A Brief History of Singapore Changi Airport

Goh Jun Cheng

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Changi Airport in Singapore is recognized today as one of the best airports in the world, renowned for its efficiency, amenities, and service. However, the airport came from much humbler beginnings. Since opening in 1981, Changi Airport has undergone massive expansion and transformation to become the global hub it is today.

This article will chronicle the fascinating history and development of Changi Airport. We’ll explore its early years of operation through to the new Terminal 5 opening in the 2020s. From a single terminal handling just a few million passengers annually to a sprawling, multi-terminal facility welcoming almost 70 million travellers today, it’s been an incredible journey. Read on for a look back through the decades at this world-class airport’s origins and achievement of its current status as a leader in global aviation.

The Origins of Changi Airport

  • Built on site of former RAF Changi air base, opened in 1955 for civil aviation
  • Replaced Kallang Airport which had limited capacity
  • Construction began in 1975 with single terminal designed by local architects
  • Initial cost of S$1.5 billion with projected capacity of 21 million passengers/year
  • First commercial flight took off May 31, 1981 from Terminal 1

Changi Airport officially opened on July 1, 1981 after six years of construction. Built on the site of a former British Royal Air Force base, it was Singapore’s second civil airport after Kallang Airport. With air travel growing rapidly both regionally and globally, Singapore needed a larger airport with greater capacity.

The initial Terminal 1 building was designed by a local Singaporean architectural firm with a distinctive “fish scale” roof structure that would become an iconic part of Changi’s identity. Though a sizable project at S$1.5 billion, the new airport was still relatively modest with just one terminal and a design capacity of 21 million annual passengers.

The Early Years and Initial Expansion

  • Handled 8 airlines and fewer than 10 million passengers in first year
  • Added Terminal 2 in 1990 with similar “fish scale” roof
  • Terminal 1 upgraded in 1995 to double capacity
  • Hit 20 million annual passengers by mid 1990s
  • New cargo complex added in 1996

In its first year, Changi served a mere 9.2 million passengers across just 8 airlines. However, traffic grew rapidly forcing additional expansion. Terminal 2 opened in 1990 to handle increasing passengers and airline customers. Just five years later, Terminal 1 was upgraded to double its original capacity to 21 million passengers per year.

By the mid-1990s, the airport reached its initial design capacity of 21 million annual passengers. A new air cargo complex was added in 1996 to meet growing cargo demand. Changi saw its passenger numbers cross 20 million in 1997, setting the stage for the next phase of expansion.

Building for the Future with Terminal 3

  • Terminal 3 opened in 2008, tripling airport capacity
  • Added shopping, dining, entertainment amenities
  • Featured cutting-edge technology like self-service kiosks
  • Consolidated terminals enabled streamlined transfers
  • Added Budget Terminal in 2006 for low-cost carriers
  • Peak passenger traffic hit 51 million in 2008

To prepare the airport for continued growth in the 21st century, the showpiece Terminal 3 project was launched in the late 1990s. Opening in 2008 after almost 10 years in development, T3 more than tripled Changi’s capacity in one fell swoop to over 70 million passengers per year.

Terminal 3 was built with the future in mind, incorporating advanced technologies like automated check-in kiosks and bag drops. It also massively expanded airport amenities, shopping, dining and entertainment offerings. Passengers could now enjoy movie theaters, spas, gaming zones and much more while passing through Changi.

The opening of T3 along with the earlier Budget Terminal allowed Changi to consolidate terminals and airlines to improve efficiency and transfers. By the late 2000s, Changi was firmly established as one of the world’s leading air hubs.

Changi Hits New Heights Despite Global Challenges

  • Global financial crisis caused brief setback in 2009
  • Quickly regained momentum with 50+ million passengers by 2011
  • Consistently ranked among world’s best airports since 2000
  • Added new air traffic control tower and multi-storey car park in 2009
  • Started world’s first airport butterfly garden in 2012

The airport continued to innovate and set new standards for the aviation industry despite hitting bumps like the 2009 global financial crisis. Passenger traffic dipped briefly but surged back above 50 million annually by 2011. Changi cemented its reputation for service excellence by winning over 400 awards since 2000.

Even during challenging periods, Changi pushed boundaries by pioneering experiences like an open air butterfly attraction within the terminals in 2012, the world’s first airport butterfly garden. The airport continued evolving while maintaining its core strengths.

Gearing Up for the Future with Terminal 4

  • Terminal 4 opened in 2017 with 16 million passenger capacity
  • Focuses on technology for automated processes
  • Self-service options, facial recognition systems
  • Largest terminal integration undertaken by Changi
  • Connects to rest of Changi through underground links
  • Peak annual traffic hit record 65.6 million passengers in 2018

Changi entered a new era in 2017 with the long-awaited opening of Terminal 4. Built on the site of the former Budget Terminal, T4 added another 16 million passenger capacity through cutting-edge technology like automated check-in and bag drop services and facial recognition systems.

The extensive terminal integration works to connect T4 with the rest of Changi via underground pedestrian links and train service was one of the airport’s largest ever engineering projects. T4 further boosted Changi’s offerings for travelers with exciting new dining and retail options.

In 2018, on the back of T4 opening, Changi smashed its previous traffic record by handling over 65 million passengers in a single year. The future looked bright for continued growth.

Moving Forward with Terminal 5

  • Terminal 5 scheduled to open in mid 2020s
  • Located on 1,080 hectare Changi East site
  • Will be able to handle 50 million passengers per year
  • Seamless multi-modal connectivity planned
  • Automation technologies to drive efficiency
  • Projected to increase total capacity to 135 million by 2030s

Changi shows no signs of slowing development with the massive Terminal 5 currently under construction on the Changi East site. Set to open in the mid 2020s, T5 will be able to handle up to 50 million passengers annually and will integrate the latest in automation technologies.

Connected with the rest of Changi through rail and other links, T5 and ongoing expansion projects are set to boost total airport capacity to an astonishing 135 million annual passengers in the 2030s. Changi continues pushing the boundaries of innovation and efficiency.

The Future is Bright for Changi

Changi Airport has come incredibly far from its first days of operation in 1981. It has consistently set the standard for service quality, operational efficiency, amenities, and passenger experience. While the COVID-19 pandemic has created extreme headwinds for the global aviation industry, Changi remains well-positioned to regain momentum.

With upcoming projects like Terminal 5, Jewel, and Changi East development, the airport is ready for the future. While celebrating its proud history, Changi now sets its sights on cementing its status as one of the world’s best airports for decades to come. The growth story continues.


From a modest single terminal airport handling just a few airlines and millions of passengers annually to a global multi-terminal hub welcoming 70 million travellers each year, Changi Airport’s transformation has been simply remarkable. Its history charts Singapore’s own rapid development into a global aviation powerhouse.

Changi has never rested on its achievements, always striving to adopt the latest technologies and push new boundaries in airport experiences. While the road has not always been smooth, Changi has time and again shown its resilience and ability to bounce back stronger than ever.

As the airport continues boldly developing projects like Terminal 5, its bright future is assured by its steadfast commitment to service excellence, innovation and putting the passenger first. After 40 successful years, the Changi growth story remains as exciting as ever.

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