Situation at Changi Airport likely to worsen before it gets better

Changi Airport has done well to grow passenger traffic amid tough competition from rival airports, but travellers, it seems, are a less happy lot these days.

So says a recent survey by the Institute of Service Excellence at the Singapore Management University, which polled about 1,000 travellers over three months from April.

Of the more than 30 firms spanning the education, logistics and transport sectors - including bus, taxi and MRT operators - that were ranked in the annual survey, Changi Airport saw the second biggest year-on-year drop of almost 12 per cent in customer satisfaction levels.

This is despite the fact that the airport did better than other transport firms, including Singapore Airlines, in this year's rankings.

Respondents were not asked to list bugbears. But anecdotally, it appears travellers and visitors are finding the airport more crowded these days. This has had a direct impact on service levels - for example, longer waits for taxis and passport checks during peak hours.

The good news is that the situation should improve eventually.

Changi has announced expansion plans to cope with growing traffic which hit 53.7 million passengers last year - more than 80 per cent of the current capacity.

The airport has embarked on a project to expand Terminal 1 and is building a new facility, T4. This will boost Changi's total handling capacity from 66 million passengers a year now to 85 million.

But the bad news is that between now and 2017 when T4 is expected to open, the situation is likely to worsen as traffic grows.

The story is no different for the public transport system. Faced with delays and overcrowding, commuters gave bus and train operators lower service rankings. And while measures have been announced to improve the travel experience, it will take some time for the benefits to be realised.

Since 2011, operators SMRT and SBS Transit have injected more than 2,000 train trips a week but the majority of trips added to the North-South and East- West lines are outside peak hours. This is because of an old signalling system which can run trains no closer than two minutes apart.

A $195 million overhaul of the system is in progress but it will be completed only in 2016 for the North-South Line and 2018 for the East-West Line.

The Government embarked on a $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme in 2012 to fund new buses and improve service.

In the meantime, plans are being finalised for a new bus contracting model to be rolled out in phases from 2016. This will see the Government take on the substantial investment of owning the assets, that is, the buses and depots, while transport firms will bid to operate parcels of routes.

The aim is to remove some of the commercial risks that can come in the way of operators improving service levels.

With growing customer expectations, Changi Airport, bus and train operators and other service providers must continue to up their game and invest in new initiatives, products and technology.

Fail to do so and rankings will be hit again when the same survey is done next year. Indeed, this is almost a given in view of the time lag from now until the time the improvements are completed.

This article was first published on September 13, 2014.
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