Air force veteran in pilot's seat of T4 project

Woman at helm says it won't be just a larger version of Budget Terminal

In conceptualising Changi Airport's upcoming Terminal 4, one thing Ms Poh Li San wanted to do was shake off the "ghost" of the former Budget Terminal.

She noted that many people initially thought the new terminal would just be a larger version of a no-frills terminal that lacks many facilities.

"But in my mind, it was quite clear it should just be like the main terminals," said Ms Poh, Changi Airport Group's (CAG) vice-president in charge of the T4 project.

Last month, CAG announced that T4 will be built by Japanese industrial firm Takenaka Corporation for $985 million.

When ready in 2017, it can take up to 16 million passengers a year, and provide aircraft stands with aerobridges for four wide-body aircraft and 17 smaller planes.

Ms Poh, 38, was involved with the T4 project from the start, when CAG began debating the future of the Budget Terminal.

She joined CAG in 2010 after a 16-year career with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, which saw her pilot Super Puma helicopters on rescue missions and subsequently becoming the first woman to be appointed full-time aide-de-camp to the President.

Some memorable moments include a two-week deployment to Aceh, Indonesia after the devastating tsunami in December 2004, and evacuating an old woman who suffered severe intestinal bleeding on a cruise ship in the South China Sea.

CAG appointed her the head of airport operations for the Budget Terminal, which by its fourth year of operations was close to hitting its maximum capacity of seven million passengers a year.

She said there were already plans to expand the now-defunct terminal to handle 11 million passengers a year, but doing so in the midst of operations would be very challenging due to the lack of space.

"So we started looking at closing off BT once-off... and doing the expansion one time round," she said.

After studies that took about a year, CAG eventually decided to close the Budget Terminal and build a much bigger terminal - T4 - in its place.

Apart from meeting the capacity crunch, Ms Poh said another key consideration was the challenges CAG faced in managing passengers' high expectations of the Budget Terminal. Passengers may want to fly low cost, but they also want good terminal offerings, she noted. "Even my best friends, after they came back from their travels, they told me that BT didn't have shopping and they got very upset."

In terms of facilities, the future two-storey T4 will have similar offerings to those found in Terminals 1 to 3, with escalators, lifts, entertainment areas, spruced-up toilets and retail offerings.

It will also have kerbless driveways, and a boulevard of trees inside the waiting areas by the boarding gates to improve the ambience of the terminal, she said.

Unlike the other terminals, T4 will feature more do-it-yourself options, such as for check-in, and greater automation.

One reason for this is a manpower crunch, Ms Poh said. But she also believes self check-in terminals will reduce the time passengers spend waiting in line.

"I think in terms of the passenger experience, it's much, much more superior."

The bus shuttle service between T4 and the other terminals will be enhanced, she added, so it is no different from the Skytrain in terms of waiting time and comfort.

On T4 serving as a test-bed for the future Terminal 5, she said CAG will be studying concepts such as automation that could further reduce the reliance on manpower.

But for now, she is focused on turning T4 into a facility that passengers will enjoy using.

She said: "I hope we have thought (it) through so well and really understood passengers so well that the more they use it, the more they love it and want to use it again. Same for airlines."

roysim@sph.com.sg