A tale of three airports ― David Leo
AUG 8 ― Changi Airport came second after Incheon International in this year’s Skytrax survey of the world’s best airports. Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) was third.
Since 2007, the three airports have been dominating the top three positions, and it looked as if they were taking turns on the winner’s podium. Go back another five years; it was always a close race between Changi and HKIA.
What this tells us is the fierce competition among the three airports, their narrow winning margins and how easily their positions can switch.
I am, however, convinced that Changi will regain its top spot within a year or two, the odds no doubt boosted by the renovations at Terminal 1 costing S$500 million (RM1.25 billion) and boasting more shops, restaurants and open spaces.
But what can possibly give Changi the winning edge this time?
Like Changi, Incheon and HKIA also boast spacious layouts. HKIA, in particular, is a shopper’s paradise and often commended for the variety and quality of meals served at a myriad of restaurants.
The luxury of space means a greater opportunity to provide features and facilities to delight travellers. In Incheon, it is not difficult to find a private corner for some shuteye.
Meanwhile, Changi travellers can enjoy a movie or dip in a swimming pool. Little wonder that the Singapore airport has become the favourite of transit passengers.
All three airports are efficient in many aspects of airport services, including immigration and check-in queues, baggage delivery wait times and ease of transfers. I am impressed by HKIA’s efficiency in transferring baggage with barely an hour’s connection.
All three airports also maintain a high level of cleanliness; operators are friendly and helpful. A new traveller passing through HKIA may be baffled by its layout, but this is compensated by the presence of several helpdesks. On the other hand, Changi’s linear layout may mean an anxious trot to the boarding gate.
Each of the three airports, of course, has its fair share of brickbats about rude and unhelpful staff as well as incidents of inefficiency.
A common gripe about Changi is the difficulty of accessing Wi-Fi and the lack of facilities for recharging electronic devices ― less of a hassle with HKIA. However, directional signs at the Hong Kong airport can be confusing. Also, many shops in Incheon do not stay open after 10pm.
The city is more accessible from Changi and HKIA than Incheon, which is too far away from Seoul. But, at the end of the day, they are still head and shoulders above the rest of the world.
It is a tight race among the three airports for the top spot, with Changi having won thrice, Incheon twice and HKIA eight times since 2000. It would be a mistake though to ignore other growing airports in the region.
In the same 2012 Skytrax survey, Narita International Airport was the world’s best for airport security processing, Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) for immigration service, Beijing Capital International Airport for speedy and efficient baggage delivery and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for the best airport staff in Asia. These are indications that you cannot rest on your laurels, as Changi used to be tops, or near there, in these areas.
How then will the refurbished Terminal 1 score for Changi? There are more shops, a comfortable nap zone, more of the garden beauty and even men’s toilets that offer a clear tarmac view while you do what is necessary.
What Changi lacks in the gift of geography that is bestowed upon HKIA, where unobstructed views of the city skyline, mountains and waters are apt to fascinate travellers with time to spare, Changi makes up with simulations and alternative diversions. But all that is not the real clincher.
Many travellers were overwhelmed by the terminal’s architecture and facilities when Changi opened in 1981, but over the years it has become jaded and tired-looking. Travellers’ feedback cited a certain “something” that has been lost or is missing.
The perception is that it is not what it used to be, even as it is physically not much changed and the airport continues to maintain its service standards. It is the “fatigue” factor that older airports, not just Changi, must heed to stay ahead of the competition.
While Terminal 3 (opened in 2008) is still considered one of the world’s best terminals, Terminal 1 along with Terminal 2 (1990) have lost the glamour they used to exude, particularly when compared with the terminals at newer airports. The road to winning is constant renewal to continually excite and overwhelm the traveller. It is a winner’s curse that demands that you be better than you were, much more than being better than others. ― Today
* David Leo is an aviation veteran and author.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.