Airport and Aviation Marketing Special Report

AIRWORLD PART 15: WORLD'S SECOND BEST AIRPORT TERMINAL

Zen Ponds, Garden Walks, Rooftop Pool, Movie Theater, Free Video Game Arcade

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SINGAPORE (AdAge.com) -- Don’t believe the date line. I’m not in Singapore. I’m Nowhere, and I have the absence of passport stamps to prove it.

I’ve spent the last 48 hours in the Transit Area of Singapore Changi airport. I’m in diplomatic limbo, neither here nor there, and fortunately for me, Changi was designed with limbo in mind. Airside here is a virtual theme park, with duty free malls, Zen ponds, rooftop gardens, free arcades and smoking lounges all crammed into an architectural blender switched on to purée. Changi is relentlessly over the top by American standards, but the airborne commuters used to long hauls over oceans and 10-hour layovers don’t even blink. (After complaining at the bar one night that American airports are hopelessly drab by comparison, the guy next to me sympathized with: “Yes, it could be worse. You could be stuck at LAX.”)

Rooftop pool, karaoke lounge
On my flight from Paris, unable to sleep because of the jetlag piling up on jetlag, I ordered up a description of Changi from the aircraft’s in-flight entertainment system: "While Changi's legendary efficiency means travelers need spend the minimum amount of time in the airport, the facilities' offerings include showers, gym and sauna, fitness centers, putting green, rooftop pool (a must) and Jacuzzi, hairdressing salons, laundry service, karaoke lounge, mini supermarket, movie theater, TV lounges, children's play area, nursery, smoking room, medical centre and prayer room."

And I intended to try them all.

Photo: Greg Lindsay
Part of Singapore's Changi airport terminal is a labyrinth festooned with Panasonic flat-screens displaying news, ads and entertainment. Click to see large photo.

It can’t be a coincidence that four of the world’s most renowned airports in terms of size and facilities -- Changi, Hong Kong, Dubai and Amsterdam’s Schiphol -- host four of the world’s top airlines (Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Emirates and KLM, respectively) and all have literally centuries of heritage as free ports, as independent nation states, or, in the case of the Netherlands, was once one of the world’s great maritime powers. To thrive in Airworld, all they had to do was reapply their historical skill sets. (And for a great examination of how Emirates did just that in Dubai, where its planes operate and passengers shop around the clock, check out Matthew Maier’s story on the airline in the October issue of Business 2.0.) In the 2005 installment of the annual Skytrax Survey Awards -- which poll passengers in 80 countries -- Changi was runner-up to Hong Kong for the title of the best airport in the world, while Dubai and Schiphol finished further down the list.

Hustled in for a shower
My own two days here have been a succession of Lost in Translation outtakes, beginning the moment I stepped off the plane, where a pair of Singapore Airlines hostesses met me at the gate holding a placard reading “Mr. Gregory Thomas Lindsay” (in Airworld, your name is whatever is printed on your passport) and who hustled me into the airline’s flagship Silver Kris Lounge for a shower. I liked the lounge so much that I stayed for 12 hours, eating, napping, writing and repeating, and watching the waves of in-transit business travelers roll in during Southeast Asia’s aerial rush hours.

Photo: Greg Lindsay
The duty-free shop at Changi was a sea of familiar brands -- Burberry, Gucci, Prada, Hermes, Bulgari, Tag Heuer and Toblerone -- and further evidence of the unified global market offered within the confines of Airworld. Click to see large photo.

When I finally staggered out of the lounge, I wandered through the duty-free boutiques until I heard a piano playing, of all things, “The Girl From Ipanema.” The pianist wore tails and segued into a Cole Porter medley while Australians barked into their cellphones only a few feet away at Sports Bar (not a sports bar, but “Sports Bar”), where all the chairs appeared to be made of half-deflated basketballs and soccer balls and the most popular beer wasn’t the hometown Tiger brand or even something regional, like Asahi, but Carlsberg, a brand whose home turf is Copenhagen. (It turns out that Carlsberg has a brewery next door in Malaysia.)

Muzak versions of Enya
Everything in the terminal was like that -- a copy of a copy or else carved out of its natural contexts. I watched a young Malaysian man toss pizzas at a Italian restaurant that advertised its branches in Naples and Rome. The piped-in music -- and there is a constant sound track in Changi -- isn’t just American pop, but only covers of American pop: anonymous rockabilly renditions of “Nothing Compares 2 U” or muzak versions of Enya (which is this close to being redundant).

Or maybe it was just me. My friend at the bar, Raja, was in transit between New Zealand and Johannesburg, and killing time before his 2:15 a.m. flight. “New Zealand, Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur, here -- all more or less the same,” he said. “Only the currency is different, or one might be bigger, but if you blindfolded me, by the sounds I’d think I was still in New Zealand.”

Photo: Greg Lindsay
Addressing the psyche of travelers, Changi offers a number of soothing amenities including a sunflower garden for quiet strolls. Click to see large photo.

He might be right, but the stores here accept four different currencies, at least -- Singapore, U.S. and Australian dollars, plus the Yen -- and you could conceivably pay in whatever the exchange rates favored that day. (Every store has those helpfully posted as well.)

Airworld's coherent commerce
I saved Changi for the end of this trip because if I was right -- if Airworld really is a nation with its own internal coherence, then I could reasonably expect to find the same magazines on the racks here as I would at JFK, the same New York Times bestsellers being touted at the Hudson Books in O’Hare, the same Calvin Klein fragrances at duty free, and the same “Some Big Company runs SAP” ads mounted on the walls. And?

At the newsstand, US Weekly sat next to Star, next to their U.K. forerunners Closer and Heat. I had my choice of a dozen different international versions of Vogue (I bought Australian spin-off Vogue Living for Sophie), Fortune, Business Week, Business 2.0, Fast Company and the rest, the same as it ever was in Denver.

Midway through the trip, I decided that if our airports reflected the most important and vital thinkers of the age back to us, then the omnipresence of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink rate him as a modern-day Descartes. Following the same standards, Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good To Great) is Ricardo and Freakonomics is the 21st century’s Wealth of Nations. They were all here in force, too.

Photo: Greg Lindsay
Samsung-underwritten Internet terminals abound throughout Changi's terminal. Click to see large photo.

I finally broke down and bought a copy of Candace Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle after seeing copies of it stacked at literally every Hudson branch I saw. That book was everywhere, if by “everywhere” you meant the airport.

Asian dependence
Duty free was a sea of familiar faces -- Burberry, Gucci, Prada, Hermes, Bulgari, Tag Heuer and Toblerone. ... I knew they’d be here, for if the luxury goods business has an Achilles heel, it’s the continued dependence on Asia, and Asia travelers in particular, to drive sales at home (wherever the brand might call home) and overseas. Hermes derives 48% of its sales from Japan and the rest of Asia. Burberry? 26%. Bulgari? 43%. LVMH? 30%. And it was from one of LVMH’s global chain of DFS-branded duty-free stores that I picked out a Paul Smith scarf. Revenues in LVMH’s “selected retailing” division (which also includes Sephora) grew 15% in the first half of this year, thanks to “sustained growth in Asia, benefiting from an increase in tourism,” according to the company’s report.

The “24-hour mini-mart” was actually the best stocked 7-11 I’d ever seen, selling everything from boxers to boxes of ramen to cheap, boxy luggage. Based purely on the size and prominence of its stands in the vice wing of duty free, one would think Jack Daniels is the native spirit of Singapore.

'Future is already here'
And while I didn’t spot any SAP ads, I only wish that JCDecaux’s Don Sperring could have been here to see to the massive TV lounge filled with Panasonic flat screens, or the free, Samsung-underwritten Internet terminals scattered throughout the airport. Or the Xbox arcade upstairs. “The future is already here,” William Gibson once wrote, “it’s just not evenly distributed.” Changi and its fellow Asian airports may have more than their fair share.

As for me, I never did find the karaoke bar or the putting green, but I did get a haircut and a massage and strolled through the sunflower and cactus gardens in the steamy mid-morning heat. And I’ll never forget how it felt to sip Singapore Slings (what else?) by the pool on top of Terminal 1, where the only sounds were of swimmers in the water and the white noise of parked jet engines down below.

By the time you read this, assuming you’re reading this on Friday morning, I should be passing within 1 degree of the North Pole, halfway through my flight halfway around the world. The 18-hour flight seems more like time travel to me than anything else -- we’ll shed 12 time zones along the way and live an entire waking day inside a tube 40,000 feet above the most remote reaches on Earth. We’ll vanish in one place and reappear, just like that, at home only six hours after we left, according to the clock. It will have felt like three weeks.

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