Singapore Airlines needs “recharge” to stay ahead

 Picture courtesy Singapore Airlines

SINGAPORE AIRLINES (SIA) used to boast a service that other airlines talked about. The airline is still very much venerated, though the competition has robbed it of some of its glitter.    

According to the latest Skytrax survey of 18.8 million passengers, SIA was ranked third in the world’s best airline category – after Qatar Airways that won for the second consecutive year, and Asiana Airlines. It is interesting how in the past three years, the three airlines have dominated the top three ranks with SIA slipping to third this year.

Dubai-based Qatar Airways wins on seats, especially the flat bed in business class, in-flight entertainment, good food, and warm, caring service. It appears to have usurped SIA’s position as the world’s best premium class operator – winning top accolades for its first class airline lounges, business class onboard catering and business class airline seat. SIA retains its top ranking for economy class.

Has the Singapore Girl shifted gears downward, pressured by the sluggish world economy and increased competition from low-cost carriers? Even then, it was pipped at the finishing line by Asiana as the best overall in Asia and for best economy class airline seat, by All Nippon Airways as the best overall across the Transpacific, and by Thai Airways International for best airport services. It was also absent in the top three ranks for the category “best airline staff in Asia”, which was won by EVA Air, Asiana and Malaysia Airlines in descending order.

Indeed, why is an airline like Asiana better than SIA? The same that has been said of Asiana (and for that matter, Qatar Airways) – good food, wide selection of in-flight entertainment, professional crew – could be said of SIA, although there are visible differences in other aspects such as seat legroom and comfort. Asiana has a seat pitch of 34 inches compared to SIA’s 32 inches.

Being a clear leader in the field for so many years in the past, SIA may be suffering an image problem, and that has largely to do with customer’s expectations. While it is true that the competition gap has narrowed, the unfortunate perception is that SIA’s erstwhile excellent service has deteriorated. A common comment is that SIA is no longer what it was. For example, the quality of meals is not as good, and its crew has become curt and less attentive – the change often seen as a result of cost-cutting measures at the expense of customer service and care.

The perception is not helped by comparisons with other airlines. Both SIA and Asiana crews are said to be professional, but the former robotic and lacking warmth while the latter more cheerful, engaging and treating every passenger with respect Because of the high expectations, customers are less forgiving of SIA for perceived service lapses, as when the choice of meals runs out or where there is a lack of reading material on board. Dissatisfied customers cite value for money for their displeasure, since apparently they pay a premium to travel SIA when they could travel for less on other airlines.

To be fair, there are still many good things said about SIA, such as clean cabins, a generous drink menu and constant topping up, free toiletry items that are not offered on other airlines, good punctuality record and quick transfer assistance. Many of its customers still maintain it is a good way to fly – maybe not as great – but would qualify their testimony with a “but”: the cabin is clean but looks old and tired; still a good airline, but others are catching up or doing better; food and service are acceptable but not outstanding; overall still good but over the years the standard has fallen; will continue to fly SIA but it must improve.

It would appear SIA largely still meets its customers’ expectations. But more of the same is obviously not good enough to stave off the competition when new, emerging winners are exceeding their customers’ expectations. What SIA needs are new initiatives that will generate excitement, bring back the romance of travel and leapfrog it back into the forefront.

In the same way that Changi Airport is constantly re-making itself, SIA too needs a “recharge”. There is after all a dependency relationship between airport and airline, as it is not unusual that winning airports go hand-in-hand with winning airlines, if you consider the case of Changi Airport and SIA, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and Asiana, and Hong Kong International Air port and Cathay Pacific Airways. They make similar demands of each other to excel, driven by a common national or provincial service culture.

Loyal fans of SIA are sending the airline a timely message: do not be just another airline. As one American traveller remarked, he did not want to have the feeling that he was flying on another American airline.

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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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