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Airport cities


21 September 2016


The Kinetic Rain art installation at Changi Airport’s Terminal 1 departure lounge is a crowd puller. Pic/Shukor Yusof

By the time you finished reading this blog and perhaps “Liked” it, a visitor arriving at Singapore’s Changi Airport would have cleared immigration and found a taxi that would take him/her at most 30 minutes to a hotel in the city centre.

Changi Airport is ranked the World’s Best Airport for 2015 (ahead of Incheon, South Korea and Munich, Germany) and this week we’re spending some time traipsing around the marvellous airhub to see what makes it tick.

We find ourselves finally ensconced at one corner of Terminal 2, having traversed all three terminals using the Skytrain (which runs every 2-3 minutes) and which seems to work so much better than Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) trains which, in recent years, have a habit of breaking down ever so often.

Why is Changi Airport consistently voted among the world’s top 3 airports? Over 13 million travellers participated in the recent poll. They voted for their favourite airports based on ease of transfer, immigration, shopping, passenger facilities, among others.


32 years ago… a teenager bound for the UK with his mother in front of the Spirit of Man, a sculpture by Ng Eng Teng at Changi’s Terminal 1

The washrooms at Changi, for one, are among the cleanest in the world. Cleaners stand guard at the entrance, ready to sanitise and wipe off the minutest drop of water on the floor. The standard of cleanliness is at par with any five-star hotel washrooms in the city centre. And that’s no easy feat if one has been to washrooms in other airports…

The completion in 2018 of a SGD1.7 billion retail-cum-airport structure – known simply as Jewel – is set to augment Changi Airport’s continuing role as the gateway of Southeast Asia. The mega mall is being built right in front of Terminal 1, across the iconic control tower.


Constantly evolving and innovating: Construction work of the Jewel mall goes on in front of Changi Airport’s iconic control tower. Pic/Shukor Yusof

We digress. Airport cities such as Changi illustrate the benefits of having a multi-functional aero metropolis that not only helps in retaining Singapore’s position as an aviation hub in Southeast Asia but plays the role of a catalyst in economic development and strengthens the island state’s competitive advantage.

Indeed, Changi Airport has been instrumental in providing job opportunities for decades and continues to be a hub of employment for locals and foreigners, especially those living close by. And because public transport in Singapore is relatively cheap and convenient, even those living in the west (Changi is in the east) find the commute painless.

There are many city airports around the world. Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, better known as Subang Airport in Kuala Lumpur, like Changi, is reachable by taxi within 30-45 minutes from downtown unless of course, one is stalled by KL’s notorious traffic jams, which unfortunately, occurs rather frequently.


Tired looking – Subang Airport’s main terminal. Pic/Shukor Yusof

The Malaysian government has a policy of allowing only propeller-driven aircraft out of Subang Airport, hence it is currently served mostly by low-cost carriers Firefly and Malindo primarily because they operate the ATR72 aircraft. However, there are exceptions: Raya Airways, a cargo operator and WestStar Aviation both own jet aircraft that fly out of Subang.

We think Subang is very much underused and underestimated (as a potential air hub). Its location is clearly very advantageous to Kuala Lumpur and with the newly completed rail link, makes access more bearable compared to the international terminals at Sepang.


WestStar’s Boeing 727 is one of the very few jet aircraft allowed to fly out of Subang Airport. Pic/Shukor Yusof

Likewise, half a world away in Buenos Aires, Argentina lies another city airport – Jorge Newberry Airfield – an international airport a mere 2km from the city centre and not far from where Evita Peron is interned at La Recoleta (if you visit Buenos Aires, pop into the cemetery), located in a leafy neighbourhood.

Newbery Airfield connects Buenos Aires to key cities in South America, mostly on Aerolineas Argentinas and LATAM Chile (formerly LAN Airlines). Newbery Airfield has limited banking facilities, so if you plan to arrive late and without any Argentine Pesos, you’ll have a tricky time (tip: buy a drink at the bar using US Dollars only, and ask for local currency as change).


A LAN Chile Boeing 737 parked at Newbery Airfield, Buenos Aires. Pic/Shukor Yusof

Notwithstanding its modicum facilities, Newbery Airfield works better than the main airport – Ezeiza Ministro Pistarini – 34km southwest of Buenos Aires and the entry points for flights coming from Europe, the Middle East and North America.


Aerolineas Argentinas route map at Newbery Airfield, Buenos Aires. Pic/Shukor Yusof

There is a strong case to be made in employing the city airport (or airport city) business model, as it integrates other aspects unrelated to aviation, including commercial land use, retail (shopping – Changi’s upcoming Jewel will set the trend), meeting and conference centres, and other non-aeronautical possibilities.

The economic influence of airports, especially those within cities, is greater than what many governments have realised. It remains to be seen if the growth of air traffic in Asia Pacific will result in more airport cities…


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