Why Singapore needs Changi Airport Terminal 5, to fly higher

Why Singapore needs Changi Airport Terminal 5, to fly higher

The mega terminal, which will make up nearly half the airport, spells opportunities beyond the aviation industry. The challenge? How to keep it feeling cosy and "like home" for travellers.

Changi Airport is getting a fifth, super-sized terminal. Why do we need it - and how do you make a mega structure feel like a cozy home? More about other major infrastructure projects that will position  Singapore for the future, on Looking Ahead. 

SINGAPORE: One question Mr Ong Chee Chiau gets asked a lot is why Terminal 5 will be so big – Changi Airport’s largest terminal by far – as opposed to building three smaller ones gradually.

The latter “seems like a logical thing to do”, said Mr Ong, who is part of the T5 planning team and a senior vice president with Changi Airport Group (CAG).

But that would mean three sets of ticket counters, directing passengers to the correct terminals, and being able to have staff switch terminals quickly or have aircraft change positions as and when needed.

“So from the efficiency of the terminal itself (and) of how we’ll use the airfield, it made sense for us to go to … a mega terminal,” Mr Ong told Channel NewsAsia’s two-part special Looking Ahead, which examines how Singapore’s mega infrastructure projects are positioning the nation for the future.

Yet at the same time, the challenge is to make T5 still feel cosy and like home, without saddling passengers with a half-hour walk to their departure gate. (Watch the episode here)

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Just how big will T5 be? 

It is being built on one of Singapore’s largest construction sites, if not the largest: At 1,000 hectares, the size of Tampines new town or 2.5 Marina Bays. (The rest of the airport occupies 1,350 ha of land.) 

This development site will also include the new third runway and other buildings.

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When T5 is completed by 2030, it will increase Changi’s annual capacity by 50 million passengers initially and up to 70 million if needed – which would mean 150 million passengers a year, compared with the current capacity of 82 million.

And that is a hoped-for game changer for Singapore’s competitiveness as an air hub. 

“That’s why we’re excited about T5,” said CAG chief executive officer Lee Seow Hiang, who thinks it will even change “the whole of Singapore”.

WATCH: What T5 will bring (2:35)


Beyond the aviation industry – which directly contributes to 3 per cent of the economy and employs 77,000 people – air travel is vital to areas like tourism, hospitality and retail. The finance and business sectors also depend on Singapore’s air connectivity.

This is the reason the authorities are investing in T5.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said: “That our airport is so well connected … allows Singaporeans to travel all over the world; it allows business leaders (and) professionals to come to Singapore, (also) using Singapore as a base to go out into the region.

Therefore that connectivity brings new business opportunities.

Changi Airport runway pix
A view of Changi Airport. (File photo: Changi Airport Group)

Though the cost of T5 is expected to run into tens of billions – comparable to planned airport expansions in London and Hong Kong – Centre for Aviation chief analyst Brendan Sobie called it a “slam-dunk” investment owing to Asia’s economic and travel growth.

By the mid-2020s, China is set to become the world’s biggest aviation market and India the third largest. By 2035, the number of people flying to, from and within China and India will be 1.3 billion and 442 million respectively.

Closer to home, Indonesia will break into the top 10 and come up to 242 million passengers. Mr Sobie sees a unique selling point for Changi here, for example.

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“There are a lot of opportunities to carry Indonesians, not only to Singapore, which is the main destination for Indonesians, but everywhere across the world,” he said.

“(Changi) has connectivity to places like secondary cities in Indonesia, which are maybe not linked to the hubs in the Middle East.”

Related: Why Singapore needs Tuas mega port, to keep ruling the seas


T5 will also enable carriers, especially Singapore Airlines, which will be an important part of the Republic’s aviation future, to add links and routes to enhance the nation’s connectivity.

As it is, SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong notes the constraint on SIA, which currently operates services to over 60 destinations. 

“Right now … during the peak hours, we’re already having difficulty adding more flights,” shared Mr Goh, who is in no doubt about the need for T5.

We’ve ordered some 50 billion dollars’ worth of aircraft coming in, and … in order to expand, the airport has to have the capacity.

Changi is the world’s sixth-busiest airport, handling about 1,000 aircraft movements a day on its two runways and a record 62.2 million passengers last year.

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During the daily peak period, it manages about 68 aircraft per hour, said senior air traffic control manager Pauline Yip.

The current two runways will soon reach full capacity, making the need for a third one – which is being built at a cost of just over S$1 billion – “more urgent” than T5, said Changi East Planning project director Leong How Yin.

The new 4km-long airstrip – which is on the same reclaimed land in Changi East that will house T5 – will be ready by the early 2020s, and will need 40km of taxiways to connect it to the existing terminals.

SIA Engineering Company Crew

In terms of travel figures, Changi would have been at capacity this year if Terminal 4 had not opened last October, noted Mr Sobie.

While Changi may not necessarily grow as fast as previously because the market is more mature now, he described its annual growth of 6 per cent in the last two years as “very healthy”.

“That kind of growth rate will continue,” he predicted. “Some years might be a little less, some years might be a little more, but on average, maybe in the middle single digits.”

T5 will then be opening at a time when more capacity will again be needed, he said,

Changi’s reputation … (as) one of the best airports in the world would have been at stake if they hadn’t made this investment.

Changi has been awarded the top honour at the Skytrax World Airport Awards for five years in a row now.

Singapore Changi Airport voted World's Best Airport
Mr Lee Seow Hiang, CEO of Changi Airport Group, receiving the Skytrax World's Best Airport Award. (Photo: Changi Airport Group)

As traveller numbers go up, however, so too will the competition to attract them – one that Mr Lee described as “intense”. But the planned scale of T5 gives him confidence.

He said: “We have, over the last 30 years – both CAG and all the companies in this ecosystem – built up deep competence and deep competitive strengths. And the opportunity is at our doorstep.”


When it is completed, all eyes will be on T5 and how it upholds Changi’s reputation.

But it is not just travellers who are fond of the airport; it has a place in the hearts of many Singaporeans as a place to dine, a hangout for families and a space to unwind.

So what does T5 have in store for everyone?

One of Changi’s themes that CAG intends to “play up even more” is the homecoming experience, not only for Singaporeans but also for visitors – “that this could be (their) home and we’d like to make (them) welcome”, said Mr Ong.

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Another part of the Changi experience involves going green, and T5 will take a step further in renewable energy – not only using solar panels in the usual sense, but integrating photovoltaic cells into the building facade, for example.

Mr Ong also hopes to push the envelope of rainwater harvesting. “We’re going to allow all the rainwater to drain into a canal, and we’ll capture the water from there, treat it, and push it back into our systems,” he said. 

“We can all look forward to a very sustainable T5.”

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To make travelling easier, the T5 team will tap technology such as automated check-in kiosks and bag drops, as well as explore new systems to bring luggage “more efficiently and securely” to the aircraft.

The automation will also be aimed at increasing manpower productivity and aiding the ageing workforce.

“It’ll definitely be beyond just the cleaning robots that you see today in T4. It may take the form of exoskeletons … (or) transforming entire processes that people may be used to,” Mr Ong said, adding that lessons from T4 will be learnt.

A passenger checks-in his luggage using an automated booth at the newly opened Changi International
A passenger checks-in his luggage using an automated booth at Terminal 4. (Photo: AFP)


T5 is also being planned with the airlines in mind. CAG executive vice president (Airport Development) Yam Kum Weng said: “We’ve designed … a single large terminal that will allow airline groups in T5 to consolidate their operations under one roof.

“This will mean that airlines would enjoy economies of scale and, hopefully, also save some cost, as cost is an important consideration in today’s competitive environment.”

Given T5’s size, however, CAG is conscious of the need to prevent long waiting times, long queues and long walks.

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“In T4, our biggest problem was: How do you make small look big?” said Mr Ong. 

In T5, we’re going to have the exact opposite problem: How do you make big look small and cosy?

He suggested that T5 will have compartmentalised spaces and new types of sky trains to minimise walking distances.

“With that, we hope to be able to make a mega terminal feel like the same cosy terminals that you’re used to in Changi,” he said.

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His colleague Mr Leong said tunnels, including for baggage, will also be built to link T5 to the existing terminals. And he promised passengers a seamless experience: “They can connect between the terminals exactly as if they’re in one Changi.”

Mr Ong added: “We’ll be working very hard towards not only trying to replicate the experience that you have today in Changi Airport but, in some cases, make it even better.”

Watch this episode of Looking Ahead here. Catch the second episode, about Jurong Lake District and the integrated waste management facility, on Feb 14 (8pm SG/HK).

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Source: CNA/dp