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Behind the Scenes on Singapore Airlines

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.

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.

the mystery of the singapore girl

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."

i'd like to teach the world to singapore

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.

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