Singapore Leads Pack as Cities Prepare for an Influx of Fliers
By BETTINA WASSENER
SINGAPORE — Travelers passing through the gigantic Changi International Airport here rarely have to wait long for bags or boarding. Unlike many other airports in this fast-growing region, Singapore’s airport can handle far more than the 53 million travelers that embarked and departed there this year.
And even if they are delayed, the airport environment is relaxed, efficient and, with such over-the-top amenities as a free movie theater, a butterfly garden and a children’s play areas, even fun.
Despite all this, Singapore has big plans to expand the airport still further.
By the middle of the next decade, if all goes according to plan, Singapore’s airport will have a third runway and two more terminals. The first new terminal, which is scheduled to open in 2017, will have a 300-meter-long, or 328-yard-long, shopping mall and greenery galore. A large bubble-shaped glass complex will sprout in a space between the existing terminals, providing extra space for travel facilities and still more shops, as well as gardens and a waterfall.
Singapore is unusually forward-looking in its approach to expanding what is a lifeline for its economy. But the city-state’s ambitious plans are just the most extreme example of the huge surge in airport construction across Asia. Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Jakarta and Delhi are adding or expanding terminals. Hong Kong is planning an additional runway. Beijing is building an entirely new airport. All are racing to stay ahead of demand that seems only to soar.
Altogether, about $115 billion has been committed to airport construction and development across the Asia-Pacific region, according to estimates from the Centre for Aviation, a research firm based in Sydney, Australia. That is about 45 percent more than either North America or Europe is spending.
“There really is a lot going on — and there will be a lot more happening in the coming years,” said Angela Gittens, director general of the Airports Council International, a trade group for airports.
Airport authorities are reacting to the region’s sharp rise in traffic in recent years.
Just seven years ago, airlines in the Asia-Pacific region carried 510 million people and flew 3,270 aircraft, according to the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. Last year, 5,600 aircraft carried nearly 950 million passengers.
Beijing, whose airport 10 years ago was not even among the world’s top 30, now has the second-busiest airport in the world, after Atlanta’s.
The growth is unlikely to fizzle any time soon. The rising affluence among the region’s four billion inhabitants and economic growth rates that, despite a slowdown in the last year or two, remain well above those seen in the United States and Europe will keep airports busy.
“You have a large population that is close to entering the middle class and that has an increasing propensity to fly,” Ms. Gittens said. “It’s sheer arithmetic; that’s what’s playing out.”
Visit any airport in Asia these days, and you will see a far different type of Asian traveler. The business travelers in suits are still there, but they are joined by Malaysian women in head scarves, Indonesian men wearing colorful batik shirts and Chinese, Indians or Thais heading into a weekend of shopping.
Asians travel only one-tenth as much as people in Western Europe or the United States, said Corrine Png, head of Asia transportation research at JPMorgan Chase, based in Singapore. Ms. Png forecasts that air traffic in the Asia-Pacific region will grow 6 to 7 percent a year for the next three to five years. Beyond that, the expansion is likely to moderate as the market begins to mature, to about 5 percent annually. But even that is well above the 2 percent seen in the United States and the 3.5 percent in Europe.
Low-priced airlines, modeled on Southwest Airlines in the United States and EasyJet in Europe, have mushroomed in Asia, spurring air travel. Carriers like Cebu Pacific in the Philippines, Lion Air in Indonesia, VietJet Air in Vietnam, and AirAsia, which has headquarters in Malaysia and operates several subsidiaries elsewhere, now carry about one-quarter of air travelers in the region and fly to dozens of destinations that few Westerners will ever have heard of.
The travel rush has generated congestion at many Asian airports, as airlines vie not just for passengers but also for landing slots, aircraft engineers, baggage handlers and check-in clerks. Unlike in Europe, where 45 percent of the routes are served by just one or two airlines, three-quarters of the routes in the region are served by at least three airlines, and more than a quarter are served by at least five, said Andrew Herdman, the director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines.
A result, said Ms. Png, the JPMorgan analyst, is that “air traffic has surpassed what planners originally anticipated. There are severe bottlenecks in some places.”
The airport in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, is one of the most stressed. It handled nearly 58 million air passengers last year, 36 million more than it was built for. With air passenger numbers in Indonesia growing at more than 10 percent a year, even the work being done now to lift capacity to 62 million by 2015 is unlikely to suffice for long, airline executives warn.
Garuda Indonesia, one of the country’s largest carriers, for example, needs to move six to eight aircraft to its hangars every day, because there are not enough bridges to leave the planes parked at the gates, said Emirsyah Satar, the airline’s chief executive. Several other Indonesian airports, including Surabaya and Makassar, are also getting full, Mr. Satar said.
The strain may start to abate in a few years because the region’s carriers, after several years of aggressive expansion of their fleets, will not be taking as many deliveries of new planes.
But any predicted slowing is of little concern to Singapore. Once its current expansion burst is complete, in 2025, the city’s airport will be able to handle 135 million passengers a year — about 40 percent more than the number of people who traveled through Atlanta last year.
The final terminal to be built will alone provide room for an extra 50 million travelers — effectively adding, in one go, the equivalent of New York’s Kennedy Airport or Schiphol in Amsterdam.