Singapore Airlines’ maddening perfection

Lunch in business class on Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines topped yet another industry ranking this week, and while it usually deserves the awards it wins, there are a few aspects of the way it does business that drive some customers and partner-carriers crazy. Still, don’t expect those practices to change anytime soon.

The latest awards were bestowed by Britain’s Business Traveller Magazine. Singapore was named best airline overall and also won best economy and business class. Best first class went to Emirates, probably because of the shower on its Airbus 380 aircraft.

I have yet to meet anyone who has flown Singapore and didn’t like it, regardless of which cabin they were in. It has long been the world’s leading carrier in hard-product innovation and luxury, often years ahead of its competitors. One of my favorite features is the “Book the Cook” service, which allows passengers to order meals from a long and diverse menu as soon as they buy a ticket.

Many travelers point out the incredible attention to detail that Singapore flight attendants pay, but that is not uncommon among top Asian airlines, such as Asiana and All Nippon Airways. What has impressed me the most is that, in first class, the flight attendants anticipate your next need or wish and are ready to satisfy it before you even ask.

Once during a flight, I stood up from my seat to go to the lavatory, which was behind me, and when I turned around, I saw a flight attendant dashing toward the lavatory to open the door for me. I had just enjoyed black caviar as part of a five-course dinner I probably couldn’t afford on the ground, and I loved the bedding of the fully flat seat, but for some reason that gesture meant more than the luxuries.

The trouble with perfection is that it’s impossible 100 percent of the time, and most of Singapore’s policies are written for a perfect world, which is also impossible in the airline industry. Employees of every airline must follow certain rules, but Singapore’s staff has almost no flexibility in making exceptions or bending the rules to respond to a specific case or situation.

A couple of years ago, I flew from New to Singapore, with an hour-long layover in Frankfurt. Even though there was no plane change, all passengers had to get off and re-board. As soon as I reached the gate area, I realized I’d forgotten my cell phone in my seat pocket. I wasn’t allowed back because the cleaning crew had begun working, but a gate agent went to look for the phone. She came back and said it wasn’t there.

I was the last first-class passenger to deplane, and coach and business class passengers weren’t allowed in the first-class cabin, so most likely the phone was stolen by a cleaning crew members. But after a lengthy process that involved more paperwork than I’d expected, the airline refused to offer any good-will gesture or compensation.

There is no question that Singapore has some of the best premium products in the sky, but it may be overvaluing them a bit too much.

Let’s say you’ve paid more than $10,000 for a Star Alliance round-the-world ticket in business class. If you want to fly between Singapore and Los Angeles nonstop, you have to pay an additional $900 surcharge just for that one flight for the privilege of enjoying the “new” business class seats, which are now almost four years old. Charges of $500 and $600 apply to most flight between Singapore and both Europe and North America.

In addition, Singapore often blocks access to those flights by zeroing out the inventory in D booking class, which is the one required for round-the-world tickets.

It’s no secret that Singapore thinks the current round-the-world fares are too low. There are suspicions that it’s one of the driving forces behind the drastic increases in those prices in recent years, although there is no way to know this for a fact, because the Star Alliance uses a blind process based on input from its members to determine the fares.

Even more maddeningly for customers, Singapore bans members of the frequent-flier programs of its partners in the Star Alliance, such as Lufthansa, Air Canada or United Airlines, from using miles on flights with the “new” business-class seats. While the seats are the most spacious in the industry, the ban makes redeeming miles to Europe and North America virtually impossible — there are only two flights with the old seats.

Relations between Singapore and some of its Star partners — especially United — have long been sour, mainly because Singapore thinks it’s superior and doesn’t hide it. I’ve always been amazed that Singapore doesn’t code-share any of United’s flights, but it does code-sharing with US Airways.

There have been rumors that Singapore wants to leave the alliance, but so far they are just rumors.

Related stories:

Round-the-world fare mysteries revealed

What to do with empty premium seats?

Airlines require credit cards at check-in

Airlines want budget, premium fliers



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