Planning and building ahead of demand are important to ensure that Changi Airport keeps ahead of its rivals, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said yesterday at the official opening of the airport's Terminal 4 (T4).
Indeed, Singapore has applied this mantra not only in aviation, but also in maritime and industrial development, he said. However, this requires sound judgment, Mr Khaw added.
"It is not simply 'build and they will come'. The aviation industry is unpredictable, subject to many disruptions, including oil prices and, at times, unhelpful governmental interventions," he said.
"Adhering to straight-line projections may end up in tears. We must be sensitive to potential disruptions and be ready to make strategic changes promptly when warranted," Mr Khaw said.
This is why the future T5, a mega passenger terminal being built at Changi East - located about 1.6km away from the current airport premises - is being designed in scalable modules and will be built in phases, Mr Khaw said.
"This is a practical approach to avoid over-investment and being caught wrong-footed, should our projections turn awry," he added.
Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong told The Straits Times that on the flip side, if passenger traffic grows more strongly than expected and capacity is needed before T5's slated opening around 2030, it is always possible to bring forward the construction timeline by three to five years.
He said: "I am a construction man. If you want me to build earlier - you have the money, you have the demand - I will build it for you. The land is already there, 1,000ha."
Changi Airport, which handled 32.1 million passengers between January and June, is expected to become busier, with strong demand for air travel - especially in the Asia-Pacific region - expected to continue for the next few decades.
T4, which took about four years to build, is a vital part of Changi's plans to accommodate growth.
Since it started operations on Oct 31 last year, the terminal, which can cater for up to 16 million passengers a year, has handled about six million passengers.
Changi's four passenger terminals can now accommodate up to 82 million passengers a year.
In his speech at the official opening, Mr Khaw highlighted a memo that Mr Liew sent to his colleagues after T4's soft opening last year. In it, Mr Liew pointed out that planning ahead had always been part of the airport's modus operandi.
Mr Liew, who has been involved in the various stages of airport development since 1975, wrote: "When Changi Airport opened in July 1981, both Changi and Paya Lebar Airport together handled only about eight million passengers that year.
"Amid severe scepticism from senior economists, we masterplanned Changi's future capacity to cater for the maximum demand of 30 million passengers per annum (mppa). We were proven right. Indeed, Changi Airport hit that maximum plan of 30 mppa as early as 2004, much sooner than expected."
"An overcrowded airport cannot be an attractive air hub," he added.
Mr Khaw said: "If you don't have the capacity to serve, you lose business to your competitors. It is as simple as that."
Apart from providing much-needed capacity, T4 also functions as a test bed for technology that will be used in T5.
It is only in T4 that passengers can experience start-to-end automated do-it-yourself processes.
The terminal is the first at Changi Airport to use facial recognition to ensure that the same traveller moves from the first to the last step - for check-in, bag tagging, immigration clearance and boarding.