Singapore’s former budget terminal takes flight

Change comes to Changi as its Terminal 4, one of the first to deploy unmanned check-in and transit through facial recognition tech, foreshadows the airport of the future

Les Oiseaux (The Birds), a handcrafted wire sculpture by Cédric Le Borgne, soars above Changi T4

When Terminal 4 of Singapore’s Changi International Airport opened in 2017, architect Mink Tan was among the awestruck observers.

One of the panel of judges at the 2018 PropertyGuru Asia Property Awards (Singapore), which saw T4 win the Special Recognition for Public Facility, Tan is no stranger to leading-edge infrastructure design. But when he first visited the new terminal, the founder of architectural practice Minkke Architects admits he was “absolutely, pleasantly shocked.”

“T4 exceeded my expectation,” says Tan. “And I don’t think I’m exaggerating because I hear fellow friends in the industry echoing the same thoughts.”

Clean, efficient, safe, secure—T4 is on brand for Changi, which has some 560 awards under its belt and has consistently rated as the world’s best airport. T4 is the first Changi terminal to deploy end-to-end Fast and Seamless Travel (FAST), a system that empowers departing passengers to perform self-service and undergo automated verification processes from check-in to boarding.

The two-storey, 25-metre high structure replaces the Budget Terminal (BT) that opened in 2006 as a no-frills wing of Changi. With a capacity of seven million passengers per annum, BT ran its course against the double-digit growth of low-cost carriers (LCCs) and had to be torn down for a full-service successor.

With a gross floor area of 225,000 square metres, T4 is massive, able to handle 16 million passengers annually. Eleven airlines serving over 20 destinations currently operate out of T4. Compared to T3, which Tan relates can come across as “very technical, almost cold, corporate-like,” T4 exudes a warmer atmosphere. “One thing I’ve always wanted the airports in Changi to do is make one feel like one is not walking through a typically sterile environment,” he says. “With T4, you don’t feel like you’re in an airport.”

A special ‘heritage zone’ homes in on Singaporean culture with shophouse replicas home to eateries and shops serving local food and items

FAST hinges on a facial recognition technology that utilises one’s countenance as an admission token at key departure touchpoints. The passport photo scanned at one of 65 automated check-in kiosks at the departure hall is compared against the photo automatically taken of the passenger at the 50 or so self-service bag drop machines. Immigration gates are largely unmanned, using facial authentication to verify passengers, quickly followed by independent fingerprint recognition. Another photo of the passenger is taken at the Automated Boarding Gate, which verifies it against the image captured at immigration.

Apropos of the smart tech under its roof, T4 subverted traditional construction approaches. The Changi Airport Group (CAG), which has been operating the terminals since their corporatisation in 2009, built T4 using Develop and Construct (D&C), a method oft-reserved for modular buildings.

Innovative construction approaches were necessary as the project was racing against time, according to Poh Li San, vice president at the T4 Programme Management Office. “The biggest challenge was the tight schedule, to complete the entire project within five years,” says Li San, who headed the Budget Terminal’s airport operations.

An immersive LED wall starring Singapore’s dramatic cityscape greets passengers in the central security screening area

Takenaka Corporation, which won T4’s SGD985-million (USD713.6 million) construction contract, built the terminal “hat-first”, i.e. assembling the columns and the roof before the intermediate floors. These were done even as blueprints were changing, with around 70 versions ultimately produced. Early construction of the roof gave enough time for trials of the baggage handling systems in dry premises.

T4 opened in July 2017, three years since construction started. “With a common vision, strong teamwork, careful planning, and tight coordination amongst all the teams, we delivered T4 well on time,” Li San says.

Hands-on during the planning and design stages of the FAST interface and automated check-in kiosks, the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority of Singapore (ICA) did not leave such nascent technology to chance. However, the agency made concessions in security clearances: letting its automated immigration system integrate with T4’s biometrics system, for example. In return, CAG built mock-ups and prototypes of equipment and process flows to assuage edgy ICA executives.

It’s a combination of an airport terminal, resting point, and a shopping mall. It’s a unique typology that will set new grounds, new benchmarks

Time shaved by FAST allows passengers to enjoy the myriad dining and shopping options on offer. “Boarding gate” is a misnomer here, as passengers have free rein in T4’s Boarding Corridor. Instead of holding rooms, a boulevard of 160 ficus trees, sprayed with atomised water every two hours, demarcates the departure gates’ boarding areas from the common areas.

CAG capitalised on architecture firm Benoy’s retail design prowess to give passengers a prime shopping experience. “It’s a combination of an airport terminal, resting point, and a shopping mall,” says Tan. “It’s a very unique typology that will set new grounds, new benchmarks. I think it will bode well for other transit hubs where people spend 10 to 12 hours doing nothing in the airport.”

More: Meet the American architect changing China’s cities

Benoy conceived a barrier-free, integrated duty-free zone, bisected by a walkway wide enough to accommodate about five trolleys abreast. Major brands and labels from Michael Kors to TWG line the promenade of retail spaces with 11-metre-high façades. “It feels like going through a series of lounge-like areas rather than a typical airport terminal. They kind of almost overwhelm your senses as you’re embarking on a long walk to your boarding gate. I like that. It really is like a nice mall,” Tan says.

The terminal offers everything from state-of-the-art automated check-in kiosks to a grand retail promenade featuring luxury brands

T4’s retail component retains its Singaporean character, as shops and cafes at the Heritage Zone are reminiscent of the city’s famous shophouses. Two of these are 10-metre-wide digital displays in disguise, which regularly transmute into the six-minute clip “Peranakan Love Story.”

Similar spectacles await. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on a visit to the terminal, is said to have been caught by surprise by massive stone carvings at the Central Security Screening that revealed themselves to be a giant LED wall that transformed into shimmering petals. “I remember him saying, ‘Ah, what have you guys done here?’” recalls Jayson Goh, CAG’s managing director for airport operations management, in a local interview.

Floral motifs, very much in line with Singapore’s branding as the Garden City, abound in the terminal. “The colour schemes are very natural, very vibrant. Even the lines on the floor and the ceiling are so organic,” says Tan.

The baggage claim hall at Changi T4

The 300-metre, canyon-like Central Galleria simultaneously divides and gives a clear view of the public and transit areas, allowing passengers and loved ones to see each other even after immigration. High above this tree-lined gulf are kinetic sculptures called Petalclouds, hailed among the world’s biggest. Other art installations provide a visual foil to the terminal’s futuristic apparatus. A 500-kilogram sculpture near the check-in kiosks, “Hey, Ah Chek!”, shows a nonya mother and son waiting to ride a traditional Singapore trishaw.

More: A Singaporean president’s son comes into his own

“Many of my sculptures have their inspiration from my childhood experience, and riding in a trishaw with my mother is one of my fond memories,” says sculptor Chong Fah Cheong. “As a Singapore citizen, I am truly gratified that Changi has added another star to the country.”

While CAG strives to ground the airport in heritage, there is no mistake about it: T4 foreshadows the airport of the future. The terminal is being groomed as a test bed for CAG’s next mega-project, Terminal 5, which will feature even more robotic procedures. Pronounces Li San, “The next five years will be exciting times for both Changi and airports in this region as Asia will be the global centre of air travel.”

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 151 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine