At Singapore Airport, iPad-toting team helps flustered fliers

One more story about Singapore’s Changi Airport…

For my ‘At the Airport’ column on this month, I reported on an afternoon spent observing the crack team of Experience Agents at Changi Airport.

Apropos of an airport with a butterfly garden, a rooftop pool, a three-story indoor slide and 500 complimentary Internet kiosks among its award-winning amenities, Singapore’s Changi Airport is determined to best other airports in the customer-service department. Last March, the airport introduced a 90-member team of salaried, iPad-toting Changi Experience Agents (CEAs) tasked with roaming the four terminals assisting travelers with way-finding, check-in, transfers, lost luggage and other travel-related issues. In some cases the CEAs seem to all but read travelers’ minds in anticipating their needs.

The program is part of an ongoing effort the airport descibes as providing a “positively surprising experience for all visitors and passengers.”

For example, a CEA found Kenneth Ocastro staring in bewilderment at the digital flight directory in the departure hall of the Changi’s busiest terminal.

The young man had purchased a non-refundable ticket to Manila on a budget carrier, but arrived at Changi too late to make his flight. “It was raining very hard and I had to wait a long time for the taxi to come,” said Ocastro, “And when I got here the gate was closed.”

Ocastro was beginning to panic when Changi Experience Agent Johnwin Custodio stepped in. “The passenger was looking around and seemed very nervous,” said Custodio, “So I approached him and offered my help.”

Rather than simply pointing Ocastro to the long line at his airline’s counter – an exercise apt to be futile – Custodio used his iPad to check rates and schedules for alternate Manila-bound flights. It took about 20 minutes, but he found a good option, walked Ocastro over to that carrier’s ticket counter and hovered nearby, solving other travelers’ problems, while Ocastro waited his turn.

“At most airports, you need to go find a customer-service agent at a booth, but here we are creating an impact the moment you step into the airport,” said CEA Maxime d’Alexandry. The 22-year-old was hired for this, his first job, after serving a mandatory stint in Singapore’s army and received Changi’s 2011 “Personality of the Year” award for helping a stranded wheelchair user who’d soiled himself wash up and then shop, buy and change into a new set of clothes.

“It’s just an example of the things we do on our job is to reduce passenger stress,” said d’Alexandry.

To that end, the 90 CEAs together speak a total of more than 20 languages and dialects, including Hindi, Japanese, French, Tagalog and Thai; a reflection of the wide range of cultures represented among the airport’s more than 45 million annual passengers. And when confronted with a passenger whose language they do not understand, CEAs use the Google translation app on their iPads. “That helps us cut down on the number of passengers who miss their flights because they can’t find the right check-in counter or gate,” said Ira Fanador, a CEA supervisor,

The iPads also allow the CEAs to help passengers buy last-minute tickets or apply for visas; tasks which are often cheaper when completed online even if a traveler is already at the airport.

Fanador says since the Changi Experience Agents were introduced, they’ve been able to resolve most, but not all, problems they’ve encountered. She’s still sad that they couldn’t help a frightened and wounded woman trying to return to China without the passport her employer had taken from her, but is proud her team was able to assist the three African men found crying on the sidewalk outside the airport.

“They’d come in from the Philippines and discovered that tickets on to their home in Senegal turned out to be bogus,” explained Fanador. “They had no money and didn’t know what to do.” A team of CEAs helped provide meals for the men, tried to work something out with the airlines, and contacted a local charity, which took the men in and eventually sponsored their tickets home. “By the end of the ordeal we were all friends,” said d’Alexandry.

Changi’s experience agents don’t just deal with the sticky problems. During an afternoon following d’Alexandry and several other CEAs around the airport, I saw them give directions to transfer gates and to the various airport gardens, help search for a lost passport and tell a tired-looking traveler that he needn’t stand waiting for an open slot at the cellphone charging kiosk because there was another free one just down the hall.

“Flying is just so stressful,” said d’Alexandry. “It’s just a good idea for an airport to do what it can to reach out.”

Chinese New Year and the Year of the Rabbit

The Chinese New Year (often referred to as Lunar New Year) falls on February 3rd this year and will be welcomed in Asian communities worldwide with two weeks of food, firecrackers, parades, lion and dragon dances and other events designed to sweep away the old year and welcome in a new one filled with good fortune.

Chinese zodiac-wise, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, and those born under this sign are said to be ambitious and lucky. That’s why guests visiting the elaborate garden display at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas will be greeted with an 18 foot tall God of Prosperity and a 12-foot tall hare with a coat made from 4500 plants. “We provide our guests with a wow factor at every point of contact,” said Andres Garcia, the hotel’s executive director of horticulture. “That includes making sure the display reflects the authenticity of Chinese legend and, in this case, longevity and good fortune for the Year of the Rabbit.”

Not heading to Vegas? You’ll find Chinese New Year celebrations in Beijing, Vancouver, Washington, D.C. and in Singapore’s Changi Airport, where festivities will include food sampling, plate spinning, fortune telling and a roving God of Fortune.

You’ll can also celebrate Chinese New Year in these lucky cities:

Seattle is among the cities that will begin its celebration of the Lunar Year on the weekend before February 3, to allow as many people as possible to participate in cultural activities, a food walk and entertainment that includes Lion and Dragon dances, Taiko drumming, martial arts and the community’s 2nd annual Children’s Parade contest.

Because 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, “Children are invited to enter their pet rabbits in a contest for Rabbit of the Year,” said Youlee Wang of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area. Thankfully, no such contest was held in 2010, during the Year of the Tiger. More details here.

San Francisco’s Chinese New Year celebrations also begin this weekend with a ribbon cutting and Flower Fair filled with candy, fresh fruit, blooming flowers and other supplies with symbolic meaning for a new year. Entertainment will include traditional lion dancing, Chinese opera and martial arts demonstrations. Events continue through February 19th, when the world-famous grand illuminated Chinese New Year Parade will roll out with extravagant floats, lion dancers, more than 100 marching bands and school groups, Chinese acrobats, plenty of firecrackers and a 250-foot dragon that must be carried by more than 100 people.  More details.

Bonus: Anyone born in the Year of the Hare (1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999 and 2011) gets free admission to Lunar New Year festivities at the San Francisco Zoo on February 13th.

In New York City, a Firecracker Ceremony to ward off evil spirits and a festival filled with cultural performances and dances will take place on February 3rd in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood.  Floats, acrobats, performers, marching bands and lion and dragon dancers will take part in the annual Lunar New Year Festival and Parade on February 6th.  More details.  And for the next few weeks, Chinese New Year events at the Museum of Chinese in America will include walking tours, lectures, special exhibits and a Lunar New Year Festival Family Day.

Chinese New Year Honolulu

In Honolulu, there will be a Chinese New Year Celebration with ethnic foods, martial arts demonstrations and entertainment in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza beginning on Saturday afternoon January 29th. The day ends with a parade that starts at the Hawaii State Capitol and includes various Narcissus Festival Queens and their courts, cultural organizations, lion and dragon dance associations and a 150-foot long dragon. An evening block party will continue the festivities with two stages of live music, more cultural performances and plenty of firecrackers. More details.

Chinese New Year Sydney

In Sydney, Australia, the Chinese New Year celebration kicks off Friday, January 28th with the opening of New Year Markets featuring crafts and martial arts demonstrations, a karaoke competition and visits from dancing lions and dragons. The festival continues with Dragon Boat races and cultural events leading up to a spectacular Twilight Parade on February 6th that ends with a huge fireworks show in Darling Harbor. More details.

Bonus: China’s Hubei province is sending a 250-member troupe to Sydney with floats, hip-hop artists, dragons and performers who will demonstrate Wudang martial arts (made famous by the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the traditional Tujia Waving Hand Dance.

Flower markets offering auspicious blooms and plants for the New Year kick off Hong Kong’s Chines New Year celebration on January 28th. The city’s Chinese New Year Night Parade will take place on February 3rd, with more than a dozen illuminated floats, performers from around the world (including cheerleaders and a choir from the U.S.), marching bands, street performers and traditional dragon and lion dancers. A spectacular fireworks display takes place February 4th over Victoria Harbor. More details.

Chinese New Year Las Vegas

Those born in the Year of the Rabbit are said to be articulate, ambitious and lucky. So what better place to ring in the Chinese New Year than in Las Vegas? Through March 5th, the Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Gardens is displaying a symbolic and, of course, over the top Lunar New Year garden that includes a 35-foot Chinese Junk Boat with a 38-foot mast, a Ming Dynasty-styled gazebo and a 12-foot tall rabbit made with more than 4,500 live plants. Eight baby rabbits (so far), each made of 500 live plants, are in the garden as well.

The Bellagio installation also includes oversized red-for-good-luck silk Chines lanterns, an 18-foot-tall Chinese God of Prosperity and seven replica Terracotta Warriors covered in crushed walnuts and ground carrot seeds. Lucky for you, the exhibit is free and open 24 hours a day.

[My Celebrating the Year of the Rabbit story appears in a slightly different version on]