Changi Airport

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Bonny Muliani


Changi Airport, located at the eastern edge of Singapore, was officially opened on 29 December 1981. It was built mainly on reclaimed land, near where the Changi airbase once stood during World War II.1

At the time of its opening, Changi Airport boasted several record-breaking achievements. These included being built in a record time of six years; being ranked with Tokyo’s Narita Airport as Asia’s largest airport; and having the world’s largest column-free hangar, spanning 20,000 sq m.2 Since its opening, the airport has won many awards and accolades, including one for “Best Airport in the World”.

Changi airbase was built by World War II prisoners-of-war from 1943 to 1944. The Royal Air Force took over the airbase in 1946. At the time, the north-south and east-west strips, located in the northeastern point of Singapore, were unpaved, thinly grassed runways. Japanese prisoners then added perforated steel plates on the east-west strip and strengthened the north-south runway. The latter then served as the main runway for military aircraft until 1949.3

In the early 1970s, Paya Lebar Airport, then Singapore’s civil airport, did not have sufficient space for future expansion. A new airport was needed, and in a location where it would not interfere with high-rise developments. Changi airbase was selected as the site for this new airport.4

Proposed infrastructure for the new airport included two runways, three passenger terminals and an optional fourth terminal. Vital support facilities included aircraft engineering support, in-flight catering services, fire stations and utilities. In June 1975, preparation work on the Changi airbase site for an international airport began. At least 8.7 sq km of land was reclaimed. Canals were constructed to divert water from three existing streams flowing through the airport site: Sungei Tanah Merah Besar, Sungei Ayer Gemuroh and Sungei Mata Ikan. Construction was subdivided into two phases, with Phase I (Changi I) targeted for completion by 1981, and Phase II (Changi II) by the mid-1980s.5 The cost for Phase I alone was slightly less than S$1 billion.6 The airport was finished in record time despite a shortage of materials and workers. The speed and efficient organisation of the airport’s construction were attributed to sound management practices by the Public Works Department’s Changi Airport Development Division.7

Singapore Changi Airport became operational on 1 July 1981 and was officially opened five months later on 29 December. The first flight, SQ 101, which carried 140 passengers from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, touched down at 7.10 am on 1 July 1981. The first flight departing from the airport at 8 am on the same day was SQ 192, bound for Penang.

Changi Airport has two parallel runways, each 60 m wide with a 1.64-kilometre gap separating them.9 When the airport first opened, only Terminal 1 was in operation. On 22 November 1990, Terminal 2 was made operational and officially opened on 1 June the following year.10 Terminal 2 is much larger than Terminal 1 but both provide similar services such as passenger transactions and transit, food and beverage, and shopping areas.11 A Budget Terminal opened on 26 March 2006 to serve budget airlines and two years later, on 9 January 2008, Terminal 3 commenced operations. Together, the three main terminals can handle a total of 70 million passenger movements annually.12 Terminal 4 is currently being constructed and is targeted for completion in 2016. The Budget Terminal was closed on 25 September 2012 to make way for the construction of Terminal 4.13 The Skytrain system provides seamless and convenient commute between the terminals.14

The 16-sided, 78-metre Control Tower, sitting on a polygonal shaft, serves not only as a vital air-traffic control unit, but has become a key icon representing Changi Airport. Lining the highway leading to the airport are clever landscaping and colourful plants that hide the ancillary buildings, adding greenery to the expansive structures. The greenery extends into the airport interiors in the form of indoor gardens, waterfalls and fountains.15

The Changi Airport Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Station, which opened on 8 February 2002, provides fast and convenient transport from the airport to town in air-conditioned comfort.16

Further expansions
At the National Day Rally on 18 August 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled plans to build a multi-storey complex at the open-space carpark at Terminal 1. The building, code-named Project Jewel and slated to be completed by 2018, would offer travellers retail and leisure amenities, and also serve as a hub connecting the airport’s various terminals.17

In the same month, the government also announced plans to build Terminal 5 and a third runway by 2025. Located at Changi East and covering 1,080 ha, Terminal 5 would be bigger than Terminals 2 and 3 combined. The new terminal, envisaged to handle up to 50 million passengers a year, would increase Changi Airport’s total capacity to 135 million passengers annually.18

Changi Airport has won many awards and accolades. These include “Airport of the Year” by OAG Worldwide, “Best Airport in the World” by Business Traveller magazine, and “Best Airport in the World” by International Air Transport Association.19 In March 2016, Changi Airport was named the “World’s Best Airport” for the fourth consecutive year at the 2016 Skytrax World Airport Awards. This was the seventh time in 16 years that Changi Airport has won the award.20

On 1 July 2009, Changi Airport was corporatised and came under a new company, Changi Airport Group, when the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), which had managed the airport for 25 years, was restructured into two separate entities – Changi Airport Group, which oversaw airport operations, and the restructured CAAS, which looked into regulatory issues.21 The airport currently serves more than 100 international airlines flying to some 330 cities in 80 countries and territories worldwide.22 


Bonny Muliani Tan

1. John K. Morton, Changi: Singapore International Airport (Shrewsbury: Airlife, Introduction, 2001), 7. (Call no. RSING 387.736095957 MOR); Department of Civil Aviation and Archives & Oral History Department Singapore, Singapore Fly-Past: A Pictorial Review of Civil Aviation in Singapore, 1911–1981 (Singapore: MPH Publishers, 1982), 79–80, 93. (Call no. RSING 387.7095957 SIN)
2. “World’s Largest Column-Free Hangar,” Straits Times, 18 June 1981, 4; Tan Wee Him, “Changi Airport – a Great Way to Fly,” New Nation, 28 June 1981, 1/24; “Changi Airport Coming Up in Record Time,” (1981, June 16). Straits Times, 16 June 1981, 10. (From NewspaperSG); Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 61–62. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
3. Department of Civil Aviation and Archives & Oral History Department Singapore, Singapore Fly-Past, 79; “British PoWs Have Built Biggest S.E.A.C. Airbase,” Straits Times, 17 March 1946, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Peter Hutton, Wings Over Singapore: The Story of Singapore Changi Airport (Singapore: MPH Magazines, 1981), 31. (Call no. RSING 387.736095957 HUT)
5. Ministry of Communications, Changi Airport Development Division, Public Works Department, & Department of Civil Aviation Singapore, Changi Airport: Singapore (Singapore: Ministry of Communication, Changi Airport Development Division, Public Works Dept., Dept. of Civil Aviation, 1980), 6–8, 12. (Call no. RSING 387.73 CHA)
6. “Changi Airport Built within Approved Cost,” Straits Times, 16 June 1981, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 61–62.
8. Grace Chng and Tan Wee Him, “SQ 101 Makes First Changi Landing with 140,” Straits Times, 2 July 1981, 8; “All Poised for the Big Take-Off,” Straits Times, 1 July 1981, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Goh Yong Kiat, Where Lions Fly: 100 Years of Aviation in Singapore (1911–2011) (Singapore: Straits Times Press Reference, 2012), 115–16. (Call no. RSING 387.7095957 GOH)
9. Morton, Changi: Singapore International Airport, introduction; Karamjit Kaur, “Changi Awards $1.11B Contract for Three-Runway Operations,” Straits Times, 15 August 2016. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
10. Angeline Song, “First 137 Passengers Take Off from Terminal 2,” New Paper, 22 November 1990, 10; “PM: S’pore Must Keep Striving for Excellence,” Business Times, 3 June 1991, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Morton, Changi: Singapore International Airport, introduction.
12. Leung Wai-Leng, “Budget Terminal Opens for Business,” Straits Times, 27 March 2006, 4; Karamjit Kaur, Tiffany and Amelia Tan, “T3 Takes Off, Straits Times, 10 January 2008, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Kaur, “Changi Awards $1.11B Contract for Three-Runway Operations”; Karamjit Kaur, “Getting Set for Move from Budget Terminal,” Straits Times, 7 May 2012, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Sky Train Ferries You between Changi Terminals in a Jiffy,” Straits Times, 7 October 1990, 2; Nisha Ramchandani, “T3 Opens Door to Keep Changi a Step Ahead,” Business Times, 10 January 2008, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Hutton, Wings Over Singapore, 42; Goh Keng Chew, et al., Changi Airport Data (Singapore. Public Works Dept. Changi Airport Development Division, 1980), 14 (Call no. RSING 387.736095957 CHA); Ministry of Communications, Changi Airport Development Division, Public Works Department, & Department of Civil Aviation, Changi Airport: Singapore, 42.
16. Morton, Changi: Singapore International Airport, introduction; Karamjit Kaur, “Next Stop: Changi Airport,” Straits Times, 9 February 2002, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Karamjit Kaur, “Changi Expansion Sign of Faith in Singapore’s Future,” Straits Times, 19 August 2013, 7; Karmjit Kaur, “Jewel at Changi Will Offer Travellers Stunning Welcome,” Straits Times, 20 August 2013, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Karamjit Kaur, “Changi Unveils Plans for New Mega T5,” Straits Times, 31 August 2013, 3; “New T5 by Mid-2020s,” Straits Times, 5 August 2013, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Kaur, “Changi Awards $1.11B Contract for Three-Runway Operations.”
19. “SIA, Changi Sweep Travel Awards,” Business Times, 20 January 1999, 2; “Changi Named Best Airport Again,” Straits Times, 22 June 2002, H8; Maria Almenoar, “Special Award for Changi’s 20-Yr Excellence,” Straits Times, 10 October 2007, 31; Nisha Ramachandani, “Changi Airport, SIA Trump Rivals to Multiple Awards,” Business Times 30 September 2014, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Rachel Chia, “Changi Named World’s Best Airport for Fourth Year Running,” Straits Times, 17 March 2016, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Leong Phei Phei, “Flying High in Turbulence, Right on Course.,” Straits Times, 2 July 2009, 77; Karamjit Kaur, “MM Lee: Let’s Prepare Changi to Stay Ahead,” Straits Times, 2 July 2009, 3; Daphne Lee, “All Set for Growth,” Straits Times, 2 July 2009, 82. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Air Traffic Statistics,” Changi Airport Group, accessed 9 September 2016.

Further resources
Nancy Loh, T2ansformation: The New Changi Airport Terminal 2 (Singapore: Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, 2006). (Call no. RSING 387.736095957 LOH)

Rebecca Tan, “How Changi Airport Came To Be,” BiblioAsia (Oct-Dec 2021).

Vincent Lim, Creating Paradise T3: Singapore Changi Airport (Singapore: Published for Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore by SNP International Pub, 2008). (Call no. RSING 725.39095957 LIM)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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