Singapore Airport

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.”