Growing pains as Changi grapples with busy skies


LACK OF LONG-TERM THINKING: With the Budget Terminal closing down, low-cost carrier passengers will pay higher airport fees

THE Budget Terminal sits like a misfit in a discreet corner of super-modern Changi Airport, a throwback to a sleepy past where buildings were frills-free and functional.

On Sept 25, that six-year-old sore thumb will be removed to the glee of the I-told-you-so-people like Tan Sri Tony Fernandes who refused to move AirAsia. Instead, his airline and Jetstar Asia decided to stay put in Terminal 1 and are reaping the benefits of long-term thinking and hassle-free connectivity.

When the planners decided to build the budget terminal, they obviously under-estimated the potential growth of low-cost travel which made up 12 million of Changi's 46.5 million passengers last year.

Back in 1981, Changi burst onto the scene with just one terminal building. The man behind it, visionary civil servant Sim Kee Boon, had the foresight to leave space for more terminal buildings to be used if air travel did boom. Boom it did and now Singapore has three main terminal buildings with a fourth on the way.

There was minimal disruption to travellers and airlines when Terminals 2 and 3 were being built, even with passenger figures hitting 46.5 million a year. Fast forward to this year and Singapore has an airport terminal building being closed down and many passengers and low-cost carriers having to pay higher airport fees because of the move to Terminal 1.

"The Budget Terminal was born out of necessity in response to the demands from the emerging low-cost carriers, in particular Singapore's Tiger Airways, for a cheaper alternative to Changi's existing terminals. But very soon, it became clear that there were several issues," says Siva Govindasamy, Asia managing editor at Flightglobal.

"Airlines like AirAsia and Jetstar did not want to move to the terminal, which did not have convenient connections for passengers to Changi's other terminals. Singapore is not necessarily an end-point destination, but more of a hub from which passengers go from one city to another.

"The Budget Terminal was soon not big enough, even for an airline like Tiger Airways, and expansion became necessary. That led to the third problem -- it could not be expanded at its existing location as there was no space for growth due to the surrounding buildings.

"Changi has had to come up with a brand new terminal. It would have a short-term impact on the low-cost carriers, but it is much better for them and the airport in the long-term to have a dedicated terminal that can handle both small and big aircraft, and many more aircraft and passengers. And it would be able to compete more effectively with the new low-cost terminal that is coming up in Kuala Lumpur."

There are other dark clouds forming over the Changi sky. A Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa) report said trying to accommodate a projected seven million budget travellers at Terminal 2 will only make the creeping air traffic congestion worse.

The bigger problem is Terminal 1, which is reaching 80 per cent of its capacity. AirAsia, Jetstar and Emirates are displaying the potential to make the crunch worse.

The good news is Terminal 3 is operating at just more than 50 per cent capacity and the building of Terminal 4 will add some breathing space. The other problem is the squeeze on the two runways, according to Capa: "As low-cost carriers primarily operate narrow body aircraft, this has led to higher growth in aircraft than passenger movements.

"As a result, taxi times have increased steadily and it is now common for planes to queue for take-off for over 30 minutes during peak hours."

And there is the decision on who should use the third runway, which is some distance away and not linked to the two that commercial flights in and out of Changi use. It is for the exclusive use of the military.

"Many of the airlines are complaining about the delays and the conservative approach taken by the airport when it comes to aircraft separation," adds Govindasamy.

"Some recent steps will help to alleviate this and there will be more in the future. What Changi really needs is a third runway that can handle the growth not just in the near term, but also over the medium and long term."

Instead of building a new runway, he suggests, the military runway could be converted for civilian use.

"The competition is growing, especially from the Gulf countries like Dubai where a brand new airport that will eventually be able to handle 160 million passengers annually with five runways is being planned. There will be opposition from the military but Singapore needs to decide if its long-term future as a transport and economic hub is more important than the needs of its air force."

Changi Airport, the pride of Singapore, is now facing some very difficult choices. Should it locate the fourth terminal closer to the military runway so that it can use it when or if the decision is taken on that runway? Should it go ahead with the proposed location for the fourth building and reserve land for a fifth terminal building?

Changi's status and future depend on how these questions are answered. Before that, a Sim Kee Boon-type personality needs to emerge to take charge.

A Qantas Airbus A330-300 aircraft is parked between a Jetstar Airbus A320 and a British Airways plane in Changi Airport in this Oct 29, 2011 picture. Changi Airport is struggling to cope with the boom in low-cost air travel. Reuters pic

P. N. Balji, a Singapore journalist for more than 35 years, is now a media consultant.

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