Service Excellence in the Travel Industry:  Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines

Mark Lee, president of Singapore Airlines (SIA), sat at his desk early Monday morning reflecting upon the intense competition within his industry, a factor driving the need to continuously improve service excellence.  SIA had for years been the leader in service excellence — the wall of his office were covered with awards to prove it.  Most recently, Euromoney's 1990 Business Travel Survey listed the company, along with Swiss Air and British Airways, as one of the top three airlines in the world.  He knew, however, that getting to the top was the easy part, staying there was another story.

He asked his secretary to hold his calls for the next hour, leaned back in his chair and contemplated a statement made at a recent "Evening Talks."  The SIA Management Development Center sponsored this series of presentations by international speakers on various topics, ranging from social and political issues to global management. The statement was:

I think we all know that service excellence is not something that is static. One cannot take it for granted; it has to be continuously nurtured and improved upon . . . .  When we talk about service excellence, what we are talking about is consistently high-quality service.  It is not being satisfied with the average, it is offering high-quality service and delivering that service all the time.

"Delivering that service all the time," he repeated to himself, "that was the challenge."  Each time he had flown SIA he was pleased with the service, but he could not help wondering whether the service was exaggerated because he was on board.  And, if this was the case, how was the average person treated?  What did excellent service really mean for the typical SIA passenger?

Why not take a trip and not let anyone know who he was?  It was a worthwhile idea and might answer his questions about the service on SIA flights.  Normally, his secretary coordinated his travel plans, but he decided to handle the arrangements personally this time, starting with booking the flight through a travel agency.

Travel Agency

The travel agent that Lee located in the telephone directory and visited was incredibly helpful.  She took the time to find the best route possible and asked several questions about his travel preferences.  She inquired about his seating preference, favored type of rental car, and kinds of hotel amenities he required.  He was pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest she took in him.  He was even more pleased to hear that, as far as she was concerned, SIA was, without a doubt, an excellent airline. Lee wondered if all clients received the same level of service.

He noticed that a bud vase and flower rested on each agent's desk and inquired as to the reason for this.  With a smile, she responded that this helped reinforce the feeling that all employees were part of the agency "family."  The "bud" vase helped remind them that they were all a Bower's buddy.  She further spoke of the growth of the agency from one to many locations and the involvement of employees in the decision-making process.  Most of the employees had been with the company 10 or more years and had watched and helped the agency grow.  She indicated that no amount of money could buy the loyalty that respect from the owners engendered.

The agent was highly enthusiastic about the environment in which she worked, and Lee noted that this kind of enthusiasm was truly infectious. He found himself feeling increasingly comfortable and confident that the agent would make the best possible arrangements for his trip.  As she continued telling him about the continued training and seminars offered to agency employees to learn new ways of providing outstanding service to clients, he knew he would be in good hands.  His trip would start in Singapore with a flight to Los Angeles via Hong Kong on SIA.  Next, he would take American Airlines to Chicago, spend the night, and then fly British Airways to England, where he would spend another night.  Finally, he planned to return to Singapore, flying business class on SIA’s latest airplane, the 747-400 megatop.

He intended to depart Wednesday morning and return Monday morning, thereby losing just three working days.  Due to the short notice, the agent experienced some difficulty locating the seats Lee preferred- thus, he was forced to settle for middle seats during several legs of the trip.  However, the agent explained that the Seat-Finder service would scan his flights, look for available seats closer to his request and reserve such seats if located.

The booking process had taken longer than he had anticipated, so the agent offered to have his tickets delivered that evening.  As he left the agent's office, he felt satisfied that, even on short notice and with several legs to his trip, he could not have received better or more helpful service. The agent had clearly taken a personal interest in his needs and had tried to match them to the available services.  To his pleasant surprise, she had shown understanding and empathy for the rigors of long distance travel.

History of SIA

Lee was excited about the prospect of flying SIAs new megatop as it represented the culmination of many years of hard work, dedication, an trial and error — to think that it was only 44 years ago that SIA embarked upon its maiden voyage.  On May 1, 1947, a twin-engine Airspeed Consul, flying under Malayan Airways, took off from Singapore to Penang, carrying five passengers, a radio operator, and the pilot.  Since those days SIA had grown considerably. As of 1987, it owned fourteen B747- 300s, nine B747-200s, four 757s, six A310s, and transported passengers to 52 destinations in 34 countries around the world.  Lee smiled; they had come a long way indeed!

The Journey-Singapore to Los Angeles

The check-in procedure proceeded smoothly.  Upon presenting his ticket, he was relieved to learn that his seat assignment had been changed to meet his preference for the flight to Los Angeles and then to Chicago.  He had especially dreaded occupying a middle seat during the Singapore to L.A. segment.
Lee was also impressed with the way an SIA employee handled an emotional incident that occurred in the short line at the counter.  From what Lee could gather, a mother was sending her nine-year-old daughter to visit her father in the U.S. Crying bitterly, the young girl was quite emotional.  The SIA counter clerk handled the situation well, taking time to talk with the young girl and reassure her that the trip would be fun. The girl's sobs subsided as the clerk leaned over the counter, gave her something, and promised her that she could see the cockpit during the flight.  Lee could see the relief on the mother's face and was pleased with the way the clerk handled the incident.  He thought to himself that this was an excellent example of one of SIA’s hallmarks:  care and genuine concern for the customer.

Lee saw the young girl from the ticket counter again later, this time alone at the departure gate sitting quietly in a chair. Her crying had stopped, but he could tell by the look in her eyes that she was still frightened.

About fifteen minutes passed before boarding commenced, and Lee noticed that not one person during that time had approached the child.  The SIA representative announced the boarding of first-class passengers and those needing extra time to get settled.  Usually, this was the time that unaccompanied children were supposed to enter the plane, but no one appeared to assist the child.

As was his usual manner, Lee waited until everyone had boarded.  Still, the little girl waited. Annoyed, he made his way to the counter and mentioned his concern about the lack of attention toward the young girl.  The representative thanked him with a smile and responded that the girl would be taken care of in just a moment. She herself would accompany the child on board the plane.

The flight itself was pleasant; although it was difficult acclimating to economy class after becoming accustomed to first class.  The seats were closer together, and leg room was scarce.  Lee, however, recognized that little improvement could be achieved in this area given the limitations imposed by space constraints and cost efficiency.

Flight Attendants

At first, afraid of being recognized, Lee refrained from asking for service from tje flight attendant.  After some time, when it seemed that he had successfully escaped notice, the requests Lee made were met with pleasant and prompt responses.  Analyzing the quality of service, however, was difficult for Lee, because he was accustomed to the individualized attention of first class.

The quality of SIA’s flight attendants is critical to the provision of the level of service for which SIA has become known.  The Singapore woman in her sarong Kebaya has traditionally served as the "logo" for the company, and passengers expect the same Oriental charm and friendliness from each SIA attendant.  Thus, significant financial resources are allocated toward the recruiting and training of flight attendants.
Moreover, SIA’s recruitment and training programs are the most rigorous in the industry.  A series of three interviews culminating in formal tea is followed by a three-month training program once an attendant is hired.  Attendants must possess and convey confidence in their ability to provide outstanding service to the customer, while at the same time imparting a sense of humility.  A difficult quality to describe, Lee knew, but an important part of SIA’s philosophy.

Training in all functions, not only for flight attendants, within SIA is highly valued. The company expends $30 million annually on staff training programs, one reason that SIA was awarded the National Training Award for the service sector in 1990.

Lee noticed an older hostess, Gao Xiarong, who would seen be forced to retire at the age of 35.  Stewards, however, were allowed to work until they were 40; and, if promoted to chief steward, they remained eligible to continue working until age 55.

However, careers as flight attendants for women were short-lived.  In fact, a tenure of more than ten years was considered long, because SIA only hired women between the ages of 18 and 25.  The argument to extend the retirement age for women and men was a sensitive and often-debated issue at SIA.  Many in support of extending the age limits argued that an older crew offered several advantages, including more experience and greater respect. Extending the retirement age would also lower turnover and, therefore, reduce costs.

The Wait

Lee arrived at the Los Angeles Airport on time, with more than 40 minutes to catch his connecting flight.  Upon reaching the departure gate, he still had nearly a half-hour, so he bought some coffee and sat down near the windows overlooking the runway.  He decided against finding a telephone to make some necessary calls, because the time to board was fast approaching.  In fact, a glance at his watch revealed that the plane should have already commenced boarding — this meant that it would be running late.

Every few minutes, Lee glanced at his watch, becoming more frustrated as time passed.  It was not so much the fact that the flight would depart late that annoyed him; it was the absence of an announcement about the situation.  As far as he knew, the plane could depart in five minutes or five hours.  Once again, he reflected upon another comment made during an Evening Talk: "The person who is annoyed will be satisfied if you apologize."  How true, Lee mused.  All he wanted to hear was some kind of apology and explanation about the cause of the delay and the expected departure time.

No sooner had he finished this thought when an announcement was made apologizing for the delay.  Apparently, the pilot had fallen ill and was unable to fly, and a replacement would arrive in forty-five minutes to an hour.  Although this was disappointing news, nothing could be done.  In any case, at least now he knew how long he could expect to wait and could plan accordingly.  A glance at other passengers' faces revealed that they, too, had reached the same conclusion.

After an hour passed and no new announcement concerning the situation was forthcoming, Lee could feel the frustration of the passengers rising again.  During this time, several passengers approached the counter to ask for an update, and a group of business people congregating near the water fountain could be heard criticizing the delay and the company.  Any announcement, thought Lee, even the same news, would be preferable to the silence.

Satisfying customers, even under unexpected circumstances, was an airline's greatest challenge.  Expecting the worst to happen and being adequately prepared to handle crises as they arose resulted in loyal customers.  Lee recalled how SAS rebounded from near failure and huge losses to earning millions of dollars in just one year by setting three nonnegotiable standards:  technology, operations, and service.  SIA’s goal was to meet and, if possible, surpass customer expectations in these three areas.  Service excellence, noted Lee, was an effective strategy to differentiate an airline in this highly competitive industry.  Nearly two hours after the original departure time, Lee finally boarded. Tired, like the rest of the passengers, he just wanted to get to Chicago as soon as possible.

Understanding that the delay was attributable to circumstances beyond the airline's control, Lee sympathized with its dilemma.  However, he was aggravated with the way the airline handled the situation.  Not only did they fail to inform the passengers promptly and periodically about the situation, the counter clerks were rude and unapologetic.  If only the employees realized the damage that their mishandling of the situation inflicted on corporate goodwill, thought Lee.  Satisfying customers is important in all industries, acknowledged Lee, but it is absolutely crucial in the airline industry.

Studies have shown that an individual pleased with a product or service will tell at least five others.  Alternately, a dissatisfied customer will usually relate a negative experience to twenty people.  Thus, based on this assumption, 2,000 people could possibly, directly or indirectly, receive a negative image of the airline as a result of this one delay.  Multiply this figure by the number of times a company makes a similar mistake without apologizing, and the figures could be quite alarming, thought Lee.  If every employee understood the importance of their actions in shaping a customer's overall impression, who knew how successful a company could become based on the power of word of mouth?

The Journey —  Los Angeles to Chicago

As Lee settled into his seat, he noticed that the carpet on the wall was peeling, and the interior looked shabby.  In addition to the ragged carpet, an occasional drop of water fell from the ceiling.  While Lee knew that these drops, which originated from accumulated condensation, were nothing to worry about, he was aware that this did little to enhance passengers' confidence in the safety of the airplane.

Because the average person lacks the ability to accurately assess the importance an airline places on technical thoroughness and safety, they search for surrogate signs.  Lee was well aware of this "surrogate" issue, and hence the importance of maintaining a well-kept, functional and aesthetically-pleasing airplane.  Subconsciously, customers analyze the cabin to judge the overall condition of the plane.  Peeling carpet and drops of condensation will cause a passenger to question the safety of the plane.

Overall, thought Lee, the service could not be described as poor, but a striking difference between the Singaporean and the American hostesses existed.  Perhaps this was due to culture —  the SIA flight attendant appeared more willing to serve.  Although friendly and efficient, the American hostess seemed somewhat insincere to Lee.  She tended to be perfunctory in performing her duties, rather than showing genuine concern for each passenger.  The SIA flight attendants on the other hand, appeared more compassionate and willing to help an individual have a more comfortable flight.  As far as Lee was concerned, this difference is what established SIA as a leader in service.

The plane finally landed in Chicago after a two-hour delay. As Lee waited for his luggage, he again saw the young girl from Singapore, standing alone waiting for her bags.  It was the first time he had seen her since the departure gate, and he had almost forgotten about her.  No flight attendant accompanied her, and Lee could not believe she had been left alone. He made his way toward her and asked if a flight attendant was helping her.  The young girl replied that one had accompanied her here and instructed her to retrieve her luggage and meet her at the end of the baggage claim area.

Lee helped her get her bags and carried them down to the door.  The flight attendant, sitting in the room drinking coffee, thanked Lee for his assistance.  Lee refrained from commenting on the attendant's misconduct at the time.  Instead, he asked for her name, intending to report her negligent behavior upon returning to Singapore.

SIA adhered to a strict policy regarding complaints, and compliments, for that matter.  All passenger continents and evaluations are analyzed and receive responses.  Samples of both positive and negative submissions are published each month in Outlook, the in-house newspaper of the SIA group.

The incident brought to mind a report he had recently read about a Delta Airline employee's interview with a researcher.  The employee was helpful and enthusiastic and provided a great deal of useful information.  Upon leaving, the researcher thanked the employee and apologized for taking so much of his time away from work.  "Oh," replied the employee, "I'm on vacation this week.  I just flew in from Miami for this interview with you.  I enjoy talking about our airline.  All of the Delta family feels the same way."  There existed an amazing contrast between this Delta employee and the American flight attendant who could not be troubled to leave her coffee to help a young girl alone on a flight half-way around the world.  It was yet another example of service excellence, and an additional reference to the feeling of "family" in the work environment, for Lee to ponder.

The Last Leg

Lee had chosen to travel business class from England to Singapore to experience the new facilities offered by the megatop.  In 1981, SIA introduced a business-class option, but encountered some difficulty marketing it to customers.  The minimal difference between the services in SIA’s economy class and those offered by other airline's business class was a primary reason.  Also, care had to be taken to avoid confusing passengers about the difference between this class and first class.  Renowned for its outstanding first-class travel accommodations, SIA was wary of the possibility that the business-class option could detract from its first-class service.  However, SIA was unable to ignore the benefits that business class conferred.  Thus, changes were made — the new megatop represented the latest.

Once again, Lee was one of the last to board despite the fact that passengers flying business class, along with those in first class, are allowed to board first.  He made his way upstairs to a room that held 80 seats, gave his jacket to the flight attendant, sat down, and proceeded to slip on a pair of complimentary slippers.  The seats were extremely comfortable and almost fully reclinable — a great luxury considering the eleven-hour flight ahead.

The service was spectacular and easily comparable to that of first class.  The four flight attendants assigned to this section allowed for superior personalized attention, although not quite meeting the level provided in first class.  Each attendant was courteous, willing to please, and friendly.

Now that Lee had come to the last leg of his travels, it was time to draw some conclusions.  He reflected upon the four essentials of service excellence set forth by experts in the airline industry:

  1. Consistency:  reliability, getting it right the first time.
  2. Attentiveness:  paying attention and knowing what the customer needs.
  3. Recoverability:  handling unexpected situations well.
  4. Evaluation:  continuously assessing and improving performance.
Lee reclined in his seat.  Did SIA possess these attributes?  What other factors contribute significantly to service excellence?  Did the airline industry as a whole possess the qualities necessary for service "excellence?  Lee had much to think about, but he also had more than ten hours of relaxing, uninterrupted flying to do it.

        Moran, Robert T. and Georgi Vicari ( 1994). "Service Excellence in the Travel Industry:  Singapore Airlines."
           International Business Case Studies for the Multicultural Marketplace.  Eds., Robert T. Moran, David O. Braaten,
            and John E. Walsh, Jr.  Houston:  Gulf Publishing.