Conversations with Ainan Liu

Ainan Liu is Senior Associate for Ground Transport at Changi Airport Group (CAG). He devises and implements plans to improve the ground transport connectivity between the city and Changi Airport, which attracts millions of passengers each year (58.7 million in 2016) by driving information technology projects, analysing passenger and operator feedback, and encouraging drivers and customer service personnel to do their best every day. Prior to working with CAG, Ainan graduated from Duke University with a degree in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations, French studies, and a certificate in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Ainan: ‘Senior Associate’ is my rank, and there are Senior Associates for every department and division. I’m in the Ground Transport department within the Airport Operations Management division. What we do at Ground Transport is basically consider how to get passengers out of the airport into the city and also the other way around too, how to facilitate passengers in coming to the airport. So, what we do has two main parts: operations management and project management.

Operations management is basically the day-to-day functions dealing with things like whether the buses come on time, or looking at contracts with transport operators to make sure that the transport services are functioning efficiently, and also looking at contracts with taxi coordinators – those who assign you taxis – we make sure that they are performing, so we give out incentives and issue penalties in the case of non-compliance. That’s operations management; we look at day-to-day functions and also handle feedback. And the other part of what we do is project management.

For project management, we think of enhancements. For me, I handle the airport shuttle and the limousine booking services. Before November 2016, we’ve always had an over-the-counter booking system for limousine services, but from November 2016 onwards, we’ve moved to a self-service booking system—basically we moved the booking platform from an over-the-counter, face-to-face format to an electronic kiosk format to increase efficiency, productivity, and have a better experience for passengers and for the drivers who come, it’s also now easier for them to queue and accept jobs.

There’s also contract management, of course, which is part of all of this because all these services are provided through service contracts. So the work I’m involved in extends beyond just Changi Airport, I do have to engage many external contractors as well, because we do outsource a lot of our functions here at Changi Airport to external companies. How we’d like to describe ourselves is like a conductor in an orchestra: the players of the musical instruments are like the transport companies, the trolley retrieval companies, security companies, ground handlers, airline companies; but we make sure that everything still works even though there are so many participants.

Ainan: I’ve been here at Changi for 2.5 years now, and actually I think the main reward of this job is that you can see the fruits of your labour, you can see the results of your work implemented on the ground practically immediately, almost an instant gratification. And at the same time, everything here, the scale of the projects here, is magnified because there are just so many passengers coming through the airport each year; for 2016, we had 58.7 million passengers coming through the airport, and that number is still growing – it’s been growing every year. Last year, we saw a 6% growth in passenger traffic. And we have Terminal 4 and Jewel coming up as well, so everything is really super-scaled, and you can feel the impact that your work has on such a scale.

Ainan: For me, the kind of job-scope or nature of the job that I’ve always wanted to do has to do with interfacing with a foreign audience, an international audience. My background and interest all along has been in international relations, foreign languages, foreign cultures, foreign societies. This is the part of the airport that attracts me the most, because it actually is the most external- and international-facing industry in the world, so I think the airport allows me to align my interests with my career aspirations. And as far as I can foresee, I do see myself continuing to work here at Changi for a long time to come. 

Ainan: After graduating from Junior College, I went through the process of applying for scholarships – and there are quite a few scholarships out there that are very interesting. For me, what attracted me to CAG’s scholarship was that CAG was, at that time, still very new; when I was awarded the scholarship in 2009, it was when CAG was recently corporatised. So, before 2009, the airport was operated by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) – which is basically the government – and only from 2009 onwards did we exist as a separate corporate entity that took over the operations and management of the airport. So, it was something completely new at least in the Singapore context, and we all knew of the great work that the airport does, and now there was an entity that specialised in airport management. And as a commercial, corporatised entity, it does give us the freedom to pursue our concepts and ideas, and also more control over our finances. So, Changi stood out to me.

The scholarship, at least, is generalist so it doesn’t specify any area of study to pursue. In airport operations and in many other functions of Changi Airport Group, there are people from all sorts of educational backgrounds: aviation, engineering, social science, political science – basically anything you can think of! CAG does not stipulate which academic discipline you must pursue because of the managerial nature of the work; for myself, I studied Political Science with a concentration in International Relations and French studies – so I had two majors – and then a certificate for Politics, Philosophy and Economics. And I must say that the experience studying abroad – I studied in Duke University in the United States – pursuing these academic disciplines, and the experience of living abroad has really helped me a lot in this job in terms of the cultural and linguistic sensitivity and fluency that are crucial in an organization such as ours.

I didn’t do an internship before signing the contract but I did an internship during my first summer break – that was more for me to find out which division or which job function I would prefer to join upon graduation. So, I interned at Airport Operations and I indicated that I wanted to work in Airport Operations, because I think for any career in the airport, Airport Operations is a great place to start, just because Operations take up such a big portion of our work here. The airport is not an airport without Operations, and it’s crucial to know who does what and what goes on on a daily basis. What makes our airport so great is, of course, the shops, restaurants, the highly service-oriented staff, but it’s also a lot of how quickly you can flag down a taxi; how fast you can clear immigration; how reliable and efficient the baggage handling system is; how long you have to wait for your bag. These are the very fundamentals of our airport, our system. Without these indicators and these service levels, no matter how nice your terminal looks, it wouldn’t matter. So, I guess for me, no matter where I end up next in my career in the airport, I think Airport Operations is a good place to start.

Ainan: In terms of environment, the airport is just a very pleasant place to work in or travel through because what we emphasise is service quality. We have entire departments who specialize in training, educating and influencing ground-staff in providing that Changi experience. And infrastructure-wise, we’re second to none, I mean, we’ve got a great airport, great retail offerings; and, of course, there are other perks like staff rewards, shopping, dining. Not many places can give you that opportunity to work in a place where you can see planes taking off and landing, and see so many people from all over the world coming through your gates every day. When you launch projects, when you monitor operations, you have to get user feedback and passenger feedback, so you get passengers landing everyday who give you positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback, you take as encouragement, and negative feedback, as room for improvement so you can know where and how to do better.

Ainan: I think there are some aspects of the airport that people who are interested in working here have to be prepared for, and this can be challenging because the airport operates 24/7 and anything can happen at any time, even though people like me have office hours and aren’t on shift work. But that being said, the services that I manage are on rotation round the clock, so anything can happen at any time. Should anything happen, the first line of defence is the people on the ground. We have a ground operations team, and they should be able to cover it, to react to incidents and contingencies on the ground, but there are cases where you might be called upon to step in.

Another challenge to be prepared for is that your peak periods are the holidays. So, there are some holidays when you might have to be on shift because there’s a high volume of traffic and there might be congestion, so you might be called upon to be on the ground to manage these things. And so, you might not have as much time to spend with your family as you would want. But our company has a very fair policy: if you put in extra work during the public holidays, then you can claim the time back. So there are challenges, but you are compensated for them, and there are also other rewards in terms of job satisfaction and other tangible and intangible rewards. And these are just some things that anyone dealing with 24/7 operations has to be prepared for.

Other challenges include the workload. The workload is challenging because we are a company that’s always trying to push the boundaries, explore new frontiers, trying to come up with new systems, new technologies, adopt new technologies. With that in mind, you can imagine: every time we implement a new system a new product, the kind of detail we go into, the kind of public communication we have to make, the kind of trails and then fine-tuning and tweaking, that we have to do – yes, it’s immense. So, workload-wise, it is challenging but I can say that for any rewarding career, the workload is challenging. But at least over here there is a very clear purpose and very tangible and intangible rewards.

Personally, I don’t think that CAG’s workload is more or less than that of other such positions in similar organisations. I There are busy periods and there are lull periods, so it’s really up to you to find that work-life balance. 

Ainan: To be honest, no two days are exactly the same. Some days, I’m doing administrative work like discussing with partners on how they can improve, what is the feedback we’ve received, how we are going to manage the feedback, and how we want to address the feedback. I might be discussing how the contractors will do electrical wiring because if you want to install new electrical systems, there are a lot of fire codes and electrical codes that you have to go through – which is even more administrative work to do.

Other days, you may be making presentations to management if you want to incur a budget, make procurements, or extend contracts that cost money. Some days, it’s more showcasing: you might have external guests or management on a ground-walk. Good days are when your efforts are recognized; you receive a compliment from the ground; you receive a compliment sent to your email; when you show external guests and management the new systems and products that you launch and people are excited about what you are doing, what you are working on. I think good days are when you get positive feedback from your users.

I also derive satisfaction from seeing new systems and products functioning well and being used. Where you manage to convince your partners, colleagues, management, and even government agencies, to go through with or to endorse your project so that you can start working on it and can implement it. In a big corporation like this, there is some administrative and bureaucratic work to be done in order for things to be approved; and for good reason because you don’t want to do something and not have considered the interests of some or other stakeholders or partners. So, when you can convince all of them to be on board with you, you can get the budget approved, you can push it out, you can launch the project. So, it’s not just about the day when you see it being used, but also the day you see it being conceptualised. When everyone agrees to go on this new journey with you, that also constitutes an achievement.

Ainan: It would be the self-service booking systems. This is already in the pipelines, you can see it today at the Ground Transport Concierge. Right now, it’s a big improvement from the system before because it’s easier – just think about Uber and Grab – so from when you needed to come to a counter to book a vehicle, to now when you can just book it at a kiosk. And I’d say the system is maybe even better than these third-party booking apps because you don’t need mobile data and you need not download the app. Like Uber and Grab, everything is tracked, so at any point in time, you can see, on the screen, where vehicle is. For drivers, it’s also good because the queue position is now clearly registered on the screen from the time they come in, and once you have your job assigned, then you can go to pick up your clients. It’s a huge improvement from manual walkie-talkie operations.

But this is just the first step for us, because we also want to see enhancements like an alert system for the drivers, more collaborations with other airlines and other hotels, and ride-out services to them. So, there are a lot of exciting things to look forward to – we want to do apps, collaborations, vouchers, promotions, marketing campaigns – because now we’ve crossed into a new territory, going from manual to electronic, and we want to take things online. Sometimes people look at the airport and think, ‘Wow, it’s already so developed, so advanced; what else is there to do?’ But the thing is, it is one thing to reach this kind of standard, and another to maintain it over time, and yet another thing to exceed these standards you already have.

Ainan: Frequently, there is resistance to new technology and systems from travellers, users and even staff, because there’s this particular way that we’ve been doing something forever. Check-in, for instance, has been done manually over the counter since forever. And now, we’re moving to online check-in, self-service check-in, and eventually we want to do self-immigration clearance, self-service bag drop, and all that. So, I think Singapore has some way to go before we catch up with other countries which have already adopted such self-help functions and systems. But many things nowadays are moving in this direction of self-help, to cut down on manpower. So, I do hope that we can encourage and achieve more take-up at a faster rate. We have been improving so we’re thankful for it. For kiosk check-ins, the last I heard we were looking at about a 50% take-up rate; for ground transport, it’s been more straightforward, so we’re seeing something in the 80 to 90% region. So, this mindset change is something I would like to see come about.

Another area for improvement would be training our staff to be more versatile when interacting with passengers from different countries and from different regions in the world. Currently, we’re very comfortable with European American, Australian – basically, English-speaking – passengers. I hope that there will be more resources for passengers who are not English-speaking, or who are not as well-travelled or cosmopolitan. I’m not saying that everyone should learn Mandarin and Bahasa Melayu and 10 other different languages, but we can improve just in terms of having people who are competent in these areas, on the ground who can give help, who can be referred to. That’s not to say we don’t have such personnel right now, but we can always have more of them and include more languages for self-help kiosks. Because sometimes we may get too comfortable with our current modes of operations and we may forget to accommodate the needs of some people who may need more help.

Ainan: Negotiation, managing work (includes time management), work standards, customer focus, formal presentation, and technical/professional knowledge and skills.

Technical and professional knowledge and skills are necessary because when you manage contracts and manage operations, you have to know the industry. If you are managing bus contracts and you are seeking a contract extension you have to know the industry well enough to understand if the price quoted or if this service is reasonable. So, if you know that right now bus driver wages are climbing, and the contractor proposes a certain level of inflation, then you will know whether there’s any point in trying to negotiate with this. Or if taxi drivers want to increase their fare, but you know that taxi companies are decreasing the rental rates for taxis, then you know that it’s easier for you to fend off these demands. You have to know the industry and what’s going on around the world.

So, there’s a lot of research to be done, and your work can also be very data-driven. If you want to maintain a good service level, you need to understand what the traffic conditions are like at different times during the day, so that you know when there are chances of the buses being late. To plan for that, you need to understand when your peak periods for passengers are, so that you can add in further resources. You need to know the roadways within the airport so when you make routes, you know how to do it the best way, such that the buses and taxis can get where they need to go on time.

You also have to consider how taxis queue and what taxi drivers’ behaviors are like so that your roadways are designed to suit them: do drivers prefer to stay in their vehicle when they queue, or do they like to get out of their vehicle and stretch and take a break? And your infrastructure will be very different depending on this: if the drivers like to come out and stretch, then you will have to build facilities for them to rest and so more space has to be allocated for that; but if taxi drivers like to sit in their vehicle and slowly inch forward as they queue and pick up passengers, then you will probably need to cater for more space for circulation. And for taxi drivers, they now have the Cabs@Changi mobile app so that at any one time they can see how many flights are landing and at which terminal, so they know which terminal to queue at; and if any terminal is short of taxis, we have personnel who can press an activation button to make an urgent call through the app for taxis for this terminal. This helps taxi drivers get shorter queueing times to get a passenger, to earn fare.

You also have to consider how you can make it easier for the staff to perform. In the past, ground-staff in handled a lot of over-the-counter transactions but it was a lot of busyness, a lot of repetitive and boring work. And it was slow, it took a long time to clear a queue. So, why not just have 4 kiosks and have 1 person to watch 4 kiosks? If you are technologically savvy, you can just book it yourself and I don’t even have to interface with you; if it’s someone who needs more help, then I can just help this one person. So, one person can now serve 4 kiosks instead of having a one-to-one format no matter what. This increases productivity, efficiency, and the nature of the job changes – you no longer just receive payment, assign vehicles – you just help with the booking, so the staff experience a better time working.

So, these are things you pick up along the way, things that you don’t learn it in school, that there’s no textbook for; you have to ask around and get experience from seniors, from superiors, from people who have come before you in this position. So, there are a lot of considerations going into each decision. For an airport to work well, it’s not just airport staff – you need good public transport services, you need good service from taxi drivers, you need good IT developers to anchor the IT systems, you need good engineers, you need a good education system to produce people who can work in the airport to deliver that level of service excellence, you need the tourism industries, even a stable security landscape. It takes a lot of factors, a lot of sectors of society to make our airport a success.

Ainan: I would say that it’s minimal as long you’re willing to learn and are excited about a career in aviation, customer service, operations and project management. You should be curious and  see the big picture of why we do this and the significance of the greater mission in growing Singapore as an air-hub and making Singapore a vibrant, viable global air-hub, and how this contributes to our economy, our national pride, and our national identity.