficiency, effectiveness and safety of all constituents of airport operation, including passengers, baggage, cargo and airlines. We set high operating standards and checked on performances regularly. If something was amiss, corrective action was taken immediately. More importantly, our staff must have the discipline to follow the systems closely and act quickly when things go wrong. Everyone cares.

We were also mindful that expectations of international passengers go beyond air transport. To attract international passengers to Changi Airport, we had to provide added attractions in shopping, F&B and other entertainment amenities as part of what we call "Changi Experiences". We now have to literally pamper passengers with lots of entertainment facilities, some of which are free, which they can use during their connection or long transit time. We have been continuously innovative in trying to make air travel easier and more fun. We have also been watchful on productivity and have invested heavily in technology for improvement.

Last but not least, we watched closely global aviation growth and constantly work with the Ministry of Transport to increase air connectivity to Singapore. We collaborated closely with airlines and other airport partners to develop and promote their air routes. Airlines must also be attracted to fly here if we want to be an air hub!

Past and present management

All these service levels are possible because the past and present management and staff are well trained, committed and enthusiastic. They are self-starters with innovation, and this is key to keeping up with the competition. I am happy to see many interesting initiatives happening without prompting and issues addressed, almost quietly, before things go wrong. They take personal responsibility to make sure Changi is run well and excels. From the toilet cleaners and gardeners to the senior airport management and leaders, all must dutifully play their role. Perfection in a complex system like an airport doesn't happen without effort. Staff are taken good care of and morale, I must say, is remarkably high.

I must also point out that Changi had a very good start when the chairman Sim Kee Boon gathered a group of very capable management team and leaders to run the airport. Lim Hock San was the first director-general till 1992; Wong Woon Liong succeeded him till 2007, with Ho Beng Huat as his deputy. Both Woon Liong and Beng Huat very ably served CAAS for 31 distinguished years, with the last 10 years as our senior advisors. Rocky Lim succeeded Woon Liong for a year and Lee Seow Hiang became the chief executive of corporatised CAG in 2009. Many other senior managers have served us well and for long periods of time too. They include Tan Lye Teck, Yam Kum Weng, Lim Peck Hoon, Foo Sek Ming and Fong Kok Wai, all of whom have served 25 to 30 years or more. Tributes must be paid to all of them for leading Changi Airport to be one of the leading air hubs in the world today.

Marshall Goldsmith's book

I have read What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.

I have provided above a rear-mirror view of the development and corporate journey of Changi Airport so that we now have a good idea of how we got here. But, as the book says, what got us here won't necessarily get us there.

The next phase of Changi Airport's development is Changi East, the building of T5 and the third runway. It is much larger, more complex and challenging than the first phase in Changi West (the current T1, T2, T3 and T4 sites). This is yet another national project for us to deliver and manage.

Although we cannot assume that what has worked successfully in bringing Changi Airport to what it is today will be sufficient to bring us to successfully complete our next phase, I am convinced that the past experiences can serve as useful guidance for us to go forward.

  • The writer is chairman of Changi Airport Group. This is from his latest weekly email to staff and associates.