The World’s Impression of Singapore Comes From Singapore Airlines

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.

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The US isn’t a tiny nation-state that curates international opinion through its airlines. We rely on other stuff to make us look sub-par; but UA/AA certainly helps.

  2. I think that the US doesn’t have to worry about airlines giving foreigners a inaccurate opinion of the country, I think things like for example Hollywood movies do that too a much larger extend.

  3. Excuse my naivete, but don’t alliance airlines often complement, rather than compete, on the same route? And aren’t they more likely to give up a low-demand (maybe even unprofitable) route altogether when there’s an alliance partner flying it rather than when there isn’t one? I don’t think UA would give up EWR-HKG anytime soon, for example; and don’t think it would start flying EWR-SIN (though SQ21 is not a codeshare) “just to compete.” But I could see them adding EWR-DXB, even if it ends up being moderately unprofitable.

  4. @George, UA and SQ are like frenemies. They don’t cooperate beyond the basic alliance requirements. They’ll provide connections for each other, but that’s about it. Recently at SFO, they were essentially competing over market share.

  5. @Jeff – thanks for the added insight. I should’ve known there was more to it… and probably should’ve STFU until more people chimed in.

  6. All I can say is that SQ is my airline of cholce to Asia, and my wife is a tremendous fan of both SQ and the JW Marriott in Singapore. We have had great experiences with both.

    Besides, found great business availability for saver in J from LAX to Australia through SIN.

  7. SQ really stands for ‘Superiority Quotient’, as die-hard Sporeans are apt to behave, and who sees no wrong in the way their country and society acts. For MH, despite the horrible twin tragedies of 2014, I like to believe it stands for ‘Meaningful/Multifaceted Hospitality’. At least our service is genuinely from the heart, if perhaps not as refined as our ertswhile sibling.

    Perhaps you have heard of the South-East Asian Hokkien term of Kia-su ( where Kia means Afraid in Hokkien and Su means to lose ). It aptly described the country, its airline, and unfortunately its society molded by 40 years of rule by the insecure Lee family.

    P.S. Crazy Rich Asians was filmed mostly in Malaysia. As usual, Spore steals all the credit.

  8. Don’t worry. You’ve got crumbling infrastructure, a racist political party and a sell out of a president to make your countries image look bad. #maga

  9. What’s interesting is that a company who “sweats the details” could get so many things about their new first class product wrong.

  10. U.S. airlines are a pretty good representation of a country with third world tendencies: large swathes of cities are too dangerous for tourists, power lines are overground so electricity is cut at every storm (Texas) or cause huge murderous fires (California), roads are crumbling, 100 people every single day die of gunshots(!!!), and is ruled by an unhinged despot-wannabe.

  11. My wife and I travelled with Singapore airlines and I must say how professional they are we went to Singapore for four days and then on to Bali for a week they must be the top class airline in the world they cannot do enough for you if you have never travelled with them I urge you to push the boat out and do it before it is to late

  12. The Star Alliance Gold lounge in Singapore is truly terrible. I wouldn’t recommend connecting through there if you’re flying coach.

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