Changi Airport News

Changi T4 – First Traveller Experience

Well-designed facility makes the most of new technology, but is let down by some teething issues and awkward connectivity.

The first new terminal in nearly a decade at the “World’s Number 1 airport”… does it live up to the hype? We jumped in on day four of operations to find out.

Terminal 4 stands gleaming in a place where once there was the rather shoddy looking, but extremely efficient “Budget Terminal” – which I personally loved!

Budget Terminal - Guide Gecko
Budget Terminal (Photo: GuideGecko)

After the low-cost carriers of South East Asia outgrew the space (and it didn’t take long) they decided to knock it down and start again with the far more appropriately named “Terminal 4”.

Users – ‘Identity Crisis’

As it was built to replace the “budget terminal” you’d expect the low-cost carriers to be moved here first, however of the nine airline occupants currently confirmed for T4 – three are full service, legacy carriers.

Current T4 Airlines:

  • Cathay Pacific (since 31 October 2017)
  • Korean Air (since 31 October 2017)
  • Spring Airlines (since 2 November 2017)
  • Cebu Pacific (since 2 November 2017)

Future T4 Airlines:

  • AirAsia (from 7 November 2017)
  • Indonesia AirAsia (from 7 November 2017)
  • Philippines AirAsia (from 7 November 2017)
  • Thai AirAsia (from 7 November 2017)
  • Vietnam Airlines (from 7 November 2017)

Most notable of all is Cathay Pacific, the first airline to announce it would use T4, who have also taken the opportunity to open a dedicated Business Class lounge in the terminal (previously relying on the DNATA lounge in T1 to look after their guests). It’s also the second biggest Cathay Pacific lounge outside Hong Kong, and our full review of the new facility is now available.

What else is new?

A start-to-end automated system

This begins with automated self check-in. This isn’t particularly new and has been retrofitted to more than half of the T1 counters already. It’s great, when it works. If something goes wrong then you often end up in the usual queue. Of course, things will hopefully be refined over time.

Up till now – Changi Airport has operated its other three terminals with individual gate security and a general transit area. Broadly – this means that you only pass through security at the gate before departure and allows for a main, shared area for both arrivals and departures. The advantage of this design is that passengers in transit between flights can access all the facilities easily and those arriving and terminating in Singapore can still access a wide range of outlets for some last minute shopping. The disadvantage is that each gate had its own security screening area, usually only one or two lanes – sometimes leading to long queues.

Terminal 4 is the first in Changi to have Centralised Security Screening. This means there will be one common queue but with far more staff and scanners. Also, improved scanners mean you will no longer need to remove laptops/iPads from your bags – in an effort to streamline the process.

The Experience

We flew into Changi a few hours before our flight to Bangkok, and this highlighted the first major difference with the new Terminal 4 – there is no SkyTrain link from the existing terminals (1, 2 and 3).

Since we landed into Terminal 1, this meant first taking the SkyTrain to Terminal 2 then a complimentary shuttle bus from T2 to T4. While not nearly as seamless as a direct SkyTrain link would have been, the journey was relatively straightforward and from baggage reclaim and clearing customs in T1 to arriving at T4 took only 25 minutes in total.

There is no shuttle bus directly linking T1 or T3 to T4. Passengers arriving into T3 will also have to first transfer to T2 and then take the shuttle bus to T4.

The T4 entrance is rather stunning. The living wall featuring a large “Terminal 4” sign is beautiful. Naturally, the terminal is quite empty at the moment and the shuttle bus drop off at Door 3, around the midpoint entrance, wasn’t an issue. We suspect that when AirAsia start operations the access area will start to become busier, like the other terminals.

Stepping inside, the high ceilings and light vents give an airy feel – broadly reminiscent of Terminal 3. The first major difference you notice is that you can see all the way through to the departure lounge. The public and transit areas are separated by tall glass walls – unlike the narrow immigration areas and low ceilings, like in Terminal 2.

To the far right of the check-in area, there is a good selection of shops, bars and restaurants in the public area – most notably including a London Fat Duck outlet, purveyors of excellent roast duck and other Cantonese fare – worth a visit!

Automated Check-in

APT_FAE_SIN_C008Y17_E0
Automated check-in and luggage drop at Terminal 4. (Photo: Cathay Pacific)

Actually, not a new concept. Many other airports now use systems like this around the world, and even Changi Terminal 1 is being converted to feature rows of these automated check-in machines. In my experience – they don’t like me! Due to the strange name ordering system in Singapore passports – it usually tells me I have to queue at a desk.

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Automated checkin machine at Terminal 4. (Photo: MainlyMiles)

This time was actually much worse.

Despite having booked through Cathay Pacific and entering all of our passport details at the booking stage, it couldn’t find either of us, so we manually entered the booking reference.

It then asked us to swipe our passports – one worked, one didn’t. I had to enter all the details manually.

The whole process took far longer than just going to a manual check-in counter, and ended up involving two airline staff to assist.

A disappointing start.

Automatic Immigration

Again, not a new concept – Changi has had auto-gates for immigration for nearly 10 years. There have been various updates along the way and they have recently started letting foreigners use the auto gates if they had their fingerprints taken on arrival.

These T4 automatic immigration gates are the latest generation and include an extra stage which takes a picture of your face. This will later be compared at the boarding gate to automatically allow you on board.

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Automated Immigration Gates at Terminal 4. (Photo: MainlyMiles)

Also, you now don’t need to show your passport and boarding pass to a staff member before and after the auto gate, which saves the time spent queuing.

Disappointingly though, this also didn’t work quite as well as it should have. One of us had to insert the passport three times before it would accept it.

Incidentally, in the live demo to the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the system wouldn’t even let him through – clearly some teething problems to be ironed out!

Security

We both had high hopes for the new centralised security. Sadly the execution is poor. They still need all liquids to be removed from hand luggage, and even though there is no longer any need to remove laptops and iPads – one bag was selected for screening and so we had to anyway.

The whole process took longer than the standard gate security at the other Changi terminals.

Central MCI:Terence Tan
Central Screening Area in Terminal 4 (Photo: MCI Terence Tan)

Looking across the other lanes – we noticed that additional bag screening was the case for many other passengers as well, perhaps they are taking the time to practice while it’s quiet but they won’t be able to have such a high proportion of additional screening once the terminal becomes busier without generating some very long queues. Once AirAsia start putting 37+ flights (and some 6,500 passengers) per day through – the process is going to strain.

We are however pleased to see the implementation of full body scanners which is a huge leap forward in security standards, and is also starting to be introduced at some gates in the other Changi terminals.

Transit Area

Frustratingly, for the first time, Changi have followed many other international airport terminals by making entry ‘forced’ through the duty-free shop. This is so unnecessary. Some people will inevitably want to shop for duty-free but their browsing holds up other passengers who simply want to go quickly through to their lounge or gate. Not to mention the endless stands of promotional items which restricts free-passage space even further.

Once through the duty-free shop, you arrive in a very nice double height space flanked with high-end shops and full of tasteful, comfortable seating areas.

All the seating areas (and there are many) have been well equipped with international power sockets and USB plugs – very traveller centric – a really nice touch! There are also a couple of TV viewing areas. Speakers have been carefully crafted with KEF technology to allow viewers to hear clearly without disrupting surrounding passengers. Several workstation areas with free internet access are also available.

There are numerous food and beverage outlets from high-end table service restaurants and bars through to a full “International Food Court” – no traveller will be short of options here, regardless of what they are looking for.

Upstairs there is more seating, and even a sleeping area. It’s a quieter area and a good choice if you need to get some work done or settle down for a nap.

IMG_0255
At the far end of the transit area, a row of traditional peranakan shophouse facades offer more dining and shopping options. (Photo: MainlyMiles)

The Gates

Terminal 4 is a long ‘L-shaped‘ terminal. The main shopping area is roughly in the middle of the terminal, meaning that G1 and G18-21 are a long walk. In most of Changi’s other terminals, there are continuous travelators that reduce the walking time between gates. Oddly they have decided to only put two or three in the whole of T4. Our recommendation, give yourself 10 minutes at least to get to the gate!

The gate identity check worked flawlessly for both of us. Smart and seamless technology that will dramatically improve the boarding process for all passengers.

Departure Lounges

There are only two lounges available in T4. Cathay Pacific’s Business Class Lounge (full review here) is accessible only if you are travelling with Cathay Pacific, as they are currently the only oneworld carrier in Terminal 4. Access is available to all Cathay First and Business class passengers, and if you are in their Premium Economy or Economy cabins you will need to hold oneworld Sapphire/Emerald status or above for access (Cathay Marco Polo Club Silver status and above).

The other lounge is the “Blossom Lounge” by SATS Plaza Premium (full review also coming soon). At the moment this lounge can only be accessed for a fee, or as a benefit with selected credit cards (we used the American Express KrisFlyer Aspire, which allows free access for the cardholder and one guest).

Interestingly, despite a large HSBC logo, my HSBC Premier cards did not allow access. They also declined my Priority Pass card stating they have yet to sign a contract with them, but this does appear to be the intention. We are in the process of writing a full review but if you want to go into a lounge and don’t have access to Cathay, this is probably one of the better cash lounges we’ve been to.

Access (or lack thereof)

NOTE: There is no easy way to try out the transit area this terminal, without booking a ticket for a flight departing directly from it. Even though there is an ‘airside’ courtesy bus linking Terminal 2 and Terminal 4, passengers without a T4 boarding card will not be allowed to visit the transit area of T4 while waiting for their flight – in the same way that they currently can between T1/2/3 which have linked transit areas.

Another snag – if you are travelling on Cathay Pacific and want to spend some time in the T1 Qantas lounge, prior to taking the ‘airside’ shuttle to T4 to have some more time in the new Cathay lounge prior to your flight, this may not be possible. We understand that passengers with a T4 boarding card will be refused entry to the T1/2/3 transit area via the T1/2/3 departure immigration.

Summary

Excellent design – lacklustre execution. Given they spent months doing more than 100 trials, involving 2,500 airport staff and 1,500 volunteers – there are still plenty of teething problems. As mentioned – when AirAsia, who is clearly bringing the highest passenger volume to T4, start on 7 November, the flaws in the system may be exposed. We also find the absence of a Skytrain or MRT connection bizarre, regardless of the multitude of excuses that have been made to justify their decision not to have one.

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Large main shopping area in the T4 transit lounge. (Photo: MainlyMiles)
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Transit lounge from the second floor, food hall to the left on the upper level. Notice also how the main terminal entrance and check-in hall is also visible from here. (Photo: MainlyMiles)

If you ignore the annoyances with automation, it’s a beautiful terminal. Light and airy with plenty of seating, passenger-centric designed spaces and abundant food and drink choices…

Just please, don’t force us to walk through another duty-free shop!

 

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