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Behind the Scenes on Singapore Airlines

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.

the man you want to know

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.

engine trouble

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.

break out the champagne

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.

inside the food chain: a lobster's tale

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.

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