SINGAPORE - Queues in front of check-in counters - not seen since the pandemic hit in 2020 - made a welcome return to Changi Airport on Friday morning (April 1).
In the previously mostly empty terminals, travellers towed luggage and checked flight schedules on the now-busy display screens. Crowds formed along the walkways and cafes enjoyed brisk business.
On the first day of Singapore's doing away with vaccinated travel lane flights and on-arrival tests for quarantine-free travel, a tentative sense of normality returned to Terminals 1 and 3.
Mr Franklin Tang, 44, queued for an hour to check in, despite reaching the airport at 7.45am for a 10am flight to the Maldives.
The line was completely unexpected, the chief executive of a property technology company said. He and his family are visiting one of the newly opened Maldives resorts, and had booked tickets before the announcement to scrap VTL flights was made last week.
"It's nice to hold an actual plane ticket in my hand. There were quite a few flights in the morning to different places but only one row for check-in was open. Some automated check-in machines also could not be used so we had to get in line," he told The Straits Times.
"I read that operations are being ramped up now so maybe this is the transition period. It's certainly exciting to travel again."
According to Changi Airport Group data, 703,000 people used Changi Airport in February, up from 118,000 in the same period a year ago. Transport Minister S. Iswaran has said that more travellers are expected in the coming months, with Terminal 2 slated to be reopened in phases.
Airlines caution that it is too early to speak of an upward trend, with the number of flights each day yet to change dramatically, but the removal of the VTL cap on passengers has had an instant effect at Changi.
The authorities' target for airport traffic to return to 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels this year now seems more within reach. It was at about 13 per cent last month.
The crowd on Friday included those who had not travelled in a long time, and families who finally have a chance to reunite. Malaysia also reopened its borders and loosened travel restrictions on Friday.
Ms Nicky Chan, 26, a hairstylist who works in Singapore, booked her flight to Penang after learning of the loosening of travel measures last week.
She had not seen her family in Malaysia for more than a year, and did not manage to book a flight back home during Chinese New Year.
"It was too much of a hassle," she said. "VTL flights are harder to arrange and I might not be able to get one back to Singapore. (Flying on a non-VTL flight), I would have to miss many weeks of work and quarantine away from my family, which defeats the purpose of returning home."
Malaysian Jamunah Krishnan, a 40-year-old production operator for a wafer company, was setting foot here for the first time in two years of working from home in Kuala Lumpur for a Singapore company.
"It feels so good to be back. I miss the food here," she said.
Cafes and restaurants in the Changi Airport terminals said they are enjoying more business.
A spokesman for Coffee Club at Terminal 3 said the number of customers has doubled in recent weeks and his outlet is now short of staff,after many employees returned home to Malaysia during the pandemic.
Mr Piyara Singh, a supervisor at restaurant TGM & ROOT98 in Terminal 1, is now more upbeat about prospects. The eatery serves about 200 tables on weekends and 150 on weekdays, compared with about 100 daily last year.
"Usually when I start at 11am, we will no longer have any customers after the morning flight crowd dies down, but today we still have five tables. Management is looking into hiring more people after we lost some staff in the last two years," he said.
Ms Fang Ping, a 29-year-old sales assistant at Bengawan Solo in Terminal 3, said the bakery had more patrons than usual on Friday.
"Usually, the crowd in the departure hall dies down at 8am to 9am, but it's 11am, and the queues are still long," she noted.
About 90 per cent of tenants in the public areas of the terminals and 65 per cent of those in the immigration halls have reopened, ST understands.
Global passenger volume has now returned to 55 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels.
The region is closely watched by observers, who have said that intra-South-east Asian flights post-pandemic should grow at a rate of 6.7 per cent, higher than the global average of 4 per cent, and emerging as the fifth-largest market in the world.