Behind the Scenes on Singapore Airlines
Published: May 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
If you think air travel today is nothing to write home about, you haven't flown Singapore Airlines. Named best international airline in T+L's readers' poll for four years straight, SIA has redefined in-flight service, thanks to rigorous training, great food (really), and tireless innovation. Somehow they make it look simple. it isn't
You are free of blemishes. You have perfect posture, even after nine hours on your feet—Dr. Goh taught you well. You are between five-two and five-eleven, and you are serving canapés to Tom Brokaw. Your friends are jealous.
You speak Mandarin, Malay, English, and a little German. You are familiar with a defibrillator. You are not, not, a waitress in the sky. You are 20 years old, eight miles high, 10,000 miles from home. You are a Singapore Girl, and you are an icon.
You are not bothered by the term girl. Your superiors refer to you as such—sometimes "ladies," but usually "girls"—and that's okay. You earn more than most women your age back home: $22,000 a year plus bonuses, and there are always bonuses. Since completing your training in June you've been to Athens, Bombay, Denpasar, London, and Newark.
You are one of the lucky 6,000 girls and guys—oh yes, there are guys too; everyone forgets about them—chosen as cabin crew for Singapore Airlines, which, if you believe the accolades (and you do! you do!), may be the best international carrier in the world.
In the 28 years since its inception, Singapore Airlines has quietly—ever so quietly, with a minimum of hype—led the industry in innovations, developing many perks that travelers now take for granted. SIA was the first airline to offer free headsets, free drinks, and a choice of meals in economy class, back in the seventies; the first to provide satellite-based telephones on board, in 1991; and, last year, the first to install video-on-demand in first and business classes, and Dolby Surround sound in all classes. Singapore's new first-class "Skysuites," furnished in Rolls-Royce leather, convert into full-length beds, complete with linens and duvets (and pajamas by Givenchy); each seat has its own 14-inch TV screen with background-noise-canceling headphones. You'd want one for your home.
But it's Singapore's food and in-flight service that receive the most praise. "Service," of course, is a subtle and slippery thing, which no one can exactly define but everyone can appreciate—or, more likely these days, complain about. It's that intangible, unquantifiable element that can make or break a reputation. Singapore Airlines has somehow captured it, quantified it, and replicated it across the fleet.
So how do they carry this off?What's it take to put an airline together?T+L went behind the scenes—inside SIA's training center, into the vast catering kitchens, into test labs and airplane hangars, behind locked doors deep within the airport—to find out.
Eddie Ong, SIA's vice president of in-flight services, is trying to explain great service. He picks up a coffee pitcher and demonstrates the artful Singapore pour. "You can be sure all of my girls serve coffee this way. See?The cup here, the pitcher held like so, the sugar placed on this side of the tray." Not for SIA the self-consciously casual style of, say, Virgin Airways (of which SIA now owns a 49 percent share). "Virgin is fun, very relaxed," Ong admits. "Joking, friendly—they don't have to be rigid. But we want our service to be as consistent as possible."
While the service industry trend is toward a new, playful informality (Virgin being the prime example), SIA spends millions orchestrating every detail, from coffee decanting to proper grooming to the hallowed rule of eye contact. Precision, Ong maintains, is the key—and this requires training. Of course, it has to come off naturally, not stiff and scripted: "smooth as silk," as the airline likes to say. Which is where the Singapore Girl comes in.
It starts with an ad in Singapore's Straits Times:
THE CAREER THAT'S STILL IN VOGUE
Trends come and go. Styles change. But after more than two decades, the mystery of the Singapore Girl endures. Singapore Airlines invites you to be a Singapore Girl. Meet us at the SIA Training Centre, 720 Upper Changi Road East on 8 or 9 April (9 AM-3 PM). Don't forget to bring your original birth and educational certificates, identity card and two passport-sized photographs. And your warm smile!
Four hundred seventy-nine warm and anxious smiles show up. Most applicants are in their late teens or early twenties. Only 82 of them will be chosen—for their "femininity, sophistication, and worldliness," their "clear, glowing complexions," and their "polite, professional manner." The femininity criterion is the clincher, a throwback to the pre-PC era when flight attendants were still known as stewardesses. Perhaps there's a strategy in this. Veteran flight attendant Foo Juat Fang says SIA has never had an air-rage incident, and reasons that "it's hard to be nasty to a girl in a sarong kebaya [the classic batik uniform designed by Pierre Balmain]. Put them in pants and passengers think they can take more abuse."
A new recruit will spend her first four months at the $47 million SIA training facility just west of the airport, a veritable finishing school where she'll learn everything from how to bake a towel to how to use the life raft's fishing kit. Each morning begins with a rousing chorus of the company song: "Let's step into the future, let's do it all in style/We're proud to be a part of that Singapore Girl smile!" I'm willing to bet that if a Western airline had a company song, no self-respecting employee would memorize the words, but SIA trainees sing them with the utmost conviction.
Then it's on to class. Dr. Goh Ban Eng, the soft-spoken, matronly senior manager of cabin crew training, says SIA has the longest and most involved training program of any airline. It certainly requires a great deal of paper. Several 40-page booklets are dedicated to subjects such as deportment ("Having a slight forward-leaning body posture gives a friendly impression"), grooming ("Strive for a well-balanced diet to achieve thick, glossy hair"), and passenger management ("The tone of your voice should be pleasant and varied"). There's even a section on determining a passenger's surname: Tom Brokaw is Mr. Brokaw, but Zhang Yimou answers to Mr. Zhang. Trainees can also sign up for extracurriculars in wine appreciation, "lifestyle planning," speed-reading, dance—all on the company's tab.
Every few days the students are given a pop quiz. Here, take a shot:
1. Don't interrupt. Always ____ to what the passenger has to say.
2. Garlic bread must be heated with the foil ____.
3. The garnishes for soba are ____, ____, and ____.
If you guessed "listen," "open," and "chopped chives, horseradish, and seaweed," congratulations—you get to jump in the pool.
Two months into training, just when you've gotten comfortable in your custom-tailored uniform, you're led into the basement for the dreaded evacuation tutorial. This is what separates the Girls from the girls: an all-too-realistic simulation of a water landing, staged in a 747 cabin mockup suspended above a wave pool. Often the lights are switched off to replicate a nighttime crash.
Four trainees take their turns acting as cabin crew while fellow students play the panicked passengers. It's all re-created, down to the pre-recorded shrieks piped in over the P.A., the bloodcurdling whine of the engines, the flickering of the cabin lights as the power shuts down—those of you with a fear of flying should probably skip this part—and finally, a horrific splash as the captain yells "Brace!! Brace!!"
At this point the stewardesses spring into action, barking orders in voices that are neither pleasant nor varied: "Inflate life vests!" they shout while herding their sarong-clad "passengers" to the exits. One by one the trainees leap into the chilly water, where they're tossed about by three-foot swells as they kick across the pool to a life raft.
But the last trainee is too scared to jump, refusing to budge even as her colleagues urge her on from the raft. She steps back from the doorway, collects herself, and tries again, but it's too much. Her instructor offers some encouraging words, yet she still can't make the leap. She'll be given another chance tomorrow. If she fails again, she's off the team—which, I'm sad to report, is exactly what happens.
Those who make it to the raft will move on to the last phase of training, which covers crucial subjects like CPR and makeup. The program concludes with a formal graduation ceremony crowded with family and friends. Finally, the newly crowned Singapore Girls are ready for their first flight.
charm and grace?check.
At 5 P.M., in a fluorescent-lit room in the bowels of Changi Airport, in-flight supervisor Dennis Lam is briefing his cabin crew before the 6:50 to Delhi. He is pleased to report that they'll be trying a new hotel in Delhi. "But that last one wasn't so bad, was it?" he asks, to general giggles. "Also, we have two new crew members with us—Rajni and Carolynn—so I ask for your help in guiding them through the procedures." He winks at the recent graduates, who are trying desperately to smile. "And we'll be introducing a new Kingfisher beer tonight, so be sure to tell your passengers about this exciting product." All 17 stewards and stewardesses obediently jot down notes.
Lam opens the floor to comments, and everyone seems to have a few. "Remember this is a night flight," says Lee Lian, "so let's be careful in the aisles—look out for passengers' legs." "THANK YOU, LEE LIAN," the group replies in unison. As they wrap up, Lam has one last point: "I would like to say, some of us have lost the art of making tea and coffee. Why?Because everything's percolated now. You throw in big bags, pull the handle, and voilà. But if you run out and need a single cup, can you actually make one?I think some of us could not. We've lost our art. So please, let's think about what our job means." "THANK YOU, DENNIS," the crew chimes before heading off to the gate.
Meanwhile, on an Airbus 340 soon to be bound for Perth, Australia, a team of 15 cleaners is storming the cabin with vacuums, mops, and 20-gallon garbage bags, replacing headrest covers, dusting the cockpit controls, and scrubbing down the espresso machine. This plane just arrived from Seoul, leaving only 25 minutes to complete the job, but the cleaning crew boss is confident. "After some flights, you have to allow more time," he says. "One route in particular"—he won't say which—"is usually a complete disaster. Passengers get drunk and throw up in the seat pockets. You wouldn't believe it. Some people steal everything they can. Those handsets in the armrests, with the telephone and Nintendo controller?Last month a flight came in and 37 of them were gone—clipped off at the cord!" He forces a weary laugh. "Maybe they think they got free cell phones."
Still, the job has its perks. Tidying up after a flight from Brunei, one cleaner reportedly found $250,000 stuffed in a lavatory towel dispenser. This being Singapore Airlines, the cleaner dutifully reported the find—though no one stepped up to claim the cash.
Just a mile away, the night chefs are reporting for duty at Changi's in-flight catering center—a sprawling facility known, unfortunately, as SICC. There are actually two SICC's, one for Singapore Airlines and its regional subsidiary, SilkAir, and a second for the 51 other carriers flying out of Changi. (Few passengers realize how much food overlap there is among airlines: the same rolls may end up on a dozen different carriers' planes. You like those hash browns on British Airways?Qantas has them, too.)
The SICC cooks dish out 55,000 meals a day—roughly 38 per minute—so if there's a way to automate a step, you can bet they've already done it. Among the toys at their disposal: a machine that peels, cores, and slices crate after crate of pineapples; a device whose sole function is to devein shrimp; an oven capable of baking 1,000 croissants simultaneously; and a funky machine that marks chicken with realistic grill stripes. The kitchens are as secure as a missile silo; anyone entering must first pass through the sterile "air shower"—basically a sealed room lined with hundreds of high-powered blow-dryers.
For every meal served on Singapore Airlines, a senior chef prepares a sample for reference, then lets his staff take care of the other 999. (Using SICC's new database, galley cooks will soon be able to call up any dish served on any airline on a computer screen, complete with detailed "assembly guides.") Many of SIA's entrées are created by an international panel of chefs, including Georges Blanc of France's Rhône Valley and Gordon Ramsay from London, who have to make certain compromises for airline cooking. "Remember, everything must be reheated," explains in-flight services vice president Eddie Ong. "That's okay if you use a heavy sauce, which keeps food from drying out. But now the trend is for more refreshing, lighter sauces—which break up when you reheat." One solution devised by the chefs: wrapping a seared barramundi fillet in a banana leaf, which contains the moisture while lending an exotic flair.
Such stylish details are the SIA way—things like complimentary champagne in economy class, or fresh-brewed cappuccino in first and business. Then there are the 12 tons of caviar Singapore serves in a single year, an extravagance many airlines would consider mindless. "Sure, some passengers don't eat caviar," Ong admits. "But you know what?They still like to see the caviar."
Since most of the big long-haul flights leave Singapore at night, the meal carts are now flying down the assembly line. Ninety minutes before a flight's departure the trucks roll up at the SICC loading bays to get the goods—not just dinner, but carts full of liquor and juice, pounds upon pounds of ice cubes, boxes of duty-free perfumes and calculators, bundles of Asian Wall Street Journals, fresh orchids for first- and business-class bathrooms, and a few hundred vacuum-packed blankets and pillows that just came in from the laundry center down the road.
Back at Changi's Terminal 2, duty station manager Lee Yin has to make a decision. Bad weather has delayed Flight 232 from Sydney by an hour, and a dozen of its passengers are connecting with outgoing flights. Should he hold the 6:35 to Bangkok for the couple in business class?The next SIA flight isn't until 10:40. Unless he can book them on Thai Airways at 7:45. . . . Then there's the passenger transferring to Hong Kong on the 7 P.M.—possible, if Lee gets him a buggy to the gate and he agrees to leave his checked bags behind for the next morning's flight.
Lee is one of five duty station managers employed at Changi, and during his eight-hour shift, every flight on every airline comes under his watch; all decisions to hold or not hold outbound flights are made by his office. Clearly, this is a guy you'd want on your side.
At 8:15 P.M., in his office overlooking a massive airplane hangar, Liu Kim Yoong is coping with an AOG. If there's one thing a senior manager of base maintenance can't stand, it's an aircraft-on-ground—more specifically, a grounded plane. AOG's do nobody any good. And now Liu's got one, in Frankfurt to boot: a 747 with a faulty engine that needs replacing. Anything less could be done by engineers in Germany, but for major work like this, SIA often sends its own maintenance crew. "The boys can be there in twenty hours," Liu is saying as he scans a list of departures. An AOG team of 11 engineers is on standby at all times; Liu's boys are hitching a ride on tonight's flight to Frankfurt, taking the new engine along in the cargo hold. "This almost never happens," he assures me as he looks out on Hangar 1.
Three stories below, a 777 is undergoing an "A-check," a quick 24- to 48-hour work-over. Parked next to it is a 747 wrapped in scaffolding for a five-day "C-check"; a sign on the scaffold reads, please remove shoes before walking on wing. Including the one in Frankfurt, that looks like three AOG's in a fleet of 92. Not bad, but as Liu reminds me, every minute on the ground counts. After all, each of the airline's 36 747's is in the air an average of 13.95 hours per day.
It's 11:55 P.M. You are 6,000 feet above the Malaysian coast, 13 hours from Amsterdam. You are buckled into a jump seat beside the coffeemaker, reviewing your cabin crew handbook. Only a week ago you were nibbling on ginger cake at the graduation ceremony. Now you're off on a nine-day trip to Amsterdam and Newark. Newark! But no time to reflect. You're busy trying to memorize the 37 special-meal codes. Let's see, there's GFML (Gluten-Free Meal), AVML (Asian Vegetarian), VLML (Western Ovo-Lacto), PWMLM (Post-Weaning). . . .
It's your first post-training flight—you're one of two new girls in a crew of 18, and you're still learning the ropes. After dinner you'll take a quick nap in one of the eight bunks wedged above the rear galley. Hard to crawl up there in a sarong kebaya, but you'll get the hang of it. By this time tomorrow you'll be in your bed at the Amsterdam Marriott. You wonder what Europe will be like. Three days later, it's off to Newark, where your cousin in New York has promised a night on the town.
You check your watch. In four minutes you'll be serving champagne, rows 49 to 66. Remember: Forward-leaning body posture. Maintain eye contact. Take a glance at Marlene, the chief stewardess—she's the one to watch. A nine-year veteran, doesn't look a day over 21. Next fall she'll move to California to study business at USC on a scholarship from the airline, after which she'll return to SIA for an administrative job.
Samantha coaches you on the pour: three-quarters full, not too fast. At last you're ready for your entrance. Marlene opens the curtains, just as the plane hits turbulence. Spoons and cups are rattled, but not you—perfect balance, even with a tray of champagne.
You smile. You're a Singapore Girl.
It's a long, strange trip from the ocean floor to your tray table at 35,000 feet. SIA's lobster thermidor is available by advance request in first class only, and, in a typical day, it's served to about 20 passengers flying out of Singapore. Once a month, a shipment of frozen lobster tails arrives from Australia and goes into cold storage at the catering center near Changi Airport. Each morning a line cook retrieves two dozen lobster tails from the freezer, while a saucier prepares a fresh batch of thermidor sauce. The cook sautés the lobster meat, combines it with the sauce, flambés the concoction with brandy, and places it back in the shell. Meanwhile, side dishes arrive from adjoining prep rooms: rice (steamed in 22-pound batches) and sautéed vegetables (only half cooked at this stage; the final heating will take place in the air). A second cook arranges each entrée with its side dishes on a tray, and sends them all off to a holding fridge, where they're "blast-chilled" to 38 degrees. Later that day, final meal orders for night flights come in from reservations. Four hours before takeoff, a worker collects the lobster and other first-class meals from the holding fridge, slides them onto a freshly scrubbed galley cart, and moves them to a "cold soak" room. Two hours later, the carts are driven to the aircraft, less than a mile away, and uploaded into refrigerated storage bays. When you're ready to eat, a flight attendant reheats the tray at 400 degrees for 20 minutes in one of the galley's convection ovens, dishes it onto Givenchy china, and serves. The verdict: You'd never know it was last month's catch.