Flying the friendly Singapore Airline skies a luxury indeed


The customer-savvy airline makes sure its impeccably coiffed flight attendants understand the art of hospitality


I have fond memories of flying the once-friendly skies.

In the 1960s my family flew back and forth across the Atlantic on BOAC and the glamorous airline "hostesses" always took me and my sister to visit the captain in the cockpit (I think we sat on his knee). He logged the miles we flew in our little blue books, a "show and tell" treasure.

Next memory is Laker Airways and sardine seating, but I was too young to be jaded. Since then, flying has become a total drag, unless you're fortunate enough to fly Singapore Airlines (SIA), business class.

Besides the roomy seats and video screens (seats and screens are also wider in economy class than other airlines), SIA gets consistently high customer ratings because of its service: SIA invests more than other airlines in training its employees to become the iconic Singapore Girl, and Singapore Boy.

I toured the airlines' training facility in Singapore, where flight attendants spend 17 weeks (another unnamed North American airline trains for just seven weeks, in safety and emergency procedures only). After 18 months on the job they are trained to work in business class. In a mock-up business class cabin a group of female flight attendants in their famous two-piece batik uniform - a sarong kebaya - were learning how to serve dinner with the correct silverware and glassware. And if you're in first class, Givenchy-ware.

The instructor threw them a curve ball: a disabled passenger doesn't speak English. How do you deal with the situation?

I didn't stick around for the answer: another group of flight attendants, here for their yearly retraining, were about to swoosh down inflatable slides that are deployed in case of emergency landings. (Interestingly, the women slid down the emergency chutes seamlessly while a few men almost got derailed, making for belly laughs all-around.)

I watched new recruits practise deportment and elocution. They gathered around and sang the company song with gusto and without a trace of any accent, obviously proud to be part of the SIA image. On another floor of the vast training centre, past the flight simulators, several attendants were thrown into emergency scenarios such as a pitch black and smoke-filled cabin. They had to find the passenger (in this case, a crash test dummy). Next up, the water evacuation centre where the attendants must swim, fully clothed, to the end of the wave pool and climb into the safety raft. It takes 90 seconds to evacuate 380 people.

It's not all torturous training. Gerard Ee, chief steward and air sommelier, showed me the wine tutorial room.

"Yesterday the winemaker from Amuse Bouche talked about his wines," said Gerard. "As well, we have three permanent wine consultants who instruct and we get to learn the latest trends."

If you're flying first class or suites class, the champagnes are Dom Pérignon and Krug. And, I kid you not, if Gerard or another air sommelier were on your flight you could, upon request, have a Dom versus Krug tasting. Sigh.

Back to the female uniforms: they are individually tailored and the "girls" have up to four fittings. I asked the training facility's tour guide if they have to stand on the scales and if so, how often. (They are measured by body mass index, or BMI.) I also asked at what age the cabin crew is retired as nobody appears to be over 30. I didn't get a direct answer, but everyone signs a five-year contract.

And just like Singapore itself, there are regulations for everything, from hair length and type (no curls allowed except eyelashes, where the curled part must not exceed 1cm) to nail polish.

"They are all impeccably groomed even after a 16-hour flight," said my flight attendant friend. "They are the main reason why SIA is a five-star airline. Some of us flight attendants [on the other airline] take pride in our appearance; we might put on lipstick and brush our hair before landing, but not everyone ..."

On the flight from San Francisco to Singapore I had to ask my perfectly coiffed flight attendant how to use KrisWorld, the remote control-operated, inflight entertainment system billed as the "Greatest Show in the Sky". It offers 1,000 entertainment options, including audio-and video-in-demand and features a few hundred movies. I can sleep when we land. Better yet, Singapore Girl unfolded my 34-inch wide Italian leather seat, which is more like a cubicle, into a 76-inch long bed and I watched a few flicks supine, glass of something gorgeous in hand. My 16-hour flight never went so fast.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun