Paya Lebar Airport – The International Airport Before Changi That Only Operated For 26 Years

Paya Lebar Airport AKA Singapore International Airport

We all know Singapore’s Changi Airport as the world-class facility it is today, with existing plans to expand its 5th terminal in 2025. Before Changi Airport, there was Paya Lebar Airport, formally known as Singapore International Airport. If you’re an aviation geek, you’d know that it was the hub for most of Singapore’s flights back in the 60s and 70s.

Let’s take a trip back in time and reminisce about our previous international airport in its heyday before Changi Airport took off.

The “Jewel” of Paya Lebar

Image credit: Roots.sg

Paya Lebar Airport was opened on 20th August 1955 to replace the previous Kallang Airport. The reason for the move was that aviation technology had gotten an upgrade in the years post-World War II – and Kallang Airport didn’t have the facilities to accommodate planes that were larger and heavier. 

Image credit: Urban Redevelopment Authority

Instead of upgrading Kallang Airport, the government felt it would be more practical to construct a new one at Paya Lebar instead, mostly because of its more central location. 

Paya Lebar Airport – or Singapore International Airport – was dubbed the finest in Asia for its time. It had the latest in air traffic control tech, with a stylish arrival hall decked out in black and gold. There were even artsy murals on the walls. It was indeed, the “Jewel Changi” of the 60s.

How Paya Lebar Airport grew over 26 years

Image credit: Urban Redevelopment Authority

Although Paya Lebar Airport began operations the day after it officially opened, it needed more time to be ready. There was a 3-year plan underway to upgrade the runway, docking area, and parking space for the planes.

In 1962, the 8,000ft runway was extended to 9,000ft – making it one of the longest runways across Asia back then. Look at us collecting airport accolades since way back in the 60s. 

A Singapore Airlines Boeing 737.

Image credit: @sherwink via Instagram

Here’s a fun fact: there was once a Malaysia-Singapore Airlines. It split in 1972, forming the respective Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines we know today. 

This was just in time for the boom in passengers between 1970 to 1975, which saw an increase from 1.7 million to 4 million passengers a year all within a single terminal. As a comparison, Singapore Changi Airport saw 4.6 million passengers in April 2023 alone – bearing in mind we have 4 terminals now.

The birth of Changi Airport.

Image credit: Changi Airport via Facebook

By 1975, construction had begun for a new airport as it was quite clear that the Paya Lebar Airport was operating at maximum capacity. The new airport which officially took over in 1981 is none other than our beloved Changi Airport. 

What happened to Paya Lebar Airport?

The former international airport was transformed into Paya Lebar Airbase, a military air force base, the same year Changi Airport opened. The original terminal building, maintenance hangar, and control tower were kept from its civilian days. There was a slight makeover, though, as the terminal building was painted green for a more military vibe.

Apart from housing our military aircraft, the Paya Lebar Airbase is where we receive key figures from foreign countries during official visits. Some names that would stand out are Donald Trump – who came during the 2018 North Korea-United States summit held here – as well as Vice President of the US, Kamala Harris in 2021.

Residents in and around Paya Lebar can say farewell to planes roaring overhead by 2023, for better or for worse.

Image credit: @rish.dharmasena via Instagram

The end of Paya Lebar’s involvement with Singapore’s airspace may be coming to an end by 2030, though. Paya Lebar Airbase will be shifting to Tengah, making way for future developments of a Paya Lebar town that’ll have an estimated 150,000 new homes.

Fly high, Paya Lebar Airport

The demolition of Paya Lebar Airbase means more land for housing, but we’ll be saying goodbye to a large part of history. Hopefully, when it moves out in 2030, there’ll be heritage trails being built to remind future generations of Paya Lebar’s former glory. 

For more historical content, check out:

Cover image adapted from: Roots.sg & Urban Redevelopment Authority

Raiz Redwan

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