Coming to you live from Khao Sak, Thailand, I am pleased to report that going on three flights in as many days doesn’t necessarily kill the urge to travel. It may dampen it, and necessitate five days of recovery on a sleepy beach, but even three security lines in 72 hours won’t make you swear off flying. It helps, of course, if the second flight in this series lands you in Singapore’s Changi Airport. Because that place is the Platonic ideal of airports, the one which all other airports, dancing in shadow, aspire to become.
Hasty planning had me in Wellington when I needed to be in Auckland for a flight to Singapore, when I wanted to land in Phuket. I couldn’t change the Auckland-Singapore ticket, so I forked out a few hundred dollars to get me connecting flights on either end. The problem lay in the timing; I had to fly to Auckland on Saturday but not leave until Sunday, and I miiiiight make a flight to Phuket on Sunday, but chances were I wouldn’t so I was flying there on Monday. Messy!
I landed in Singapore on Sunday evening and picked up an airport guide on my way to customs. This 26-page booklet explains how to get to the city and other such details, but it also includes maps of the terminals and descriptions of the unique attractions contained therein. I saw a free movie theater, more than one garden, and a “snooze lounge.” I was psyched to spend the short night here rather than at a hostel, which several people had assured me was very possible.
They had neglected to mention logistics, and more importantly, I had failed to research them myself. So I went through passport control, got my bag, turned around to go through customs, and thought, “oh damn.” I’d passed through the magic gate of passport control, and now I was in the part of the airport with the check-in desks and car rental kiosks, and all the fun stuff was on the other side. I went back to my passport control officer and pleaded stupidity, and she led me to her supervisor, who wasn’t mean but he wasn’t pleased either. He explained to me that going through passport control was a one-way deal and that I shouldn’t be allowed back in, and I said yes, I had misunderstood, I hadn’t known what to do with my bag, and he said there was a whole baggage hold system set up to deal with just this sort of thing. Then he voided the passport stamp I’d got just 10 minutes before (a voided stamp! cool!), told me to fill out another arrivals card in the morning, and let me back in the land of wonders. Thank you, sir!
Signs dot the halls, reminding you that this is the “most awarded airport in the world,” although at first it seems mostly like any other airport. People roam about with their bags on shortened trolleys. Information booths are staffed by smiling women in skirt suits. Elegant salespeople hawk duty-free wares and overpriced sandwiches. Cleaners must do their work at some point, because everything is very clean, but I only ever saw a few bathroom cleaners, and I was in the airport for 14 hours.
But then the special features filter through. Here, a garden of various orchids, surrounding a koi pond. Over that way, a kids’ play area and a giant Angry Birds sculpture. This way, an entertainment center, including rooms with Wii and Playstation games, a theater playing Hollywood hits continuously, and a wifi hotspot. Next to the moving sidewalk, a free foot massage machine. In each terminal, a transit hotel with rooms to rent by the night or by the hour (no, not for that, for naps on shorter layovers). In one of the hotels, a rooftop swimming pool.
They’ve made the airport a place that you don’t mind being stuck in, which upends the idea of airports entirely, at least for this Midwesterner raised on Detroit Metro and (ugh) Chicago O’Hare. Some airports have art galleries and casinos, so it’s not like Singapore is the only one on this path, but it’s the most successful one I’ve seen of addressing the complaints someone with a long layover might have–tired, hungry, bored–with mostly free amenities.
The only design flaw I noticed was that the Terminal 3 snooze lounge was on a mezzanine level over a small koi pond that attracted all the shrieking children in the area. So I never actually slept more than 30 minutes at a time, but I was more comfortable than I would’ve been for those 30-minute naps at just about any other airport. It’s still a bit loud, a bit bright, a bit crowded, but that’s the nature of the beast.
If I had to be stuck in transit, at least it was here.