Singapore’s Flight Attendant Training is Amazing But Rubs Me the Wrong Way

While I was in Singapore for the unveiling of Singapore Airlines new cabin products I visited the carrier’s training facility.

I’ve had better crews on Singapore and some less good crews on Singapore but on average I find their service to the best in the industry — high level, precise, and mostly consistent. It doesn’t surprise that flight attendant training is the longest in the industry.

First stop on the tour was evacuations — from opening the door on different aircraft types (making sure there’s no obstructions or dangerous conditions and Airbus and Boeing doors open differently) to coming down the evacuation slide and also evacuation into the water during an active ditching (this sort of training is standard and I’ve been through it in Dallas with American Airlines).

Here 2 Singapore flight attendants head down the slide. Weeeee!

I watched a group of trainees practice plating meals in a mockup of an A380 business class cabin.

They start laying down servingware “inside out” — serving a window seat passenger that means placing items first by the window, placing one item precisely on the tray at a time and ensuring that Singapore logos face the passenger. Then they switched to a middle seat passenger in the same aisle which meant laying things down in the precise opposite direction.

They practiced asking a passenger if they’d like bread and they practiced pouring champagne. Since this was practice the wine was really water, though red wine was a colored water. (And like the famous Emirates incident they poured the ‘wines’ back into the bottle, this was practice after all.)

Everything was done precisely and intentionally. The trainees took this seriously and so did their instructor. They worked hard to remember the order of everything and not to forget anything. They needed to ask the passenger at the right time about their bread and their wine, and serve an appetizer correctly.

That doesn’t happen on U.S. airlines in business class, or European ones in my experience either. At first I was wishing that it did, and to some extent I do. But I also realize that the cultures are different, the brands are different, I can get very good service on Qantas for instance but it’s going to be a very informal service. I like very much when each airline represents their own country and culture, as long as they’re doing so well.

And it’s this appreciation for cultural difference that helped me keep things in perspective when we visited Singapore’s personal grooming training.

Each flight attendant spends one and a half days of their training on hair and making. They receive a grooming card that doesn’t just outline the (limited) range of choices a Singapore flight attendant has, the card indicates which of those choices is acceptable for the individual flight attendant.

As an American the airline’s female grooming standards made me a little bit uncomfortable. There are 5 approved hairstyles, but each woman is told which ones she is allowed to use. There are specific colors for their makeup, and they may be given only one or — if they’re ‘more advanced’ or experienced in making themselves up — two they are allowed to use personally. Flight attendants buy their own makeup, but it must match the allowable colors.

After the first day of training some women will spend up to 4 hours getting ready for class, to ensure they look perfect. The standards are new to them and they’re obviously trying to impress during training. I’m told that on average a woman may take an hour doing her hair and makeup for a flight.

The ‘Singapore Girl’ is the brand of Singapore Airlines. And they guard their brand jealously. I don’t place as much emphasis on looks or dress (obviously). To them it’s part of their effectiveness. The woman speaking with us believes that a man whose hair isn’t ‘professional’ won’t command the respect of passengers in an emergency. They avoid being too fashion forward even though they did revamp the flight attendant look in 2013.

While there are dress standards in the U.S. — just ask any flight attendant complaining that American’s new uniforms make them sick — they don’t reach the extremes of Singapore. On the other hand though the uniform is relatively modest. Form fitting to be sure but not especially revealing, in contrast to an airline like Sri Lankan which highlights the bare midriff.

These are cultural differences, and as long as the flight attendants themselves take pride in the brand and their part of it I’m comfortable with it.

To be sure I believe that Singapore ought to be able to define and enforce its standards for employees, and I appreciate that their service protocols are exacting, but it was still striking to hear grooming requirements laid out in detail.

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