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How Changi Airport can attract more visitors, not just air travellers

Here's an idea for Changi Airport to mull over in its effort to promote itself as more than just a transport hub for air travellers. It can follow in the footstep of Pittsburgh International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) in allowing visitors who are not travelling past security checkpoints into the transit area.

Changi has become a world-class airport by being a trailblazer, and there is no reason why it cannot yet again lead the pack in pushing new and challenging ideas, says the author.

Changi has become a world-class airport by being a trailblazer, and there is no reason why it cannot yet again lead the pack in pushing new and challenging ideas, says the author.

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Here's an idea for Changi Airport to mull over in its effort to promote itself as more than just a transport hub for air travellers.

It can follow in the footstep of Pittsburgh International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) in allowing visitors who are not travelling past security checkpoints into the transit area.

Pittsburgh did it last year and now Sea-Tac is introducing a similar programme on a trial basis. Both American airports issue passes for a single-day visit – the Pittsburgh's “MyPITpass” which may be obtained at a ticket counter at the airport, and Sea-Tac's “SEA Visitor Pass” for which application must be made online in advance.

It means visitors can meet friends and relatives on arrival or see them off at the gates. Many greeters and well-wishers will jump at the opportunity.

They will also be able to dine at airport restaurants, shop at retail but not duty-free outlets and avail themselves of the facilities in the restricted area hitherto made inaccessible to non-travellers.

It is not as though businesses at the airport need help to increase patronage, but they will certainly welcome this boon, particularly during the off-peak hours.

Now such a bold policy may disconcert some people at a time of continuing heightened airport security. The transit area is a gazetted protected area accessible only to air travellers.

So currently, those who abuse the use of their boarding passes to gain entry but not travel may be prosecuted in court and, if convicted, fined S$1,000 or jailed for two years, or both.

Clearly, security cannot be compromised. At Pittsburgh and Sea-Tac, as we would expect anywhere else where such a policy may be introduced, all visitors will be subject to the same security procedures of screening and regulations.

Pittsburgh, for example, also limits visitors to only one personal item such as a purse, briefcase or laptop computer. Visitors will be asked to show a photo ID since they are not issued with a boarding pass.

Changi can introduce its own form of authentication, whether it be a passport, identity card or something else issued specifically for this purpose.

Another issue may be one of congestion. But for now, Changi has the capacity. Besides, the windows for visits as well as the number of visitors can be controlled.

Pittsburgh allows visits from 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, and Sea-Tac from 8 am to 9 pm Tuesday through Saturday.

Changi can have different windows, say during the off-peak hours or only during the weekends. Instead of a day pass, there may be shorter time blocks of, say, four hours to not only limit the time spent in the sterile area but also allow more people to enjoy the benefit.

Sea-Tac will only accept up to 50 visitors on the days the visits are allowed. And Pittsburgh rules that during peak departure times, priority at checkpoints will be accorded to ticketed passengers and the issuance of the passes may be suspended.

There will be other issues that Changi must consider, taking into account its different physical layout as well as operational needs and systems.

A point in its favour is how Changi's security clearance is conducted at the gate, unlike many other airports which practise a centralised system. This would separate the security screening of the transit visitors from actual travellers, in a neater arrangement.

Still, current laws will have to be amended or new legislation will have to be enacted to make it possible for non-travellers to enter the transit area.

Debate is likely to focus on whether this is worth the trouble, given how this is not the norm at airports around the world and if Changi were to allow only a small number of visitors.

But Changi has become a world-class airport by being a trailblazer, and there is no reason why it cannot yet again lead the pack in pushing new and challenging ideas.

The least it can do is to study the proposal before becoming convinced one way or the other.

Consider how Sea-Tac is telling visitors what they might do inside the terminal: spend more time at the gate or a restaurant with family or friends, or surprise them on arrival, participate in “Celebrations at Sea-Tac” events which during this festive season include light decorations and live reindeer and feast your eyes on art exhibits or be entertained by live music performances.

Surely Changi as the world's best airport can offer much more. With its enviable array of facilities and attractions, such a programme will promote the airport like any place of interest worth a visit even if one is not travelling.

Already many people are visiting the airport like they would a park, beach or shopping mall, but their excursion is limited to the public area. Why not offer the full airport-city experience?

Think of it as the reverse attraction of offering transit passengers city tours during their stopover.

If the proposal does come through, how can we be sure if visitors are genuine?

Advanced screening may be necessary. To be expected, the implementation in however limited the form may demand more resources.

And that means additional costs. Charging a fee for the pass may be justifiable.

There will be takers. Let's face it, the airport has always held a fascination for many people.

Hopefully, soon, we can get close to feeling we are on holiday without having to leave the airport.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Leo is an aviation veteran and published author.

 

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