Singapore Airlines is great in the air but not on the ground

I BOOKED to fly Singapore Airlines (SIA) in August from Vancouver (YVR) to Singapore although I could have opted for another airline that flies direct between the two ports (with only one transit stop) at a lower cost. Because SIA does not operate out of YVR, I had to fly Air Canada to San Francisco (SFO) to connect, and the entire journey (including transit times) was six hours longer.

Fortunately, flying out of YVR, I was spared the hassle (close to being a “nightmare” or an “ordeal”) of a second round of immigration formalities and security checks at SFO.

Why did I do it? I was thinking of a more comfortable flight since it was a long journey spanning waking and sleeping hours, and I was also looking forward to enjoying SIA’s wide selection of good and up-to-date movies offered by its inflight entertainment system KrisWorld.

However, it is a pity that SIA’s “great way to fly” has over the years continued to be confined to the experience in the air and far from being complemented by its services on the ground, whether provided by its own ground crew or through an agency.

Increasingly travelers are viewing their journey in its entirety from the minute they decide to book a seat until he leaves the airport upon arrival. That is why if he has a, say, check-in or luggage problem, he takes it to the airline he travels with, even though it is a service that the airline has engaged a third party to perform.

In fact, the experience may be extended to include services provided outside the airline’s jurisdiction, namely immigration and airport security. Which again explains how at some airports, some airlines offer preferential treatment to their premium class passengers through a priority channel. Some travelers, for example, would prefer not to transit through the United States in view of the stringent security checks.

Any unpleasant experience on ground before boarding is likely to mar the enjoyment of the service on board, no matter how good it is. It also exerts a lot of pressure on the flight crew to compensate for the bad experience. If first impression counts, so too last impression if there is any post-flight dissatisfaction on ground such as a damaged or missing bag.

I booked with SIA some three months ahead to avoid the summer scramble for seats. I called to make a seat request and was told I would only be allotted a specific seat at check-in. However, my request for an aisle seat would be noted. Yet, I was assigned a non-aisle seat, this despite having made an early request.

I called Air Canada to make a similar request. No problem, I got the seat I chose. First come first served.

It is never easy to get through to an airline via the telephone. So if you do finally get through – that is if you have not already given up by then – you expect to hear a friendly voice, someone who understands what you have been through. Air Canada’s call-centre staffers are cheerful, knowledgeable and helpful. What you can say about SIA at best is that they are, well, business-like.

On the day of the flight, checking-in at YVR was pleasant enough. Ask the Air Canada staff anything about how you would connect at SFO, and he would check if he did not already know. At SFO, it was near chaos at the gate. Passengers with queries were milling around the counter. There was no visible line formed. There was no shortage of staff behind the counters. They seemed busy, consulting each other often, and attending to passengers haphazardly. And they were curt. It seemed their vocabulary did not include words of pleasantry.

Arriving at Seoul (SEL), there were staff meeting the aircraft to give directions, – most perfunctorily, I must say – but not at SFO. I was quite capable of finding my own way to the international terminal, but I wondered if there were others who might need help. This could be a grey area: whose responsibility was it?

There appears to be a distinct difference in boarding procedures for Air Canada and SIA flights. Boarding by row was strictly enforced at YVR but not at SFO or SEL. As a result, it created bottle necks on board the SIA flight and caused more problems for the crew. Some passengers found they had no room in the overhead compartment above or near their seats to stow their hand luggage. I always wonder whether it is because the ground staff lack the confidence to enforce order, or is it disguised as an unintended soft touch?

There was a time when air crew would be seen before boarding chatting with passengers at the boarding gate, and assisting passengers at the belts as the luggage rolls out.

It is time airlines once again recognize that a great way to fly begins on the ground and does not end until the traveler has left the airport.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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