Interview: Lim Ching Kiat, Changi Airport Group MD of Air Hub Development

Lim Ching Kiat, Changi Airport Group’s MD of Air Hub Development, tells ATW’s South East Asia & China Editor Chen Chuanren about what the hub airport is doing to facilitate international travel and how the pandemic is spurring automation.

This interview is part of Air Transport Month, a detailed examination of the future of the air transport industry as we begin to climb out of the COVID-19 crisis.


Rush transcript:

Chen Chuanren:

Welcome to Air Transport Month. Today, we'll be speaking to Changi Airport Group Managing Director for Air Hub Development, Mr. Lim Ching Kiat. Hi, Ching Kiat. Welcome to Air Transport Month. Thank you for joining us today. We are here in a very empty, Terminal 3. As we know, passenger numbers did plunge in excess of 90% at the height of the pandemic. So, how vulnerable is Changi Airport doing this pandemic? And given your position as a lifestyle destination for Singaporeans, has it helped in your revenue so far?

Lim Ching Kiat:

Thank you. Happy to take this interview. I mean, like most airports and airlines, Singapore airport, Changi Airport, is also adversely affected by the pandemic. It's especially significant for us because we don't have a domestic market to turn on. So when international travel goes down, that's a lot of our traffic that's gone down. So for the first nine months of 2020, our traffic has plunged 77% compared to the previous year. So like many airports, we are also trying to explore other areas to do well. So, fortunately for us last year, we opened Jewel at Changi Airport. So I think this is a lifestyle and shopping destination and attraction. So this has helped us a bit. During the circuit breaker period, the traffic has come down. Now, our footfall for Jewel, it's traffic as well rebounded back. I'm happy to say that 90% of our landside shops in Changi Airport, have also reopened.

            So, for Jewel in the last few months, we have seen increased footfall, especially at the restaurants and also, especially on the weekends. Our attractions are also tracking well. Of course we have taken the necessary precautions to open in a safe manner. So we will track the temperature control of the passengers, customers coming in and we use Safe Entry apps, to track contact tracing, and more regular cleaning and disinfecting our premises. So this has helped the revenue, but of course our mainstay is still running an airport. So, as long as the airport traffic is down, it will still be a challenging situation for us.

Chen Chuanren:

Well, how prepared is Changi should there be a vaccine found? How many vaccines can Changi handle, especially if they require a cold storage?

Lim Ching Kiat:

Actually in the years even before COVID, we have placed actually a lot of emphasis on perishable cargo, especially pharmaceuticals. So we have started a few initiatives. First, we formed Pharma@Changi initiative to get together all the stakeholders at Changi that work in the air cargo supply chain for pharmaceuticals. So today we are the largest community in Asia for the IATA CEIV (Center of Excellence for Independent Validators) Certification. We have a total of twelve companies in Singapore, in Changi, who are qualified but we're still getting more onboard. Then this forum is also a regular forum where we engage the pharmaceutical shippers on how we can do better in carrying the cargo. With pharmaceutical cargo, we know that temperature control is very important. The customers also want visibility at all times that the temperature, no excursions happening. So if in terms of hardware, SATS and dnata, our two ground handlers, they have temperature control facilities.

Dnata themselves have recently also brought in cool-dollies, which are temperature controlled containers. So that even on the tarmac itself, we can ensure that the pharmaceutical cargo is well carried.

            Changi Airport is also participating in the global community. We are strategic founding member of Pharma.Aero with other airports like Brussels and Miami. So recently Pharma.Aero working together with TIACA which is The International Air Cargo Association. We have conducted this project called Project Sunrays, which is how do you prepare the whole global air cargo community to be ready for the vaccine carriage. So, closer at home, we are replicating some of these flights that we are doing internationally to get the local community ready. The ongoing discussions are there. We are forming a work group to study this and to identify, along the whole supply chain, where are the areas that we can do better, because I think this is something unprecedented in the whole world. I think even the regulations are still being formed as we speak. So we have to make sure that we have a public private partnership to get all the stakeholders together and study this issue. So these efforts are ongoing.

Chen Chuanren:

            Okay. As we all know that Singapore has established greenlanes with countries like New Zealand, Australia, China, to name a few, how is Changi preparing your facilities and staff to handle these air travel pass travelers?

Lim Ching Kiat:

For the air travel pass travelers, when they arrive in Singapore, they're supposed to take a PCR test upon arrival. So we have facilities in the airport to do the testing, after which they just need to go back to the hotel, wait for maybe one day for the results to come out. And if the result is negative, they are good to go. So for arriving passengers, that's the case. We are also looking at transit passengers, which is an important component for the effort. So again, for passengers coming from ATP countries for transit, they are free to move around the airport. For other passengers who are not on the ATP program, they are kept in a separate area in the transit holding area. So they are separate from the ATP passengers as well, just so that there is a separation.

            So, for airport staff who are handling the transit holding area, because they come in the direct contact with passengers, we also issued them protective gear and pay attention to make sure that the staff safety is essential. So, for airport staff in general, we are also focusing very much on the safety. It's regular temperature control, issuing the right protective gear for their day to day activities, and also encouraging them to keep up personal hygiene and cleanliness. So I think those are two separate problems. One is taking care of customers. The other one is also taking care of staff to make sure that they are given the right level of protection.

Chen Chuanren:

But do they have to go through additional training under this...

Lim Ching Kiat:

Correct. Correct. Correct.

            So, they take additional training and also additional reminders because some of these things, even how for the staff who have to wear the PPE, the personal protective gear, how do you treat them? How do you dispose of them? Can you reuse them? Things like that. It's not second order, so I think there's a fair bit of re-education and training that's needed to clarify some of these. And also, because the workers come from different organizations within Changi, how do you get the same standards across? So I think those are efforts we are putting in quite a lot of attention.

Chen Chuanren:

Moving ahead, do you foresee new city connections to Changi post-pandemic? And how do you see Changi Airport reinvent itself to keep more future proof from blackswan events like COVID-19?

Lim Ching Kiat:

I think immediately we do see some interesting developments for the cargo side, because I think the current circumstance has led to a cargo supply short fall for some of the lanes. So we have actually seen new cargo models emerging and also in fact, new cargo airlines coming to Changi. So, just recently, SF Cargo Airlines, they restarted their flights to Singapore and just a few days ago, YTO also started. So this will bring us new flights and new city destinations. So we expect this trend to continue. Moving more near medium term, as you see the government's efforts to open up green lanes with countries that have stabilized their COVID infection cases. For example, the announced ones are New Zealand, Australia, China, Hong Kong. So these are where travel is opening up.

            So I think those will be among the first for us to get new flights to and then new links too. Further beyond that, I think post-COVID, I think of course the whole aviation industry will take some time to stabilize. But I think historically for Singapore, we have played a key role as a hub airport for transfers for example, Australia to Europe, Southeast Asia to Europe.

            I think these are lanes that we expect to continue to have leadership position over and maybe in some cases might even strengthen our leadership. Post-COVID, it would take some time to see how the situation stabilizes. How will Changi better prepare ourselves for a pandemic? I think today we are really taking all the safety precautions to adapt our model to do that. So even before COVID, we have placed a high emphasis on automation of our services, and COVID just forced us to accelerate some of these. For example, now for our self check-in kiosk, we have proximity sensors so that the passenger doesn't have to touch the screen. For the immigration, again, we have the new biometric equipment so that they can look at facial scan and iris scan instead of fingerprint scanning. So I think these are measures that we have already been investing in, but COVID just accelerated it.

A good thing, perhaps is that many of our partners are now even more ready to talk to us about automation, about self service options. And I think from the commercial side, we are of course exploring new avenues as well, because it may take some time for the traditional model to come back. So, iShopChangi, we have created this platform many years ago, have seen that uptick in the e-commerce site during this period where traveling is down. We are focusing a bit more on the domestic market on e-commerce.

            Then another point is that Changi Airport is also a key player in the tourism and aviation sector. We are also actively participating in some of the government's efforts to restart travel. So the under the government there is the Emerging Stronger Task Force, and one of the sub task forces is looking at restarting tourism travel. So, our CEO is a co-chair of the task force. So we have been discussing with STB (Singapore Tourism Board) and also other players like travel agents and airlines the whole eco- system. How do we carefully restart some of these efforts? So, ITB Asia, now called Travel Revive, will be on later this month. It's a super interesting experiment. So there'll be a lot of innovation on how to restart a big, MICE event in a safe and cafeful manner. CAG is participating in many of these innovations to help restart travel. That is what we're doing.

Chen Chuanren

Based in Singapore, Chen Chuanren is the Southeast Asia and China Correspondent for Air Transport World, joining the team in July 2018.