The Changi Airport Worker as a ‘Frontline Professional’

The pandemic has created variegated geographies of travel, and Changi Airport as the face on the counter, represents Singaporean excellence in every interaction. My experience in January this year, at the heart of the pandemic had demonstrated clockwork efficiency with a smile, as passengers were brought in on travel bubble flights from India every once in a fortnight.

The airport is a ‘non-place’ in the words of French Anthropologist Marc Auge, which theorises the airport or the metro station as place between places, the destination, and the site of travel. The airport is a shopping mall and a flying bus terminal, which is void of meaning. However, this analysis views the destination and the point of origin as important or essential, and the airport a mere blip on the radar, trivial for the academic analytical gaze. The airport worker in the pandemic, catapults the non-place back to an ‘essential’ frame, where sans the airport worker in the pandemic, global flows of the critical sort, of healthcare workers would be gravely stuttered.

The Changi Airport worker has sacrificed by putting his or her ‘body’ (includes the physical and mental dimensions) on the line by supporting the ease of travel. The airport gets transformed into a literal border post with areas segregated for high-risk countries (read South Asia) and the emancipated West, with privileged travel lanes without quarantine such as Germany. The airport thus is transformed and mapped into vaccine geographies of risk, which informs its very own micro geographies of resilience. The airport worker during the pandemic has been aided by specific measures including transparent screens and breath analyser tests to keep them safe. The airport has become a biomedical space with PCR tests for passengers administered at the airport prior to passport control to assess the virus status. Thus, the interesting and apt categorisation of the ‘essential worker’ on the Changi Airport staff.

The airport is also the site of the shifting sands of labour geography, with the airline industry being adversely prevented from ‘taking-off’. The airport worker has faced challenges in terms of pay cuts and a severe pivot to their careers. Pilots have been grounded and have been taking flights to nowhere. The service staff in the port has been moved to cargo, with people retraining to operate the forklift. The flight attendants have been to vaccination centres outside the airport. There have been news of flight attendants retooling to become financial advisors to moving to the hospitality sector.

Airports are places of work for thousands of people, and Changi Airport is the feeder sector for the MICE and Tourism space which is the life blood of a Global Hub. The airport worker has been made to understand new processes and procedures for letting mobilities function, such as evolving travel requirements for PCR Tests and Quarantine for each destination. Welfare is a key measure for keeping the motivation up for airport workers, which include free meals. Changi Airport is a key global airport for vaccine logistics regionally and keeping the travel open is imperative for Singapore’s economy and the region, however the airport worker’s safety is imperative as well. The airport is a transnational space for care, and certainly not a ‘non-place’.

This blog post is in response to writing prompt given by Vanshika Singh, the catalyst behind the weekly writing initiative for graduate students at NUS Geography:

https://www.channelnewsasia.com/watch/s15-million-support-help-changi-airport-workers-adjust-enhanced-covid-19-safety-measures-video-1863881