Today, the nation and the world continue to battle Covid-19. That being said, the Changi Airport spirit is resolute — and most evident in the people who work tirelessly in the frontline to ensure that our world-renowned aviation hub remains safe and strong.
As Changi Airport celebrates its 40th anniversary, we speak to Muhammad Irdwan, a Duty Terminal Manager who’s responsible for keeping the operations within the airport terminals smooth and seamless.
Change is scary. It’s hard, messy and leaves even the most confident of chaps second-guessing.
But as a Duty Terminal Manager at Changi Airport, Muhammad Irdwan knows better than anyone else that change is a constant. Think of Irdwan as a solutionist. Whenever passengers encounter any problems at the airport, Irdwan and his team will be there to help.
After all, even the best-laid plans can go awry — changes to flight schedules, medical emergencies, the lost of personal belongings, and the list goes on! And it’s the speed at which Irdwan adapts to the ever-changing scenarios that keep passengers’ experience at the airport a pleasant one.
To meet the demands of the job, Irdwan has thrown himself into learning from each experience and adapting to changes. Today, he continues to ride the waves of uncertainty in an unpredictable Covid-19 environment with the same ease as a pro-surfer!
The Changi life
A typical day as a Duty Terminal Manager starts with a cursory check over the previous shift’s reports and deploying Changi Youth Ambassadors — interns that work together with Duty Terminal Managers to learn about terminal operations — to the ground before he patrols the terminal he’s been assigned to for the day.
From the arrival to departure hall, Irdwan covers all the different touch-points to assist any passenger who might need help and ensure terminal operations are running the way they should.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and different passengers have different needs. No two days, or rather, no two hours are the same. But Irdwan wouldn’t have it any other way — to him, the job is a calling.
After spending a decade hosting visitors at an amusement park, he wanted a change of environment. As much as he enjoyed talking to people, assisting them and learning about their individual stories, he wanted a career that was more challenging and satisfying. That was when he met up with a then-former colleague who recounted her role as a Changi Airport Duty Terminal Manager to him.
Her story had him hooked — it was everything he enjoyed about his current job, but on a much larger scale. He took the plunge not long after.
“I like talking to people. There are so many people in the airport that I can talk to until tomorrow,” he gushed. “While helping people, I get to hear their different stories, understand their cultures and why they like Singapore so much.”
I draw my energy from the people around me. Sometimes my colleagues ask me why I’m so happy, and I don’t really know. Just seeing people going about and enjoying their lives makes me happy. And when you help them, you can feel their appreciation.
He shares that the encounter he cherishes most was with a passenger who was stranded in Changi Airport for some time due to countries shutting their borders as a result of the growing pandemic.
During that period, Irdwan and his team took turns keeping her company and brought her to visit different attractions within the transit area. They also spoke to her family via video call to reassure them that she was safe and brought her Hari Raya festive goodies — all to give her a sense of homely celebrations in a time of solitude.
When she was finally able to return home, she gifted the team a canvas painting as a token of her appreciation. He didn’t get to personally send her off that day, but the painting now hangs in their office as a reminder that every little deed matters.
Adapt, adjust, overcome
For an extrovert like Irdwan, interacting with passengers comes to him as easily as breathing. Everything else about the job, however, felt like mountain climbing.
When asked about his first day of work, there was a pregnant pause before Irdwan finally answered: “I remember madness.”
Between the regular onboarding matters and learning all the different abbreviations used within the airport, Irdwan also found himself running (“Well, technically not running but brisk walking. If you run, everyone will know something happened.”) from one end of the terminal to the other just to respond to passenger-related emergencies.
“I’m not a very active person, so I was completely out of breath and had to tell the passenger to give me a moment.”
Once, Irdwan found a lost passenger at Terminal 3 looking for his check-in counter. As he couldn’t speak English, Irdwan took a look at his flight itinerary and realised to his horror that not only was the passenger supposed to be at Terminal 1, but the check-in counter was about to close.
With no time to lose, he quickly contacted the SATS Airport Services and requested for them to wait for him while he escorted the passenger to the right Terminal. Thanks to his quick thinking, the passenger was able to catch his flight and make it home safely.
There was also the need to familiarise himself with over 100 different airlines and their requirements, and to quickly learn how to integrate their different needs with Changi Airport’s operations. On top of that, he had to attend a bevy of courses to learn about the different departments and network with the people there.
He thanked his mentor, Terminal Manager Kelvin Tan, for being the one to patiently guide him throughout the learning process despite his repeated questions. Without a senior like him, Irdwan believes the learning curve would’ve been even steeper.
Staying calm in a storm
As with everyone else in the aviation industry, Covid-19 has upended Irdwan’s work. With much fewer passengers at the airport to facilitate, Irdwan feared he would have to start looking for new opportunities just six months into his job.
He credits his colleagues for keeping him focused during the period of uncertainty, reminding him to concentrate giving his best to the job at hand and observe how the situation would develop. A few days later, CAG reassured everyone that they would be taken care of.
“Knowing that my job was secure made me feel a lot calmer and allowed me to do my best at work,” he beamed.
Having overcome that hurdle, the many changes that arose at work because of Covid-19 didn’t faze him. Be it changes in operating procedures and travel policies, or changes to check-in counters and departure gates, Irdwan was committed to making sure passengers had everything they need to make it to their next flight.
But just as he was settling into the new normal, a curveball was thrown at him in June — he would have to join the ‘big boys’ at the Terminal Management Centre.
His job at the Terminal Management Centre is, to put it simply, to be the eye in the sky. The role as a central coordinator in an ops centre requires him to have a firm grasp of the different departments and what they do, which would allow him to coordinate a response team to incidents. He’d also have to relay operational information from the Duty Terminal Managers to the senior management and stakeholders within the control room.
He states, matter-of-factly: “There are so many people to update, but they all have to know what’s going on. The speed at which they’re updated and the language you use is extremely crucial.”
As a result of the responsibility that came with his new position, Irdwan found himself binging on a tub of ice cream every night for the first month to save off the stress. It is, after all, a higher-level position normally reserved for seniors with years of problem-solving experience under their belt.
Irdwan’s had a few flubs here and there, but he thanks his managers for being extremely patient with him. As stressful as the role is, he remains appreciative of the opportunities to grow.
“I was scared, but I was excited because I knew I would learn more. Not taking in new information means you’re stagnating.”
Nowhere to go, but up
The past year has been nothing but a whirlwind for Irdwan. However, seeing all his siblings working on the frontline — as nurses and an ambulance personnel — keeps him motivated to do his best.
Having supportive colleagues who check in on each other’s well-being from time to time, and share snacks as a form of encouragement is what also keeps him going.
Sure, they could fret about the uncertainty of their work and the world around them, but as Irdwan puts it: “There’s only so much that you can do, so there’s no point worrying.
“Just take one thing at a time and focus on what’s in front of us.”
To relief his stress from the daily grind, Irdwan loved to head to Terminal 2’s Sunflower Garden at the end of his shift work. The sunrise after a night shift, he says, is particularly special.
The garden, which is now closed for T2’s refurbishment, was his favourite place in the entire airport, so much so that if he could organise his personal airport tour, that would definitely be a must-see attraction on the itinerary.
Sitting among the flowers and feeling the warmth of the sun spread across his body, he finds peace and calmness. The sunrise reminds him that even the longest of nights will eventually end.
As Irdwan faces each new day, he carries with him the hope to be able to bask in sunshine among the flowers again soon.
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