Singapore and UAE continue to be on the move – in airport development

Similarly ambitious, both countries are taking very seriously the future of transportation and passenger expectations

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There can be few better examples of the nexus between future-first technology and sensitive preservation of the past than the one that played out in Singapore last week.

At midday on October 22, with the city centre's photogenic skyscrapers providing a near picture-perfect backdrop, the German company Volocopter opened the world's first "vertiport" for a test of its flying taxi, an event described in The National as "bringing the future of urban commuting a little closer to reality".

The Volocopter undertook a sedate journey above the harbour, inching its way into history as it did so. Although the event was over in minutes, its significance is likely to reverberate for much longer as the next generation of global transport solutions begins to coalesce into view.

Meanwhile, a short distance across town, the historic Raffles hotel continued to spring back into life after a long stretch of slumber. The hotel had been closed since December 2017 for a period of sympathetic restoration and refurbishment. Raffles officially reopened at the beginning of August, although its formal grand reveal occurred a couple of days before the Volocopter took to the skies.

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Emir of Abu Dhabi (Photo by Genevieve Chauvel/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

It is easy to make comparisons of development, change and history in Singapore and the UAE, right down to the flying taxi project that has also been piloted in Dubai and, indeed, the driverless trains that crisscross the public transport networks of both Dubai and Singapore.

Certainly, the parallels between the two countries are strong: both shaped their destinies during the same period of the late 20th century. Singapore became an independent republic in 1965, the UAE became a constitutional federation in 1971. The success of neither new country was assured and the development of both owed a great deal to the nation-building vision and steely reserve of their respective leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Sheikh Zayed, and to continued thoughtful leadership in the years since.

It is safe to say that the parallels between the two states in terms of providing secure environments for business and commerce, as well as tax-free shopping experiences for tourists, are also close. So, too, is the government-led emphasis on smart cities and on the wellbeing of citizens, including the development of public housing projects on a grand scale in both countries.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, is credited with the country's development. AP Photo

And it is not surprising that both the UAE and Singapore have recognised the opportunity presented by flying taxis, given their traditional place as transport hubs and trading centres, reputations forged on the back of busy international ports and highly regarded airlines.

It is the respective airports that offer up some of the most interesting points of commonality in their respective stories. Dubai international airport recently welcomed its billionth passenger and is the busiest hub for international travellers in the world, while Abu Dhabi international is preparing to take a huge step forward with the opening of its new Midfield Terminal complex.

For the past seven years, Singapore's Changi airport has topped the Skytrax World Airport rankings and with good reason. Its success has been forged on its ability to get passengers quickly through its departure and arrival halls, as well as for its shopping and dining options and for the more left-field parts of its overall package, such as its rooftop pool for those who have a few hours to kill in between flights.

Visitors take photographs at the Rain Vortex at Jewel Changi in Singapore on October 30, 2019. / AFP / Roslan RAHMAN

To those attributes it added the Jewel this year, which is part-shopping experience, part-visitor attraction featuring a 40-metre indoor waterfall set among verdant, manicured gardens. It is a remarkable place.

At the time of opening, Jayson Goh, the airport group’s CEO, said that it had been developed because “passengers are spending longer as they transit through airports”, although analysts have been quick to point out that the attraction is a landside development, making it harder for transit passengers to experience the Jewel unless they take the Skytrain service that runs directly past it.

Beyond its arresting landscaping, array of shops and diverting attractions, including mazes and a bounce park, the Jewel also inverts the traditional airport model by fashioning Changi into a destination point for visitors as well as a place of departure for passengers.

The Midfield Terminal could provide an exquisite riposte to Singapore's Changi when it opens soon, with its vast roof span, huge floor plan and airy feel. Abu Dhabi Airports

Like the Volocopter representing the frontier of personal transportation, the Jewel may be at the forefront how airports will need to adapt and change over the next few years to keep up with passenger expectations. The Jewel also sends out a message to other facilities that Changi does not intend to relinquish its best in the world crown any time soon.

Abu Dhabi's Midfield Terminal may well provide an exquisite riposte when it opens soon, with its vast roof span, huge floor plan and airy feel. It is a development of epic scale. The building is also expected to be connected to 5G, joining Dubai's JLT in an exclusive UAE club, and will feature vast areas of retail, food outlets and lounge space.

Its architects say the structure brings to mind rolling desert dunes, the sea and an oasis in the desert, while an Abu Dhabi Airports official speaking two years ago said Midfield Terminal “is the future and we aim to be number one”.

The Jewel has set the bar higher than ever, which begs the question of whether Midfield Terminal can push global travel on to even greater heights.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief for The National