Singapore Airlines Still Flying High

Singapore Airlines remains one of the most profitable international carriers in the world, despite higher fares. Customer service is a major factor in the airline's long-term success.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. It's no secret that the airline industry is struggling and has been for more than a decade, and skyrocketing fuel prices are making things even more difficult for the largest carriers. But as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports, one airline is thriving and it's one that many Americans probably haven't heard of.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

Singapore's Changi Airport is one of Southeast Asia's busiest and travelers consistently voted among the best if not the best in the world. They say the same about the airline that calls Changi home.

(Soundbite of airport announcer)

SULLIVAN: Almost 35 years ago, Singapore Airlines figured out what many U.S. carriers are only now starting to realize: the big money is in the long haul international routes. For Singapore, this wasn't too much of a stretch. The only domestic routes in Singapore are bus routes. It's an island, a city-state of just four million people. But an island with an airline that's among the biggest and most profitable in the world, one that's never finished a year in the red.

Mr. RICHARD ABALAFIA(ph) (Aviation Analyst, Teal Group): The great secret of Singapore Airlines is not really a secret at all, which is it's just superb customer service.

SULLIVAN: Richard Abalafia is an aviation analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia.

Mr. ABALAFIA: They've got a terrific long-term legacy that's really paid off. They've got a great brand that they've carefully preserved and a reputation that goes with it.

SULLIVAN: And legions of satisfied customer, among them Jonake(ph) Grant. Grant has a five-year-old son with a severe peanut allergy, a potentially life-threatening problem, even more so perhaps on a 12 or 14 hour flight. But not, she says, on Singapore where she can request a special B category flight, a flight with no nuts or nut products in meals or snacks not just for her son, but for the entire airplane.

Ms. JONAKE GRANT (Customer): I know that when I fly all the crew will be informed at every stage, even if you're taking connecting flights. Every time we've been told, oh, yes, we all know about it, and then there'll be somebody else who'll come back to the seats to check and see, oh, is this little boy, what's his name, he's the one with the allergy. With Singapore Airlines, they guarantee us a nut-free environment.

SULLIVAN: And yes, she's tried this with other airlines, and no, it's not been a pleasant experience. Oh, and when she flies Singapore, she flies economy. Analyst Richard Abalafia.

Mr. ABALAFIA: They offer a quality product at a reasonable price.

SULLIVAN: Reasonable, but a little more expensive than other international carriers, about ten percent more on average on long-haul flights.

Mr. ABALAFIA: And given the routes that they're flying, these long-haul routes, those are the kinds of routes that even economy class passengers are willing to pay a bit more for better amenities and a guarantee of better on-time performance.

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: A big part of Singapore's success is what the airline calls its global marketing icon, the Singapore girl, the mostly young, extremely helpful flight attendants in colorful sarongs, attendants the airline says epitomize the friendly service and Asian hospitality unique to Singapore Airlines. Though roughly 40 percent of the flight attendants are now male, the Singapore girl is the brand and the focus of the company's ad campaign.

(Soundbite of jingle)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Singapore girl, you're a great way to fly.

SULLIVAN: The Singapore girls and their male colleagues begin their journey at a massive training center not far from the airport. Their drill sergeants, former flight attendants turned trainers, who instill the corporate ethic early on.

Unidentified Woman (Trainer): Are you going to communicate to passengers that the passenger is a chore for you, or is a pleasure serving them.

CLASS: Pleasure.

Unidentified Woman: You have to communicate (unintelligible) as well as in your verbal content. We love to serve them and you have to communicate that.

SULLIVAN: Trainees are taught to face the passengers and always smile and make eye contact while doing so. Signs on the walls help keep recruits focused. One signs say, He thinks because he's in economy, you couldn't give a damn, does he have a point? Another sign deals with race. He reckons you're ignoring him just because he's Asian. What gives him that impression? it asks. All this might sound a little like a cult or maybe like a little too much sucking up, or maybe Americans just aren't used to service anymore, not on airplanes anyway.

(Soundbite of pilots)

SULLIVAN: At the other end of the training center, two pilots hone their skills at a multi-million dollar Airbus simulator, identical to the cockpit of the real thing.

Singapore prides itself on being an innovator in hardware as well as service. It was the first to fly non-stop from Southeast Asia to the U.S. two years ago and it will be the first to fly the super jumbo Airbus A380 some time this fall. Singapore's senior captain, S.L. Leon(ph).

Mr. S.L. LEON (Senior Captain, Singapore): This is a significant milestone in the aviation industry. Not only is it a big airplane, it's new technologies radically different from conventional airlines. So it is significant, significant enough for us wants to be the first.

SULLIVAN: New planes every few years and steep discounts for buying in bulk also help Singapore's bottom line. So do short-term contracts for many employees and a friendly, some say too friendly, relationship with the Singaporean government, whose investment arm holds a 57 percent stake in the airline. The carrier dismisses charges of favoritism. Peter Harbison is with the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation in Sydney.

Mr. PETER HARBISON (Managing Director, Center for Asia Pacific Aviation): It's a myth to think that any international flag carrier lives without some sort of support from its government, whether it be financial or indirectly financial by some sort of protectionism. I think in that respect, though, Singapore is probably now one of the less, if not one of the least protected airlines. It's very much an airline that's out there and having to compete in the marketplace.

SULLIVAN: That marketplace is becoming more crowded, and Singapore's position challenged by a number of deep pocketed, Middle Eastern Airlines such as Dubai-based Emirates delivering comparable quality at a slightly lower price both in economy and in the front of the plane.

Mr. STEVEN FORSHAW(ph) (Vice President, Singapore): It's not just the Middle East. Within our own region we have Café Pacific in Hong Kong, Qantas in Australia, British Airways and Lufthansa in Europe. These are fine airlines, no doubt about it.

SULLIVAN: Singapore Vice President Steven Forshaw.

Mr. FORSHAW: We will never be a hundred percent better than any one of those airlines. Our aim is to be one percent better than them in a hundred different areas so that at the end of the day the customer sees with us an all-round service proposition that they're prepared to pay that modest premium to fly with.

SULLIVAN: It's a strategy many analysts say will probably serve Singapore well in the future. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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