Consistently ranked as the best airport in the world by Business Traveler readers in our annual Best of Business Travel Awards, Singapore’s Changi Airport is a familiar name to most fliers to and through Asia. In no small part, the accolades are the result of a well-deserved reputation for innovation through the years.

Indeed, forward thinking is a hallmark of life in Singapore, with its highly educated and diverse population, its unique geopolitical setting, and a celebrated passion for seeking out better ways of doing things. Reflecting this highly positive outlook is the ambitious  “Smart Nation” initiative, aimed at tackling social issues, healthcare, the environment, urban planning and transport through wide-spread data collection using sensors in every home, road, office and public space.

The coming years will see the city-state roll out such advances as self-driving cars, remote health monitoring and e-learning. But for Changi airport the drive to innovate has been pretty much baked into its DNA since its beginning. Indeed even before the first flight landed in 1981, Changi already had plans in place to develop in step with its growing role in international aviation.

When planning began in 1975, it included large tracts of land reclaimed from the sea and set aside for future expansion to avoid the congestion problems faced by other key hub airports around the world. Terminal 1 was opened in 1981, followed in relatively quick (by airport construction standards anyway) succession by T2 in 1991 and T3 in 2008.

In between, a budget airline terminal was built in 2006, only to be demolished in 2012 to make room for the newest addition to Changi’s facilities, Terminal 4, which premiered in October 2017.

Welcome to T4

Terminal 4 is located at the south end of the airport. Covering 2.4 million square foot across three floors, T4 is the smallest of Changi’s terminal buildings (about half the size of Terminal 3), but adds the ability to handle some 16 million passengers (two-thirds of what T3 can serve) to the airport’s annual capacity.

So far, eleven airlines have taken up residence in the new terminal, though this number is expected to grow with time. Oneworld’s sole presence at Terminal 4 is Cathay Pacific. Meanwhile Skyteam has two airlines – Korean Air and Vietnam Airlines – based at Terminal 4, joined by Air Asia Group’s four individual airlines, Philippine budget carrier Cebu Pacific, Chinese low-cost carrier Spring Airlines and most recently, Cambodia’s JC International. VietJet Air is set to move into the facility sometime this month.

The terminal offers Changi’s first end-to-end fully automated departure process – what it calls Fast and Seamless Travel (FAST) – which includes self check-in, baggage drop and immigration. Meanwhile the design of the terminal is by far the most “fun” of the entire airport’s facilities. Bright colors, quirky modern seat designs, kinetic “petal” sculptures, massive LED displays, and – in line with CAG’s upcoming arboreal-focused Jewel development – more trees within the terminal than in Terminals 1, 2 and 3 combined (a total of 186 large trees).

Terminal 4’s check-in counters are angled towards the immigration and security screening areas, making movement around the terminal much more intuitive. The self check-in stations have been developed by Changi Airport and are the same across all airlines. The process is intuitive and efficient; it takes about two or three minutes, using biometric screening to check in passengers. A camera takes a photo of the traveler’s face and matches it against their passport photo. To accommodate airlines that lack this self check-in capability, there are manned check-in desks available as well. Once passengers do self check-in, they move on to a separate kiosk for baggage drop.

Much like the check-in and bag drop systems, the immigration process is fully automated as wel, using biometrics that were taken upon arrival. Travelers scan their documents, provide their thumbprint and facial recognition scan, and are able to proceed. As with check-in, manned stations are available for those going through regular immigration.

The Airside Show

Easily the most impressive part of the security screening area of Terminal 4 is the massive, 230-foot-long LED screen that stands above the zone. Designed to offer a distraction from what is otherwise the “very stressful” process of security clearance, the screen showcases truly mesmerizing videos featuring Singapore landmarks, key destinations around the region, as well as a fun animated video.

Security screening itself has received a notable upgrade. Each queue (except the farthest to the right) has both a metal detector and full-body scanner, the latter not requiring removal of any clothing such as shoes or belts. Meanwhile carry-on bags are scanned using a CT scanner which means items such as laptops or other devices don’t need to be removed – just empty your pockets, place your bag on the belt and you’re on your way.

To speed things along even further, the conveyor belt has been designed with two access points side-by-side, and Changi Airport actively encourages travelers to “jump the queue” to pick up your bags.

Past security, a winding path takes you through the duty free zone, operated by The Shilla Duty Free. Look for craft beer and whisky bars offering the chance to sample what’s on offer. Beyond duty free the waiting area includes shops (Coach, Michael Kors and Gassan Watches are among the more notable brands present) and the Peranakan Gallery, a neat little museum which features a snapshot of traditional Peranakan culture in Singaporean society.

That theme is carried on at the end of the departure area where you’ll find another seating enclave set against a backdrop of Singapore brands with traditional Peranakan-style shophouse storefronts. Keep an eye on the central storefront, which is actually a cleverly disguised LED screen showcasing a series of videos featuring traditional life in Peranakan-style houses and beautifully animated sequences with musical accompaniment.

All along Terminal 4’s departure area, there’s a sort of French boulevard aesthetic thanks to all the trees located among the boarding gates. The gates also use biometric screening and are fully automated. Passports are unnecessary at this stage, as the machines again use facial recognition against the previous photos taken at immigration.

The Arrivals Hall at T4 features large open spaces with incredibly high ceilings where you’ll find hanging kinetic petal-like installations. Trees are located down the center of the arrivals area, once again adding to the refreshingly green atmosphere. As with the Departures Hall, the Arrivals Hall has automated immigration kiosks that use biometric screening alongside manned options. The automated booths are available for Singaporean citizens, permanent residents and registered travelers.

The most notable feature of the baggage claim area is undeniably the green wall that sits below a high section of the ceiling with natural light pouring in and yet more kinetic art installations hanging from the ceiling.

Jewel in the Crown

As stunning and forward-thinking as Terminal 4 is, Changi Airport Group has already set its sights on major expansion plans well into the next decade. To begin with, there’s Jewel Changi Airport, a unique mixed-use complex being built in front of the existing Terminal 1. Jewel’s centerpiece will be the Forest Valley, a five-story garden filled with thousands of trees, plants, ferns and shrubs; at its heart is Rain Vortex, the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.  

Retail options will include a mix of new-to-Singapore concepts, top international brands, as well as homegrown names. These shops will be integrated with the complex’s indoor gardens and leisure attractions under one roof. Jewel will also house an integrated multi-modal transport lounge and its own 130-room hotel operated by Yotel.

Jewel Changi Airport is scheduled to debut in 2019. But that’s by no means the end of CAG’s future vision. Construction is already underway on the airport’s third runway, extending the existing military landing strip on the east side of the facility to allow it to handle today’s larger passenger aircraft. The third runway is projected to open sometime early in the next decade.

Then the plans move on to a huge fifth terminal, referred to as Changi East, which is planned for the mid-2020s. Terminal 5 will be the size of the current T2 and T3 combined and capable of handling an additional 50 million passengers, bringing Changi’s total capacity to 135 million passenger movements a year.

Given that in the year just past, SIN topped the 60-million-passenger mark – and considering the boom in Asia’s air traffic – it’s not hard to imagine the need for that capacity is not too far in the future. It’s also not hard to imagine that Changi is already planning something new to stay ahead of the curve.