Singapore Airlines steps up to reclaim past glory

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Since its inception, the name of Singapore Airlines (SIA) has been synonymous with premium service, particularly in First Class. This shine lost its lustre somewhat in times when the world economy took a tumble and product innovation took a backseat while other airlines caught up.

Now SIA is stepping up to reclaim past glory as the world’s leader in premium comfort. AirlineRatings has just named it 2018 “airline with the best first class”.

The airline is spending S$1.1.5 billion (US$850 million) to overhaul its A380 fleet, thanks to increased competition particularly from Middle East carriers. The first retrofitted aircraft will take to the sky on December 18.

The new product will feature fewer suites in First Class, the number reduced from twelve to six to allow more space for adjustable seats as well as a washroom with a sit-down vanity counter. Now you don’t have to make your bed, sort of, converting it from a sitting position. The suite comes equipped with a separate bed alongside the adjustable leather seat.

While the focus is unabashedly the front end product, SIA is quick to add that premium economy and the economy class will also enjoy a boost in comfort. Premium economy will have a wider pitch and seat, and economy seats will have a backrest design which provides more legroom.

Most travellers in economy will find service not much different among the airlines, particularly for the short haul, when cost more than frills matters. However, you do expect an airline’s reputation for service in the front of the aircraft to rub off a little on how the crew handles the rear.

That’s the kind of issue you get when flying an airline like SIA – the customer’s expectations. Can’t blame the customer. So he or she becomes less forgiving of lapses, which can happen even if you’re the best airline. A traveller told me how on a recent non-stop Singapore-San Francisco flight, the crew were clumsy with the carts and kept dropping stuff. You might excuse that as part of a learning curve if the crew were new, and an exception. But then, really, on SIA?

That’s the price of success. And the pressure to live up to your standards.

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Air New Zealand leads the pack

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is the world’s best airline according to AirlineRatings.com based on criteria that include fleet age, safety, profitability and leadership in innovation for passenger comfort. The agency’s Airline Excellence Awards program which lists the winning airlines is endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Many travellers would recognize ANZ for its attention-grabbing in-flight safety video that takes them into Middle Earth, the kind of out-of-the-aircraft features that a few other airlines have tried to imitate but fared only poorly. AirlineRatings.com Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas said: “Air New Zealand came out number one in virtually all of our audit criteria, which is an exceptional performance.” The airline was favoured for its record-breaking financial performance, award-winning in-flight innovations, operational safety, environmental leadership and motivation of its staff.

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

Skycouch: Picture courtesy Air New Zealand

But, of course, there are surveys and there are surveys that publish their own lists of favourites. Some airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific have a ubiquitous presence, and there also notable absences. This is where it is most telling, bearing in mind that the ranking is dependent on several factors such as the excellence-defining criteria and the population surveyed.

The other nine airlines ranked behind ANZ in the top ten list by AirlineRatings.com are in descending order: Qantas, SIA, Cathay, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways (BA), Etihad, All Nippon Airways, EVA Air and Lufthansa.

It is interesting to note that the top two airlines come from the remote Southwest Pacific. Qantas has in recent years been working on upgrading its product offerings, winning accolades for catering and airport lounges. Not surprisingly, innovation along with good service seem to be the driving winning streak going down the list – SIA and Cathay for their premium economy and revamped business classes, Virgin for its cabin ambience and friendly crew, BA for its leadership in in-flight entertainment, and Etihad for its equally impressive service in front and at the back of the aircraft.

Notable absences in the list are US carriers (no surprise there) and two of the big three Middle-East carriers (Emirates and Qatar).

Many survey rankings are skewed by the weight they place on service in the premium classes. However, Mr Thomas of AirlineRatings.com said: “We are looking for leadership and airlines that innovate to make a real difference to the passenger experience particularly in economy class.” Considering that the majority of travellers are seated in coach, it is time that airlines crowned with the halo of excellence pay more attention at the back of the aircraft, for this may well make the difference as the competition intensifies. And, it is where the differentiation becomes even more challenging. Perhaps too, this could be the reason why Emirates and Qatar, known for their lavish premium service, did not make it to the top ten of the list.