Singapore Airlines is increasingly relevant in the U.S. market, now that they fly non-stop to Singapore from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Newark. Non-stop flights mean single connections between the U.S. and Southeast Asia. Without the non-stops the airline was in a less competitive position against Cathay Pacific and even airlines based in North Asia and China who connect connect passengers one-stop to a variety of destinations.
United has left the Los Angeles – Singapore non-stop market, and competes against Singapore Airlines only from their San Francisco hub. Many corporate customers are going to be locked into United as part of a broader deal, though any traveler choosing on the basis of airline quality – as one might do for a flight blocked at 17.5 hours – is going to choose Singapore.
- Customers who have never experienced Singapore Airlines will know to make that choice.
- Customers who haven’t flown Singapore Airlines and have no intention of traveling to Southeast Asia will know that the airline represents quality.
In fact, the airline may even get credit for being better than it is. There are some passengers, especially tall passengers, who don’t like the way they have to angle their legs to sleep in the airline’s business class beds.
Still there’s no question that Singapore is a quality airline. They probably have the world’s best economy class feature extra legroom, foot bars, cup holders, and a top notch entertainment system. The image their flight attendants have to project is rigorously scripted.
There’s really no other airline that could credibly claim to sweat the small details, the way that Singapore does.
- They built an Airbus A380 model plane using manila envelopes, and the seats inside the plane even recline. The tagline was that it’s the small details that make giants in the sky.
- They ran an ad campaign showing flight attendants attending film festivals around the world to find the best inflight entertainment and visiting farms and shops to uncover the perfect cup of tea for guests. This underscored “the lengths we go” and was actually credible, if exaggerated for effect.
When Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines were split apart in 1972, they were assigned two-letter IATA code SQ. The airline’s management quickly seized on that, suggesting it stood for ‘Superior Quality’.
The airline has developed a reputation for high quality, across the board (and while I think they do have the best main meal service of any airline, I’ve long faulted their midflight snacks and their lounges generally don’t impress). What’s especially interesting is how much public perception of Singapore the country seems to come from Singapore the airline.
Most people flying Singapore don’t even enter the country. Martin Roll says Singapore carries 90% connecting passengers. I don’t think that’s correct but a large portion of customers that consider themselves fans of the airline haven’t flown it, and many who have flown it have never visited Singapore.
When Singapore Airlines gets media for its catering operations, or for its business class product (or first class!) it’s reaching potential customers, sure, but it’s reaching a broader audience that may never fly Singapore Airlines and may never visit Singapore. However it’s projecting the image of Singapore itself as high quality.
There was probably no single moment for Singapore in the U.S. like Crazy Rich Asians but for the most part it was ephemeral. Single messages, even focal ones like a hit movie (that really was just an Asian remake of Coming to America where the scion of wealthy family goes looking for his true love in the States before introducing her to his disapproving parents) are like pouring a glass of orange juice in the ocean of popular opinion. The ocean doesn’t turn orange.
Yet the Singapore Airlines message is repeatable over the years, and is wrapped up in the romance of travel. And for those who merely connect, the airline’s service-oriented, efficient and clean image forms a perception of the airline’s home country.
That’s what Air India was going for in this commercial I’ve regularly mocked through the years.
The brand, by the way, grossly oversimplifies the reality experienced by Singaporeans. That may be closer to what’s expressed by the Singapore Complaints Choir:
We get fined for almost everything
Drivers won’t ‘give chance’ when you want to ‘change lane’
The indoors are cold, the outdoors are hot;
And the humid air, it wrecks my hair
Interestingly I think the same phenomenon exists for Emirates, and to a lesser extend Etihad (because they aren’t as large, and are retrenching in the U.S.). And it makes me worry, by the way, about what the world thinks of the U.S. based on its perception of United and American Airlines.