Secrets of the Singapore Girl Flying College

There are five approved hairstyles for Singapore Air's flight attendants. A bun, for example, must measure between 6.5 and 7.0 centimeters wide, and be centered between the 1 and 3 o’clock positions on the back of the head.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Singapore Girls are icons of the aviation industry, ambassadors of the Singapore Airlines brand who embody an ideal of service and grace. But what does it take to uphold the airline’s notoriously stringent standards? We went to the airline’s Singapore Flying College (SFC) to find out.

Looking the Part

First, let’s get a common misconception out of the way. Despite the Singapore Girls’ fame and brand history, 40 percent of Singapore Girls are actually guys. The same strict standards of grooming, service, and safety training apply to them. There are gender-appropriate tweaks, but they don’t get an easy pass. As we saw firsthand, nobody at SFC cruises through training.

Singapore Airlines’ grooming requirements are specific. There are five approved hairstyles. Singapore Girls with longer hair must wear it back in an approved French twist or the signature Singapore Girl chignon. That bun must measure between 6.5 and 7.0 cm wide, and be centered between the 1 and 3 o’clock positions on the back of the head.

Flight attendants we met at SFC told us that getting the bun right the first time can take up to an hour, but with practice they’re able to put their hair up properly in minutes. To avoid the hassle, Singapore Girls can wear their hair in a pixie cut or in a bob—as long as the bob doesn’t slide forward to cover their face when they lean over.

Singapore Guys must keep their hair shorn—no longer than 0.3 cm at the back. Nails should be trimmed. For ladies, 0.4 cm is the maximum length, for gentlemen it’s 0.2 cm.

Part of the reason for these exacting requirements is hygienic: to keep loose hairs out of inflight meals, and ensure that flight attendants don’t suffer injuries from snagged or cracked nails that could become painful or infected, interfering with their duties.

That said, a consistent, neat presentation is essential to the airline’s brand image. For Singapore Girls, the next challenge is getting the make-up right.

The makeup palette is clearly defined: lips should be red and eye shadow colors correspond to rank (as do the colors of the sarong kebayas they wear as uniforms). The big focus for Singapore Girl makeup is on the eyes, and they get color cards to help them reference the approved palette. Nail polish must match lip color. Singapore Airlines uses Lancôme products exclusively at its training center, but flight attendants can choose other brands as long as the colors are the right match.

Singapore Guys must keep their skin properly moisturized. Beards and mustaches are out. They can also use light concealer, when needed, to hide blemishes.

Trainees learn how to reproduce the signature look under the watchful eye of a grooming consultant. If trainees are unable to create the right results with consistency, an online training reference supplements coursework.

Hailing from the Right Country

The airline makes no apologies for exclusively recruiting flight attendants from Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. It’s legal to do so in Singapore, and Singapore Airlines says says the homogeneous regional appearance of flight attendants is essential to their brand experience. The airline employs around 7,500 flight attendants and the training and shortlisting of new recruits is ongoing. Entry to the training center is coveted, so the airline is never short of recruits that meet their specific qualifications.

Exuding Polite Confidence

SIA flight attendants must learn the nuances of social etiquette appropriate to the airline’s international passengers. This doesn’t mean they’re trained to be servile. Instead, both Singapore Girls and Guys learn how to handle troublesome passengers diplomatically, and can cut off inappropriate behavior without getting a single carefully coiffed hair out of place. Repetitive training in simulated cabins teaches trainees to address common service issues under the close scrutiny of peers and stern Safety and Emergency Procedure trainers.

To pass, they must prove they can handle whatever comes their way with confidence. Flight attendants can’t be flustered when things go wrong, or when the trainer disapproves, or even when the world’s press stares through the simulated cabin windows as they struggle with a dilemma. Their authoritative grace improves with time. Senior trainers are disarmingly nice, but you wouldn’t want to cross them.

Mastering Safety Training

While training flight attendants on fundamentals, including meal service procedures and judging wines, the focus at SFC is on ensuring that flight attendants can handle emergencies. Several cabin emergency simulators, including an enormous wave-generating pool for the “open sea” aircraft ditching practice, put Singapore Girls and Guys through extreme physical trials. Like their peers around the world, the airline’s flight attendants must learn first aid, CPR, and fire fighting. The safety training is ongoing, with recurrent testing every year.

Donning that Famous Uniform

First introduced in 1968, and designed by Pierre Balmain, the Singapore Girl’s fitted sarong kebaya has seen little change over the years, except for the introduction of the green kebaya in 1992. All the colors of the airline cabin crew’s uniform, including kebayas, scarves, and ties, reflect rank: blue for basic flight crew; green for leading stewards; red for chief flight attendants; and purple for inflight supervisors.

This enduring uniform has practical advantages. Though highly tailored to the contours of the body, the cotton sarong kebaya breathes and moves well. Because of its length, it also protects flight attendants from friction on slides. And it can be shortened to the length of a mini-skirt in the event of a water landing to make swimming with a life jacket more comfortable. Hosiery is discouraged for Singapore Girls. (Wouldn’t want highly flammable panty hose exposed to flames during an emergency.) Fortunately the sarong kebaya is long enough to keep Singapore Girls’ legs warm in chilly cabins. Singapore Girls don’t wear high heels, which could cause them to lose their balance during turbulence or interfere with slides in an evacuation. The airline’s slippers and sensible flats make it easier for flight attendants to do their job in comfort.

Adhering to Company Culture

Every morning, future Singapore Flight attendants gather to repeat their pledge and sing the Singapore Girl song. It’s an opening tradition that sets the mood for the day and reminds trainees of the company values. “We, cabin crew of Singapore Airlines, pledge to: excel in delighting passengers with our passion for service; work as a team, respecting all colleagues; and uphold our Company’s image, always!” The “always!” part is important. Though the flight attendants we met described their life as exciting and said they enjoy the unique opportunities the Singapore cabin crew lifestyle affords, it does come with after-hours obligations. Singapore Airlines flight attendants must behave appropriately during layovers. There are appearance requirements off the clock and members of the cabin crew are also encouraged to enjoy away activities together.

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