A TOAST TO AN IMPROBABLE NATION: THE FIRST STEPS TOWARDS A FIRST-CLASS AIRPORT

Up, up... And away

Above: Changi Airport now, as seen from the control tower. Terminal 2 is on the left, Terminal 3 on the right.
Above: Changi Airport now, as seen from the control tower. Terminal 2 is on the left, Terminal 3 on the right.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Above: The same area in 1984. The first runway is on the right and the second runway on the left.
Above: The same area in 1984. The first runway is on the right and the second runway on the left.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW
Far left: Mr Foo See San (left) and Mr Sim Kok Chwee in Terminal 1 of Changi Airport. They were among the airport staff who made the move from Paya Lebar Airport to Changi in 1981. Left: Passengers checking in at Changi Airport's departure hall on Ju
Above: Mr Foo See San (left) and Mr Sim Kok Chwee in Terminal 1 of Changi Airport. They were among the airport staff who made the move from Paya Lebar Airport to Changi in 1981.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Far left: Mr Foo See San (left) and Mr Sim Kok Chwee in Terminal 1 of Changi Airport. They were among the airport staff who made the move from Paya Lebar Airport to Changi in 1981. Left: Passengers checking in at Changi Airport's departure hall on Ju
Above: Passengers checking in at Changi Airport's departure hall on July 1, 1981, the day the new airport opened for business.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

In the 34 years since it took over from Paya Lebar Airport as Singapore's civil aviation hub, Changi Airport has seen amazing growth. Those who were there at the start recall the big move.

It was June 30, 1981 - the night before the big move to Changi Airport and its opening day. Operations executive Foo See San stood at twilight, taking in for the last time the sight of Paya Lebar Airport which had for 26 years been Singapore's civil flight hub. Vans waited to transport his team to their new home.

Much preparation had led to this next step in the young nation's ambitions to rise up the global transport ranks. Mr Foo, 67, who joined the then Department of Civil Aviation in 1969, recalled: "There was a buzz in the air, excitement, anticipation, nervousness all rolled into one. We had prepared for the move for months and the day had come."

Mr Foo, now a senior associate (airside operations) with Changi Airport Group, said: "I was part of the group that left just after 7pm. The last people out were those accompanying the ground-handling equipment, which needed police escort."

At 7am on July 1, 1981, Changi Airport was officially opened for business with the landing of Singapore Airlines Flight SQ101, which had left Kuala Lumpur about an hour earlier with 140 passengers.

Mr Sim Kok Chwee, 55, then a passenger services agent with ground handling firm Sats, was so excited that he turned up for work that morning three hours early. "I could not find my office! The place was huge and looked different from when we did the orientation tour," said the freelance aviation writer.

  • AIRPORT MILESTONES

  • • July 1, 1981: Changi Airport opens; operations were moved from Paya Lebar.


    • 1986: Changi crosses 10-million annual passenger mark; second passenger terminal being built.


    • 1988: Wins its first Best Airport in the World title, from Business Traveller (UK) magazine.


    • 1994: Surpasses 20 million in annual passengers.


    • 2002: Opens a separate facility, now replaced by JetQuay CIP Terminal, for private jet passengers like celebrities and business tycoons.


    • March 2006: $45 million Budget Terminal starts operation.


    • May 2006: Economic Development Board unveils multimillion-dollar plan to transform Seletar Airport into regional hub for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul. British engines giant Rolls-Royce has since opened a $700-million facility there.


    • 2007: Singapore Airlines is the first airline to launch commercial flights with the Airbus 380, the world's biggest passenger jet.


    • 2009: Civil Aviation Authority is split to create Changi Airport Group, focusing on running the airport.


    • March 2012: Budget Terminal to be torn down to make way for Terminal 4, opening in second half of 2017.


    • July 2012: 1,000ha plot earmarked for Changi Airport's expansion, including Terminal 5.


    • 2013: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveils plans for Jewel - a $1.7-billion retail-cum- airport structure in front of Terminal 1, to open in 2018.


    • 2015: Changi Airport reports record number of 54.1 million passengers handled in 2014.

With Paya Lebar bursting at the seams, work began in 1974 on an expansion recommended by foreign experts. But in 1975, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew pushed for the move to Changi. An airport on the coast would give room for future expansion but there were serious doubts that the move could be done by mid-1981 when Singapore would need a bigger airport badly, especially when half the site needed to be reclaimed from the sea.

In the end, it was done.

Mr Sim recalled that on the first day, operations went smoothly until the evening, when the computer system crashed - and continued to act up for weeks.

Mr Foo, who was stationed on the tarmac where bags were loaded and offloaded, said: "There was so much confusion. The information screens were down, so people offloading the bags didn't know which belts had been assigned to which flights. Passengers getting off didn't know where to get their bags.

"In the end, we had to put the information on signboards."

Thirty-four years after a somewhat-shaky start, Changi Airport has grown from one to three terminals. A fourth opens in 2017 and another, Terminal 5, will be the airport's biggest when it opens in about a decade.

By then, Changi's annual passenger handling capacity will increase from 66 million now to 135 million.

The airport, a passenger transit point and destination and also a cargo hub, is vital to Singapore's economic success, connecting the nation to about 300 cities in 70 countries and territories. The aviation sector directly accounts for 3 per cent of gross domestic product and employs over 50,000 workers.

However, challenges lie ahead amid increasing competition from airports in Hong Kong, South Korea, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai.

Changi, though, has bagged more than 450 accolades, including many world's-best-airport awards.

Policymakers have not rested on their laurels, but constantly seek improvements. Indeed, construction is under way for Jewel - a $1.7-billion retail-cum-airport structure in front of Terminal 1.

As Mr Sim put it: "The growth in the last 34 years has been unbelievable. It has been a truly amazing journey for the airport and for Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'The first steps towards a first-class airport'. Print Edition | Subscribe