Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 4 – a failure in design

The Arrival concourse in Terminal 4 is already a very apt and unimaginative welcome to a boring Singapore.
The Arrival concourse in Terminal 4 is already a very apt and unimaginative welcome to a boring Singapore.

Based on my first cursory walk about in Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 4 on Sunday, arriving on a CX flight, it is my opinion that the designers have betrayed Singapore and Singaporeans in the following ways:

1. The first and most important failure is the failure to grow on a theme about what Singapore Changi Airport is really all about, especially when we take all that has been achieved from the time that Terminal 1, 2 and 3 were built, so that Terminal 4 could feel like a continuation of a country learning, growing and becoming bolder over time. After all, Changi Airport is supposed to be a critical national asset. There is clearly no one person or a group of people who are holding the Changi Airport story together and the idea of a leader is absent in this most important cluster of assets.

When Terminal 1 was built, Singapore was a pioneer, the first country in Asia to make its airport its brand experience. But because the architects were so conservative, that when KLIA in Kuala Lumpur and HKIA in Hong Kong were subsequently built, these incorporated bolder space and glass designs that made their airports a desirable destination in themselves. Terminal 1 appeared too conservative and fit only for purpose of leaving or entering the country. Clearly Changi had to be bolder.

Changi Terminal 2 was an attempt to incorporate some of these large light enhancing themes although for some reason it did not go far enough. Terminal 3 was finally the boldest attempt to come up with a uniquely Singaporean response, complete with light enhancing ceilings but added to it true gardens and carpeted walkways which were both grand yet personable. The “community” element in Terminal 3 for both travellers and visitors was genuinely “world class”, a true breakthrough where an entire food centre floor and shopping on the landside were runaway successes.

The launching of Terminal 3 also included a conversation with Singaporeans about the features they had built in and Singaporeans took to Terminal 3 as an extension of their everyday life. It became more than an airport, which was a breakthrough of global proportions.

Terminal 4 appears as if a new designer came in, carried none of these conversations and did not have any intention to build on them. It looks like an airport where Singapore itself just stopped learning, went to Incheon and brought lock, stock and barrel a very transactional idea of what an airport should be. The question we have to ask ourselves is how and why did this happen.

2. Nobody took ownership of “consistency” of experience across terminals. In Terminal 1, the arrival pick up was on a mezzanine floor and which is now moved to the side of the building. In Terminal 2, the arrival pickup is alongside the taxi rank. In Terminal 3, it is one floor below arrival. In Terminal 4, nobody knows.

It’s almost as if to use Terminal 4, you have to put on a new set of brains and expect a totally different orientation as to where everything is. What different idea will they have for Terminal 5?

In the better US cities, there are airports with up to nine terminals, but you will always know where to find anything because the terminal experiences are always simple and connected. Inconsistency adds to the stressfulness of visitors and travellers alike, and all the more those who do not frequent airports and it just puts people off airports.

3. One unique feature that evolved in the Singapore terminals was that the airside concourse was for both arriving and departing passengers. Singapore became unique in this respect because for some reason, only one other airport in the region, KLIA, has this feature, while it is a standard feature in the US, and parts of Europe, especially all of Spain's newer airports.

I am sure that the security people would argue against a common concourse, but the argument can go either way and nobody is the wiser. 40 years of running a common concourse across three terminals without incident suddenly not a valid idea? The designers of Terminal 4 did not think of it as a signature feature.

A common concourse takes the stress out for transiting passengers, while creating a warm and busy marketplace communal atmosphere, increasing retail exposure, and freeing up real estate for other uses and it is here that leadership and a sense of ownership would have made a huge difference.

In all likelihood, it was the software engineers who took over in Terminal 4, separating the arrivals and departures so that they could implement their tracking toys, even if it makes the airport more impersonal and diluting it to look and feel cold and processed.

For the loss of this one feature, I wished there was a strong leader at Singapore Changi Airport who had a mental picture of what he had inherited that is uniquely Singaporean instead of succumbing to the process engineers. The combined concourse was the one feature that every time I landed, I knew I was in Singapore and not anywhere else.

4. If all these are not enough the worst architectural malaise must surely be the Terminal 4 equivalent of the food court. The success of a good visitor experience, it would appear, is that the visitor has a different experience from that of a traveller and that neither get into each other’s ways unless they needed to. Terminal 3 achieved this brilliantly.

The Terminal 3 food court, central to its community function, is located on an entirely separate floor where access could be from carparks without disrupting travellers.

In Terminal 4 however, the designers appear to have a different attitude towards visitors. Maybe the landside shopping in Terminal 3 does not make enough money or worse, there is this secret agenda to centralise all shopping into their brand new billion dollar shopping mall project near Terminal 1 at the expense of Terminal 4.

So Terminal 4 has its landside shopping stripped out and the food court assigned to a very tight top right hand corner of the building, as an after thought to everything else that is laid out too generously.

For the moment, Singaporeans are crowding into the small area, but after a while, the crowds will die down, because the space does not look leisurely enough to become a successful food court.

The restaurants selected are clearly not hawker food level, but neither are they high end, so that it appears that the designers could not decide for themselves if they were replicating the success of Terminal 3’s cheaper food court or the failure of Terminal 2’s restaurants, located as it were on an underutilized floor above departure.

If the overall goal was to kill the idea of landside retail, then one can argue that the “food court” in Terminal 4 is meant for the traveller not the visitor.

5. Even simple things like the size of elevators is bizarre. In Terminal 3 the elevators can take up to four or five baggage trollies each, and there are several in each elevator shaft, while the ones in Terminal 4 can hardly fit in two trollies. They then spent millions of dollars correcting the lack of elevators in Terminal 1.

So what’s going on here? Did we appoint a farmer from a third world country to design the elevators? Not even China could be accused of this kind of design flaw today. Even if Terminal 4 is being designed for “transactors”, meaning people who use the airport only for travel, the size of the elevators is frankly embarrassing.

6. But I will reserve the highest oxymoron prize for Terminal 4 in the viewing gallery, or the lack of one thereof. For some weird reason, Singapore Changi Airport has always been tentative about whether it wanted to allow for viewing galleries.

The one in Terminal 1 was modified several times, originally because the glass reflected away the light, but by time we reach Terminal 3, there is none. A viewing gallery by definition is one which is out there looking at the tarmac so that kids, heartbroken lovers and aspiring pilots can gaze unhindered the careful movement of aircraft, the skies and dream.

The Terminal 4 viewing gallery is a rude little section that sits as a balcony into the airside concourse, and not to the outside, has a low roof protruding all the way out, and looks at practically nothing. Why build this at all. Standing there, one feels insulted by the architect.

7. The big difference between Terminal 4 and the others, we are told, is that this one is the pride of the software engineers. The software engineers want all of us to know that Terminal 4 is actually a software story, complete with face recognition technology and so on.

The first question to ask the software engineers is that if indeed there is so much technology, then surely easily 20 percent of travellers would have checked in on their mobile devices and whizz straight past immigration. So, why is there still as many check-in counters as during the manual days, displayed like a technology exhibition in Sim Lim Square.

It is almost as if these engineers were left on their own to design their own airport and implement their toys without adult supervision and without enough professional help in building a serious customer experience, while their retail-leaning bosses were pre-occupied with the billion dollar shopping mall near Terminal 1.

If you did a tour of the terminal, they will try to show you where all the software is implemented. But these engineers need to be told that their new age check-in counter is still a check-in counter. Immigration control is still immigration control. Security check is still security check, and the manual oversight is inexcusable. They have changed nothing.

If anything, these nerds rushed all the way just to arrive at what Incheon Airport in Seoul is today. All the unique features of Singapore Changi Airport, achieved over 40 years, thrown out of the window just to look like Incheon. They made no breakthrough in customer experience, as was achieved in Terminal 3, without any technology.

They then designed huge signs at the immigration entrance in Terminal 4 saying that you can use these channels if your machine readable passports are preregistered by finger print. Well, what's so special about that? That experiment was already a success in Terminal 3 and Hong Kong, Taipei, Dubai, London and a host of other airports do this without fanfare.

Millions of dollars wasted in redesign to communicate a message that is already a given around the world today. Money that could have been used to create a different check-in experience, such as clustering the checking counter in circles so that they feel more cosy and less intimidating or disappearing them altogether into the mobile phone. The software engineers thought that this was about them, when the genius of technology is precisely that it is invisible.

Instead, the automated check in and immigration machines are spread too far apart so that if a user is in trouble, he will feel intimidated. They eat into new space that could have been created for community and spatial interaction.

The excuse that Terminal 4 is a “showcase for new technology” is a complete nonsense for doing what needs to be done while any technology is still current. Before you implement new technology across terminals, the next one comes on the heels within 18 months, and all the signages will start to look dated or silly, or both.

8. There is no historical, emotional, let alone physical connection between Terminal 4 and the rest of Changi. Why Terminal 4 had to be located so far away from the others is one curious point. But why was there no attempt to connect all four airports by one constantly moving people mover or aero train, is quite a serious matter now.

I am just curious if this bus transfer point caught the attention of the president of Singapore when she visited Terminal 4 before it opened. Did it occur to her that it was odd. If it did, what questions did she ask?

The excuse given to me that public transport is the Land Transport Authority’s jurisdiction is a very dangerous one, because it indicates a drop in the inter-agency coordination that Singapore used to be famous for, that the agencies worked seamlessly with each other such that the customer never knew how much coordination was involved.

In fact, this lack of coordination between the agencies to create a superior customer experience is Hong Kong HKIA’s greatest weakness, where trollies are never located near the airline lounges or where you need them, because the airlines dare not touch the trollies as apparently they belong to the airport authority.

Singapore never had this trouble. Suddenly, it does not have a train connecting terminals. Instead we find an entire giant terminal that is isolated, using buses to move both transit passengers and visitors, and this is okay? In the US, airports with up to nine terminals are all linked with one consistent experience that it takes the pressure off travellers having to guess how to get from one terminal to another. It took them many years to figure it out, but now they do.

It is not just a bus issue but a consistency one. Now at Changi, if you want to get from Terminal 4 to Terminal 2, yes there is a bus, but to terminal 3, you have to take a bus and maybe walk, or maybe the bus and the train. Stressed again. By the time you reach this level of confusion, the phrases “world class” and “Singapore” read together sounds like a sorry joke.

In using Terminal 4, one appreciates all that Terminal 3 actually achieved. It is truly the benchmark of a world class Singaporean airport that ambitiously broke through the limitations of airports everywhere else, and built its own DNA that is uniquely Singapore. Firstly, it is spacious. Secondly harmony with nature through the huge garden effect that is visible to both visitors and travellers.

Thirdly truly environmentally friendly, with the energy conserving ceilings. Fourthly, strong communal experience for both traveller and casual visitor. Fifthly, telling all these stories visibly so that the traveller and visitor can experience and interact with them.

Terminal 4 has some of these energy saving features, but these are either hidden from the visitors or placed in all the most inconsequential places that are not where users can appreciate them.

The designers failed to build a uniquely Singapore experience into a terminal that could distinguish it from all the increasingly humongous, impersonal and indistinguishable airports around the world.

Functionally, Terminal 4 could easily be Incheon airport in Seoul or the old Duang Muang in Bangkok, both of which may appear very different but have almost the same flow, if you strip away all the trappings.

The question now is what will they do with Terminal 5? By the time they build Terminal 5, the entire Changi aetropolis will be city state all to itself. It will almost need a prime minister of its own, a leader who can articulate and hold the overall story together.

By that time, you cannot build yet another airport giving the excuse that you need to maintain 30 percent excess utilisation in order to keep Singapore ahead of other airports. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport is constantly congested but the country has a 2.5 times higher tourists arrival rate than Singapore today.

Changi airport will simply have to live with a lower excess utilisation rate and tie that to profitability and accountability of existing assets. The only way to do that is to make sure that all the assets are properly integrated with free and easy flow between them instead of allowing terminal 4 and 5 to be yet another bizarre experience with so much wastage and gaps between them.

An aetropolis will be a place where people live, work, play and fly. It will need to be plugged into a hinterland all of its own, and not depend just on food loving Singaporeans to visit yet another hawker centre. They had already made the first mistake by locating the high speed rail to Malaysia on the wrong side of the island. The second mistake is in handing terminal 4 over to the software engineers and keeping the retail experience to the ex-property company executives to run. This is already beginning to sound like a repeat of the MRT story in the making. If Terminal 4 was designed as a monument to the future of Singapore, that future looks certainly uncoordinated.

Because of historical reasons, a lot about Changi airport is not as transparent as they should be. Maybe because the original concept of a world class airport was itself an inspiring idea that could not have come from the ground, the people are proud to support everything related to the airport without question.

The risk in all this that the agenda can being hijacked by software engineers and retail property experts, who don't carry the big picture and will impose their own biases into the DNA of the industry, until it is too late, and we have to reconstruct the story before we figure out what went wrong. The media is complicit if they don't ask the questions that should be asked.

The people of Singapore are a cantankerous, complaining, indulgent and never satisfied lot. From this demanding lot came the genius of other national assets like Singapore Airlines that has carried its DNA and stood the test of time. No the people did not create it, but they certainly shaped it because the people who created it told themselves that this cantankerous lot matter.

What needs to be done now is for someone to come out to explain what is happening here and take ownership and even the people's feedback. Out of this process, some of the community elements that can be built into the superstructure are even very simple – like a tree-lined jogging and bicycle tracks parks connecting the terminals and humanising them, putting people back into the picture.

There is so much energy and genius in the people of Singapore that is not reflected in Terminal 4. Airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen have grand designs that are artistic, aspirational and yet functional. The software engineers may insist that Terminal 4 is a great airport, but the rest of us can't see it, feel it and be part of it. I hope that Terminal 5 will rectify this and restore the energy that is Singapore in a monumental way. It's just one of those things you can't fake or buy.

The skylight roof and Garden effect are in Terminal 4 as they are in Terminal 3, but at the baggage carousel, where the user's focus is looking down at the carousel not up into the sky. None of this is replicated in any other part of the airport, except maybe in the airside shopping area which i have not visited yet. Imagine if this skylight was right above the coffee shops or pedestrian malls, how lovely.The skylight roof and Garden effect are in Terminal 4 as they are in Terminal 3, but at the baggage carousel, where the user's focus is looking down at the carousel not up into the sky. The question to ask here is why is the skylight at arrival baggage and not departure coffee louge? The real answer is because they designed the flow before they designed the experience. None of this is replicated in any other part of the airport, except maybe in the airside shopping area which i have not visited yet. Imagine if this skylight was right above the coffee shops or pedestrian malls, how lovely.

Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 4 is certainly not built to wow the non-traveling visitor. Ordinary and boring low ceiling in the departure concourse.
Then when you really need a welcome experience, with a story to tell, there is none. Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 4 is certainly not built to wow the non-traveling visitor. Ordinary and boring low ceiling in the departure concourse.

Here's the trick question - was the "food emporium" as it is called, designed to emulate the food court in Terminal 3 or the restaurants above the departure area in Terminal 2. It certainly was not built for crowds, that is for sure.
Here's the trick question – was the "food emporium" as it is called, designed to emulate the food court in Terminal 3 or the restaurants above the departure area in Terminal 2. It certainly was not built for crowds, that is for sure.

Come on! Elevators that can hardly take two trollies, let alone wheel chairs? Who built this "world class" airport?
Come on! Elevators that can hardly take two trollies, let alone wheel chairs? Singaporeans need to learn to say, "No i don't need to accept this! Who built this "world class" airport?"

The "world class" designer of this viewing gallery should be given the Global Oxymoron Award for placing a viewing gallery on the inside of the airside concourse, with a low roof so that the greeters basically see nothing!
The "world class" designer of this viewing gallery should be given the Global Oxymoron Award for placing a viewing gallery on the inside of the airside concourse, with a low roof so that the greeters basically see nothing! Any Singaporean standing here should learn to say to the architect, “I feel insulted, I can't accept that there is some wisdom here." There is none.


Comments

  1. Hello

    Emmanuel, thank you for writing this post.  It was very comprehensive, relevant in all points and I share the exact same thoughts as you. I really hope when such state projects are carried out and designed, they would put in more consideration on functionality, rather than trying to be the first or different from the rest of the world. 

  2. In design world there is a saying – you don't judge the design if you haven't seen the brief. And this post is a perfect example of that. You clearly don't know what the tasks set for it were and yet you boldly judge the execution.

    Why not think WHY certain things were done this way?

    I'm not going to evaluate the interior since I haven't traveled through it. But I will judge your other comments, which prove you don't know the context in which the Terminal 4 was designed.

    First of all – T4 was built in this specific location because it was the space left by the demolished Budget Terminal. It was never meant to be connected seamlessly to the rest of the airport for several good reasons:

    1. It does not serve transit passengers – at least not primarily. If you look at the airlines assigned to it you will see that they are either budget or East Asian airlines – in other words they do not use Singapore as a hub, because they serve APAC locations from their home bases on their own. 

    2. In other words – it serves Singapore-bound passengers + regional travelers from Singapore, to destinations in East Asia. For that reason it could also have separate Departure and Arrival sections – because it's a terminal people go through not a terminal where people spend their time.

    When you operate a big, hub airport, people spend a lot of the time there and use facilities quite extensively. So it's OK to blend both groups of passengers. But when you have arrivals and departures only, with little to no transit, then you can offer a more seamless and faster experience by dividing them.

    3. There's a very good reason software engineers played a big role in creating T4 – the terminal itself is a test bed for solutions implemented in T5 – which is the real expansion of Changi, and will ultimately nearly double its capacity.

    It therefore does EXACTLY what it was supposed to do – provide an outlet for direct travelers, reducing the load on other terminals, keeping them integrated to offer the best experience for transit passengers, who spend a lot more time on Changi.

    On a side note – using American or European examples as comparisons is a bit of a joke, because there is probably no airport in the entire Western world that comes close to Changi – in any category, from organization of security services, through travel experience design, to basic facilities.

    Changi is, in fact, one of the best (if not the best) designed airports in the world – not only as a building, but as a transportation hub. Envisioned from the start in a horseshoe shape, allowing it to minimize its size, without creating too many piers protruding into the airside, while offering a centralized access to all existing and planned terminals (1, 2, 3). T5 will be a challenge, because it has outgrown the original design, so seamless integration will not be easy. But as it is now, it is near perfect.

    T4 is, however, being used exactly as it was planned to. So I would encourage you to ask yourself why certain things are done the way they have been, rather than lashing out publicly about a project that took years of work and planning of hundreds of people.

    • Well said. Michael.

      This article looks like it was written by a 17years old student designer. It's probably scripted on a Macbook in a Starbucks, who's author just finished watching a video interview of Jonathan Ive. A lack of maturity.

      The purpose of the T4 is not well understood by the author and he shows little understanding of the aviation industry. 

      There is so many things implemented for a purpose that had underlying reasons, the author just don't see them. There is so much more to an airport than design and visible functionalities. Changi airport is part of a bigger picture. Consider the airport's role not just from the average singaporean traveller's view(It is not designed with singaporean holiday goers in mind, they are a small stakeholder in this). 

      • What a cheap way of disgressing from the real issues that the blogger has pointed out, simply by saying 'oh its a hub that serves a few specific groups of travelers, and hence WE SHOULD NOT DO MUCH ABOUT DESIGNS AND IDEAS'.

        I'm not sure if you both Michael and Jake are Singaproeans, but I AM. So speaking from a Singaporean's POV, I am simply telling you: Changi airport IS OUR NATIONAL ICON. Much like your mother or sister attending an annual or once-in-a-decade gala dinner. Don't tell them 'oh it's only dinner. Just wear normal will do', because this attitude speaks volume of laziness, notwithstanding the fact that you are Not respecting yourself and others, and in this case, we Singaporeans as well as the in-coming travelers.

        There are AT LEAST two points rightly and sharply pointed out by this blooger – the 'Skylight roof + garden effect' in the arrival hall, and the 'viewing gallery' for families sending their members/ friends off.

        You mean to say the 'skylight roof' is GOOD for arriving tourists? LOL We Singaporeans certainly do not need to view the 'sky' as we are familiar with it. So for the arriving tourists, WHAT GOOD IS THERE FOR THEM TO 'VIEW' THE SKY WHEN WAITING FOR THEIR LUGGAGES/ BAGGAGES? To kill time or appreciate the clouds?

        In the words of your dumb words, Jake, THE DESIGN COULD VERY WELL BE A 17 YO STUDENT.

        And as for the 'mother of all failed designs – the viewing gallery', I would warmly invite you both, Michael and Jake, TO USE YOUR BRAINS FOR A MOMENT, INSTEAD OF LETTING THEM FREEZE IN THE FRIDGE.

        It IS a 'viewing gallery', so if your English is good, it means – TO LET OTHERS STAND THERE AND VIEW. If you both monkeys can't see how L.O.W. the ceiling is, I shall invite you both again to USE YOUR BRAIN, or go there and measure the height of the ceiling, THEN USE YOUR BRAINS AGAIN TO THINK.

        If any of you can't locate your brain, CALL YOUR MOTHER FOR HELP. Yes, I brought your mothers because you both talk like idiots.

        • Again, let me say it again. T4 is not designed with just the 'Singaporean' in mind, we are part of a very small stakeholders that contribute little to the airport's revenue. Therefore, using the singaporean's POV shows the lack of mental capacity for thinking from another perceptive. Please, changi is an international airport and we should really look beyond singaporeans only.

          Also using CAPLOCKS doesn't help, it doesn't get your point through. Your aggressiveness and inability to hold an conversation without getting emotional speaks a lot. 

  3. OMG Dante you told Michael and Jake off good. Jake needs to get off his high horse and actually see that the user experience was a failure.

  4. Micheal, as someone who has bot used T4 by the time you wrote your response, i wonder how your thought process were in defending something you have only read about…?

    As someone who will need to use T4 twice a month for the forseeable future, i wonder how my experience and travellers such as myself are discounted during the design process of T4's flow?

    As a matter of fact, i found this article because i was searching for a write up about the failires of this terminal, having completed a round trip through it 2 hours ago. Both departure ans arrival experience were extremely disappointing, comparing to the bar set by T2 and T3 – and I agree with you that Changi is still one of the best airports in the world, and  there's no need to compare with the US or UK – yet the comparison was about comsistency of the experience, where T4 suddenly departs from the other terminals for no good reason. 

    80% of my future travel will be done through T4, and i wish this terminal was never built.

  5. Just went through T4 flying from HK and back. It's marvellous, quick and super convenient.  What are talking about? Travellers like me wants to go through the airport fast and conveniently.  T4 is phenomenal for that. Singapore is for learning and adapting and yes T4 is about that. By far the best terminal.  You compare with HK where zero investment have been made over 20 years with still only one stupidly oversized terminal and queues everywhere.  Inches, I was there last week end 30 minutes queue just to show my passport and boarding pass then queue again for immigration,  then queue for the luggages.  When did you go to HK or Incheon last time? Comparing to US airports is totally ridiculous and the newest Spanish airports…..  I am left voiceless.  

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