Don’t mess with Singapore’s No.1 airport status - Changi is a source of pride for a nation obsessed with rankings

One can be sure that Singapore will pull out all the stops - Rain Vortex, digital indoor waterfall, art installations - to wrest the crown back

Singapore Changi Airport control tower at dusk.
Singapore Changi Airport control tower at dusk. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

THE daft travellers involved with the Skytrax World Airport Awards have no idea what they’ve done. They’ve tampered with one of Singapore’s Infinity Stones. Changi Airport. Our Jewel at the end of the ECP. And a nation is wounded as a consequence.

Let’s be honest, we don’t have that many Infinity Stones to begin with. There’s Changi Airport, food, safety and security, cleanliness, maths and science, otters and our quaint obsession with light and laser water shows.

But together, they are our last lines of defence, a counterargument to any sensitive criticisms of a Little Red Dot that does have a tendency to wet itself if a random travel blogger is vaguely critical about the place.

Singapore’s not as funky as Hong Kong? Yeah, but it’s cleaner. Singapore doesn’t dominate in arts and sports? Yeah, but we’ll take you down with our calculators and Bunsen burners. Singapore has no great outdoors? Yeah, but we’ve got otters currently devouring a towkay’s koi carp in Bukit Timah. Singapore doesn’t have Disneyland? Excuse me, have you seen our dancing water fountains?

Most of all, we’ve got Changi Airport. We always had Changi Airport.

When I was a rookie sports reporter, covering a Mickey Mouse sailing regatta for expats, I witnessed a delightful conversation between an international sailor and a Singaporean journalist, where the sailor lamented the alleged absence of personal freedoms here.

“Yeah, maybe,” replied the journalist, “but we’ve got the world’s best airport.”

Half sincere, half sarcastic, but Changi’s unrivalled superiority was a get out of jail card. It was our “thing”, like banning chewing gum. To outsiders, we banned chewing gum and built the No.1 airport, which seemed like a reasonable trade-off.

Just as Toa Payoh should be renamed “Very Central”, because that’s generally the response given when discussing the place, Singapore should be renamed “Nice Airport” or “Very Clean” (Occasionally, the two are combined.)

Changi Airport allows a small nation to walk tall, like an insecure young lover. It’s not the size that counts, but the consistency of performance. And as phallic symbols go, no other country is topping a seven-storey rain vortex, are they?

But the Skytrax World Airport Awards 2024 have left us feeling a bit limp. Singapore has been usurped. Doha’s Hamad International has been crowned the “world’s best airport”. Singapore is No.2. These numbers do not compute. Changi Airport won last year. Changi Airport has won 12 times in total. Changi Airport delivers bragging rights for a tiny country.

It’s why we have that conversation every single time we return home, the one where we say, “oh my God, the customs officers were faster than a Formula 1 pit crew. The luggage arrived in 27 seconds on a velvet pillow. A string quartet played Majulah Singapura as we strode through arrivals. A taxi was waiting, the fare was free and we arrived home an hour before we landed.”

Occasionally, we may overplay the efficiency bit, especially if we’ve just departed from an airport that doesn’t quite match Changi’s modernity, i.e. the luggage was carried to the plane on the back of a donkey. Obviously, that’s a childish and petty dig at Heathrow Airport. Everyone knows that Heathrow Airport now uses donkeys and carts.

Incidentally, the credibility of the Skytrax World Airport Awards 2024 was further challenged by the revelation that London Heathrow had jumped one spot to 21st on the list. London Heathrow is not really among the world’s best airports. London Heathrow is not even the best airport in London.

But London doesn’t need such tributes. It has the history, the architecture, the theatre district and the weekly comedy of West Ham United. Singapore needs Changi Airport to be No.1. This is a country obsessed with rankings and daft records. To use just two surreal examples, Singapore has had the largest chicken dance and the longest chain of helmets, which still sounds suspiciously like West Ham to me.

Rain Vortex at Jewel Changi Airport.
Rain Vortex at Jewel Changi Airport. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

But it’s not uncommon for a relatively new country to reach for weird records and global rankings to shortcut a cultural process and boost soft power. Singapore can’t have China's or Japan’s deep heritage, for example, but it can still be the best airport in Asia, boast the world’s best airport hotel (the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport) and the world’s best immigration services, which are fabulous awards, no doubt, but sound a little like participation medals. What happens if, god forbid, Doha takes the world’s best immigration services title next year? Can we win the best airport carpet award? How about the best airport art installation dangly thingies?

That one has to be a shoo-in.

The media coverage of Changi Airport’s slight dip in rankings has been amusing though, with the first paragraph begrudgingly acknowledging the passing of the torch to Doha, before swiftly moving on to more giddy paragraphs about the best hotel and the best immigration services, sounding like that overeager parent on school sports day… “Well, little Charlie didn’t win the relay this year, but he had the best baton handover, eh? And his hair was immaculate.”

And that’s fine. Changi Airport should be a source of pride, the only airport in the world where locals willingly choose to hang out at weekends, as opposed to Heathrow Airport, where locals lose the will to live.

Changi will take back the crown. According to the Skytrax World Airport Awards criteria, travellers rated their experience at different points: check in (where a wonderful staff member organised a last-minute Australian tourist visa for my family recently and literally saved our vacation), arrivals (flawless), transfers (seamless), shopping (reasonably-priced hawker food, as opposed to exorbitant meals at other airports that require the sale of a kidney) and security and immigration through to departure (the quickest, though the laptop removal is still annoying).

But seriously, Changi Airport matters because it isn’t merely an airport to many Singaporeans, but an integral chapter in the Singapore story. They are intrinsically linked. The growth and success of one mirrors the other, because Changi Airport is Singapore: efficient, clean, modern, opportunistic, forward-thinking and disturbingly obsessed with rankings and its position on the global stage.

Changi Airport will improve because Singapore must improve. There is literally no other choice or alternative. So enjoy the hallowed status, Doha. It’s well deserved. But Changi is coming for you. And it's bringing its rain vortex, its indoor waterfall and its art installation dangly thingies.

Enjoy the hallowed status, Doha. It’s well deserved. But Changi is coming for you. And it's bringing its rain vortex, its indoor waterfall and its art installation dangly thingies.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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