Why I worry for the Singapore Girl
Tough times, higher fuel costs and stiffer competition point to stormy skies ahead
For almost as long as I can remember, I have been in love with the Singapore Girl.
It must have begun when I was about 12, when I stepped on board an aeroplane for the very first time. It was a Singapore Airlines flight to London on one of those big, new Boeing 747s.
The friendly stewardesses in their Pierre Balmain kebayas took good care of us. They offered blankets, food and ice cream, model aeroplanes and postcards. The inflight entertainment featured the latest movies and songs, including Barry Manilow's hit at the time: Can't Smile Without You.
That was in 1978. Ever since, like many others I know, I have flown SIA almost every time, if I could help it at all.
Later, when I began travelling for work and discovered the joys of Raffles Class (now renamed to the nondescript Business Class for reasons I am unable to fathom), it reinforced my affinity for the brand. Among other things, it is hard to beat a treat of satay and champagne at 30,000 feet.
Over the last few years, my previous job with a multinational company required me to travel frequently. I have done the Changi-to-Schiphol in Amsterdam run on the older, uncomfortable Boeing 777-200s more times than I care to recall. In contrast, I relished flying to London on the Airbus 380s, with their plush leather seats that turn into what are touted as the most flat beds in the sky.
Whenever I happened to be at an airport and spotted the trademark blue and yellow logo on a plane sitting on the tarmac, I would be filled with an inexplicable joy, as if chancing upon a dear old friend.
Once, while on a month-long business trip, I was just settling into my seat on a KLM flight from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport bound for Amsterdam when I looked out the window and noticed the SIA colours on a plane parked a few gates away.
'Run, Warren, run,' the thought raced through my mind. 'You can just make it onto that SQ flight. It will take you home at last. There will be satay on board. You can pour over copies of The Straits Times. There will be warm smiles instead of a surly crew.'
But alas, as the poem goes, I knew I had places to be and promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. I closed my eyes, gripped my seat, and waited for the flight to take off.
Having experienced the inflight service on many airlines - British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Emirates, Swiss, Air France, Malev, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Continental, United, American, Delta - I found that while each had their strengths and charms, none matched SIA overall. It didn't surprise me therefore that SIA kept being voted by travellers as their favourite airline.
Sure, I had heard the frequent complaints about the relatively high prices of SQ tickets, especially when purchased in Singapore. I had reported on the industrial disputes that dogged the airline over the years, which no less than former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had to step in to sort out.
I have also encountered instances of patchy service. While some staff go out of their way to please, others appear as if they wished they were somewhere - anywhere - else other than on that plane. Announcements on some flights, by both cabin and flight crews alike, have sometimes left me bewildered or bemused. Some struggle with English or mangle a foreign language, while others try too hard to put on posh accents.
Still, I remained loyal to the SIA brand. After all, it was a world- famous Singapore icon, with an enviable reputation for reliability and service that it mostly lived up to. I wanted it to succeed and fly high. When it did, it made me feel proud, a sentiment I am sure many Singaporeans share.
So the reports in recent months of the airline facing turbulent times have been discomfiting. SIA incurred an unexpected $38 million loss in the three months from January to March. Its earnings for the full financial year were down almost 70 per cent.
A fall in premium travel as global business prospects dim, higher oil prices and mounting competition from low-cost carriers were among the reasons cited for this decline by analysts, some of whom had dire forecasts of dark clouds and stormy skies ahead for the airline.
These have spawned a flurry of letters to The Straits Times Forum Page from readers with strong views on what needs to be done. They continue to come unabated.
All of this was brought home to me on a recent trip to Germany. I found myself seated next to a chatty American, who was also heading to Singapore. We had boarded a Lufthansa flight from Hamburg to Frankfurt at the same time.
'You connecting onto SQ?' I asked.
'Oh no,' he shot back. 'Too expensive.' Instead, he would hop on a Lufthansa flight which would leave shortly before and arrive ahead of the SQ one, and most importantly for this businessman, cost several hundred dollars less.
'I do this route several times a year. It adds up,' he said ruefully.
With his words ringing in my head, I boarded SQ325. The once-new A-380 looked a tad worse for wear, its leather seats grubby and worn. The food and wines were nothing to shout about. And as I had watched most of the movies on offer, I spent much of the flight catching up on sleep. I left the plane with a sinking feeling, almost akin to the gloom of falling out of love.
I wondered: Was this a case of plunging profits leading to corners and costs being cut to boost yields, or earnings, from each passenger? Why would anyone pay much more to fly on SQ then? Perhaps I might have been better off on the Lufthansa flight?
When I shared this experience with some friends, few seemed surprised. One had recently switched to travelling on Qatar instead. Another swore by Emirates. Both airlines offered first-rate service that rivalled - some said topped - SIA's, and for significantly less money, they insisted.
In a sense, the challenge facing SIA is a microcosm of that confronting Singapore - others have begun to do what we have done so well in past decades and are rushing up the learning curve, snapping at our heels, offering the same or more, for less. 'And at my back I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near,' to borrow the haunting lines from Andrew Marvell's poem.
SIA's CEO Goh Choon Phong has said in a recent interview that the airline is unfazed by the heightened competition. New planes are coming and new inflight features are being worked on. He declined to give away any secrets, but I wish him well, as he has his work cut out for him.
For my money, everything turns on delivering consistently great service, right down to the little human touches that can make all the difference.
I caught a glimpse of this on a recent SQ flight to the Maldives. As I was waiting in the aisle for my turn to use the loo, two stewardesses emerged from the galley with a cake. They walked quietly up to a young couple snuggling in their seats, and whispered: 'Congratulations! We hope you enjoy your honeymoon.'
Nice little touch, I thought to myself, as I observed the newly weds' delight.
That, to me, was and perhaps always will be SIA's killer app: Finding more, and innovative, ways for the Singapore Girl to make flying fun, even memorable, all over again.
As I was stepping off the plane, someone called out: 'Thank you for flying with us, Mr Fernandez. Hope to see you again soon.'
I smiled, and thanked her. Deep down, I hoped so too