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Behind the Scenes on Singapore Airlines

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.

now let's practice the wet look

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.

passports?check.
first-aid kit?check.
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.

steal this plane

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.

why airline dinner rolls all look alike

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.

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