While established western economies have all but suspended large-scale infrastructure projects, emerging markets in Asia and Latin America have seized the baton and led the way in delivering best-in-class facilities. While many of these are newbuild schemes, some are the result of serious upgrade and improvement.

China, unsurprisingly, has been in the vanguard of this process, building from scratch airports, roads and ports. It’s a process, albeit on a much smaller scale, that Singapore began back in the 1970s and continues today. Central to it has been Singapore’s Changi Airport, one of the world’s leading hubs, connecting Singapore with the growing economic centres in the UAE and South-East Asia.

Service with a smiley

Steve Lee has been CIO at Changi Airport Group (CAG) for four years. For a long time, the airport was government-controlled, but was ‘incorporated’ in 2009 when CAG was formed to take over the running of the hub.

"That move proved to be transformational," said Lee. "As a private entity, we have to continue to provide the award-winning Changi experience amid the changing needs of today’s passengers. The important thing is to be astute enough to implement changes smartly and yet provide a reasonable return on investment to our shareholders."

To meet those challenges, and in such a competitive environment where a dissatisfied customer has an unprecedented number of ways to make their displeasure known, Lee has made it his job to develop and strengthen Changi’s customer feedback system, a component of the Changi Contact Centre. For example, at the washrooms, passengers can rate the service that they have experienced.

"It’s easy because it’s all ‘smiley-face’ emoticons so, even if you don’t understand English, you get it," Lee explains.

Critically, the IT infrastructure allows for a deeper understanding and faster response to customer feedback, be it toilet-related or not.

"If they indicate that they had a poor experience, they will be prompted to give reasons," Lee explains. "We have preset reasons like a wet floor, a lack of toilet paper or a foul smell, and once they have keyed this in, the feedback goes to the smartphone of the toilet supervisor who will then dispatch the cleaner assigned to that toilet to solve the problem. In our industry, while we try to minimise service failures, the ability to execute service recovery in a timely fashion is definitely a game-changer for us.

"Last time I checked, we get more than a million items of feedback a month. Most are good, but we also take the time to analyse the unsatisfactory feedback and identify the root cause of these service failures."

"The important thing is to be astute enough to implement changes smartly and yet provide a reasonable return on investment to our shareholders."

However, running an airport is about more than keeping the toilets clean. Lee acknowledges that, as an airport operator, many aspects of the operation are beyond his control. A pick-up delayed by a taxi queue will likely leave the passenger fuming at the airport, even if the service shortfall was caused by a third party.

Changi has more than 200 partners with a 32,000-strong workforce in the airport community working around the clock, 365 days a year. So, how can Lee, in his centralised role, account for and manage that? Ultimately, he says, it’s all about taking a systems-based approach in terms of collaboration with airport partners, and making these systems interoperable. For example, Changi’s check-in counters operate across a common platform.

"We have many airlines operating out of the airport, so obviously I’ve got to find a system that all of them can use, giving airlines more operational flexibility and capacity to serve customers," Lee explains. "Collaboration has become increasingly important as the airport has grown – more carriers and retailers mean more legacy systems – leaving a potential thicket of conflicting protocols for the CIO to reconcile."

Collaboration and the cloud

One response to better manage the flow of information and assess how operations are performing at Changi is a CRM solution known as One Changi.

"This will also ensure a certain quality and most importantly, understand the demand and the feedback we’re getting in order to constantly stay on top," says Lee.

These types of collaborative systems are becoming much easier to design and execute through the cloud. Along with his CIO peers, Lee is grappling with the demands ushered in by the cloud, and draws an interesting parallel between the role the airport plays and the cloud server.

"Essentially, the airport is an infrastructure cloud, if you think about it," he explains. "It has two runways with common buildings. The airport operator buys these buildings, puts in all the services, and the airlines come and use it. Just imagine if airlines had to build airports in many countries: they can’t. Airports build this cloud and provide a service to the airlines and the passengers."

Lee has a refreshingly holistic view of how an airport can operate, and sees IT as critical to its success. He has spearheaded the creation of a multidisciplinary operations centre that aims to bring all aspects of the airport into one shared hub to allow better collaboration.

"Most of the airport operation centres either revolve around the airport, or are there for a specific function," he says. "But ours is designed with collaboration in mind. The whole operations centre is made up by and for all the stakeholders. We need that collaboration to discover new ways to improve things."

This centre is aimed at underpinning better service and efficiency for carriers and passengers. Lee admits that the process never stops. Anticipating the changing needs of customers is central to his role – how will mobile change the travelling experience? Will carriers move at the same pace? How will the traveller of 2023 want to interact with their airport or carrier?

Terminal intelligence

These questions form the essence of Changi’s plans for Terminal Four, which is to open in 2017, and is due to increase the airport’s capacity by 16 million to 82 million passengers a year across all terminals.

"We are trying to make it an intelligent terminal," says Lee. "There will be challenges of how to cater for the almost daily evolving needs of the customers; for example, how to fully ‘mobile-enable’ the whole airport. That means from the time you check in to the time you board the plane, all you need is a phone."

Lee’s philosophy when attempting to plug his IT expertise into the design of the new terminal is simple: go with the flow.

"I don’t believe in fighting gravity – that’s number one," he says. "We design our systems to meet fundamental human needs and I always believe that users’ needs will change in time, so systems will not be designed to cater for specific channels of interaction with customers. The art is how you hedge your bets smartly through investing in open and adaptive system designs."

But, while some elements will follow established patterns of terminal design, there must be room for innovation.

"The obvious worry in some of these things goes beyond the application software, because the problem often lies in the hardware infrastructure," says Lee. "For that, we have put in the right kind of technological obsolescence plan."

This involves working with vendors and software partners to ensure that the team plans ahead before Lee and his architecture team decide on the next steps.

"We no longer get trapped in those kinds of things. But a lot of those are what I would call ‘running-the-business issues’ – you just do them. The really important ones are new technological solutions and great ideas, but those have a short lifespan. It’s a different spectrum and you have to treat them separately."

Evolving role

Changi is unlikely to be caught out by the pace of change with Lee at the helm. He’s a firm believer in harnessing new technology; social media will play an increased role in gathering and analysing customer reaction and feedback, while further integration is also planned.

"These are difficult things to do," he says. "They sound very simple, but you realise that there are many different stakeholders in the airport. There are still dreams to be realised that will better improve the communications flow at Changi Airport."