Changi Airport, in Singapore, is the 15th busiest airport in the world. It serves more than 51 million passengers a year—about the same as New York City’s JFK—but very much unlike JFK, it is universally popular, beloved even. Changi has placed in the top three of the Skytrax “best airport” rankings for the past 14 years, and it topped the list for the fourth time again this year.
I recently spent several days at Changi trying to find out. In contrast to the airports that have gotten the most attention in recent years, such as Beijing’s international terminal (designed by Norman Foster) or Madrid Barajas Terminal 4 (designed by Richard Rogers), Changi doesn’t dazzle with architectural spectacle. As I stood on a moving walkway and glided past a lengthy expanse of green carpet, I wondered if I’d somehow arrived in the wrong airport.
What does it even mean to be the best airport in the world? Efficiency is certainly at the top of the list. You want all the moving parts to work. Check-in should be flawless. Security procedures should be swift and rationally organized. You should be able to find your gate, your suitcase, and anything else you need without thinking about it. And flights should take off and land more or less on schedule. But those tasks are the baseline; any airport, in theory, should be able to get them right. Being the best requires more.
According to architect Bill Hooper, who heads the aviation practice at Gensler, a global firm and leader in airport design, the best terminals “anticipate what your needs are when you need them.” Those needs—the varied desires of tens of millions of travelers a year—might include plentiful daylight, comfortable seating, reliable free Wi-Fi, and good or even great restaurants. But there are also qualities that are harder to pin down, an aviation “it” factor. “When I fly through Munich, it’s crisp, but not so sterile as to be unwelcoming,” says Hooper of his personal favorite outside the United States. Another architect who designs airports for a living, Anthony Mosellie of Kohn Pedersen Fox, champions Hong Kong for the almost miraculous way it whooshes passengers from the train station in central Hong Kong, where there’s an airline baggage check, to an airport that is famously a breeze to navigate. “The airport is a reflection of the mentality of Hong Kong,” Mosellie notes.
Indeed, it was when I began to see Changi as a reflection of Singapore’s mentality that I really came to appreciate the place. Staying at the exceptional Changi Crowne Plaza Hotel (great swimming pool), I explored the public areas of the airport’s three terminals as I might an exotic urban neighborhood. And I could see that Changi’s goodness isn’t so much about how the place looks—although it definitely has its aesthetic moments—but how it feels. Somehow Singapore’s airport authority has managed to embed the island nation’s oxymoronic culture—call it technocratic humanism—into a transportation facility.
No, Singapore’s airport isn’t as overtly futuristic as Seoul’s Incheon, nor does it have the calculated coziness of Amsterdam’s Schiphol. But it is of a piece with its city, at once hyper-organized and packed with carefully crafted pleasures. My most vivid memories of Changi are of the thousands of butterflies in the idyllic two-level Butterfly Garden in the new Terminal 3 (T3). One of five specialty gardens throughout the airport—others feature sunflowers, cacti, orchids, and ferns—this one muffles airport din with a waterfall and has a see-through “Emergence Enclosure” where the cocoons come of age. More than the airport’s two movie theaters, various TV-watching lounges, and endless other diversions, this somewhat contrived encounter with nature was, for me, the perfect antidote to that pickled sensation I get from spending a solid day in flight.
Changi is also well-equipped for napping. All three terminals have dedicated areas such as the Snooze Lounge, in T3, where travelers can stretch out on chaises for as long as they’d like. I dozed for a bit ahead of my 12:30 a.m. departure to Tokyo in T2’s Sanctuary, where upholstered chairs are lined up facing a babbling indoor brook and mini jungle of broad-leafed tropical plants. And Changi is also a terrific airport for eating: I had several memorable meals, including a credible version of the local specialty, Hainanese chicken rice.
Mostly, though, Changi aims to be a place where people are happy to idle, whether they’re travelers with long layovers or—and this is the curious part—Singaporeans who want to do a little shopping or let their children loose in the public areas. “We are a land-scarce country,” explains Ivan Tan, who works in the airport’s communications department. Singaporeans regard Changi as “a big open space where kids can roam free,” he says. Indeed, T3 is stocked with a most amazing collection of toy stores and video arcades and a pay-to-enter playground with rides, long slides, and surreal inflated animals, all accessible without passing through security.
All of this is what the management refers to as the “Changi experience.” No, Changi isn’t beautiful, exactly—it’s humane. And humanity is something at which the staff works overtime. “Every day on the ground at Changi we conduct surveys,” Tan says. “We know when things don’t work.” Even objects offer surveys: every restroom, for example, has a wall-mounted screen that says please rate your experience. Below that is a row of simple faces ranging from grinning to frowning. If you tap anything lower than “good” (a smile), you’ll get a questionnaire: Wet floor? No toilet paper? The real-time feedback means problems are solved very quickly.
And, in theory, if you simply stand around looking perplexed, one of more than 200 iPad-wielding Changi Experience Agents—men in purple blazers and women in pink—will buttonhole you, ask what’s wrong, and attempt to fix the problem. I had coffee with a couple of them who told me stories of helping passengers who’d missed their flights or whose relatives were trapped in passport control with visa issues, or were simply looking for an outlet to charge a cell phone.
In a small, densely populated nation like Singapore, little things count. Many of Changi’s best innovations are small and considerate, such as the charging stations with rows of little lockable boxes, so you can safely leave your cell phone while you wander the terminal. There are free foot-massage machines (socks on, please) on every concourse. Even the acres of carpeting are part of the thoughtful culture: you can tell you’ve crossed from one terminal to the next when the pattern shifts.
By the time I left, I had come to realize that the amenities that make an airport exceptional are pretty much antithetical to the beeline nature of airports. And against all odds, Changi is as good at getting you in and out and on your way as it is at welcoming you to stay awhile.