Changi Airport's decision to shut down Terminal 2, when a small fire broke out in a room containing air-conditioning equipment, is a cautionary case which heads of major operations should reflect upon. In similar circumstances, doing too little might aggravate harm. A fire, for example, can easily rampage out of control. While doing too much might seize up operations, with grave knock-on effects, wholly out of proportion to a threat which proves to be minor later.
It's easy to be wise, of course, after the event. In Changi's case, the small fire at T2 was put out by the Singapore Civil Defence Force with a hose reel jet. But it was not known earlier if it would spread and damage crucial systems, and how quickly the smoke would gather in the terminal's open spaces. Attentive supervisors would also ask if what would have been an ordinary fire, in less complicated times, could in fact be the thin edge of a terror attack, in today's uncertain era. Changi chose to put safety and security above all else. That is commendable. But the execution of this principle warrants closer examination.
As a result of the fire, Changi faced the gigantic task of evacuating 15,000 people, including airport staff, from T2 to T3. Those who were in the public area were asked to leave it, while about 1,000 people were held on the tarmac. Both sets of people faced the travails of disruption, but the experience must have been especially hard for those stuck on the tarmac for up to four hours. Large-scale situations like this place a heavy burden on decision-makers to make the right call. One needless or wrong step taken in haste, in such cases, could affect thousands profoundly.
Hence, it is vital for operational heads to plan in advance so they can rely upon monitoring systems to quickly detect accidents and system failures. Emergency responses will be swift too when there are sound procedures to deal with exigencies and when crisis teams have been trained well. As no operation is immune to threats, none should ignore the need for risk management.
Though Changi's operations are generally well-oiled, it would not be reasonable to expect the airport to function like clockwork immediately after an incident. Some time will be taken for systems to come up to speed. Unfortunately, in T2's case, it took over nine hours to fully resume normal operations. Changi should aim to do better in service recovery as complexity will grow when more terminals come online.
At the very least, it should have a crisis communications plan in place. It fell short in not keeping people informed and in not making timely arrangements to ease the inconvenience suffered by many, especially those with ongoing travel arrangements. Passengers should be able to always count on Changi's high standards of both efficiency and security, even when incidents arise.