Last month, we were luckily invited in a very rare behind-the-scenes visit to Singapore Airlines‘ training and catering centres, found in and around Changi Airport. As we revealed in our recent Singapore Airlines Premium Economy stories, the carrier is a stickler for detail. From our exclusive walk around their very secretive backstage this attention to detail runs deep through every aspect of the business.
In our experience at their main training centre, the emphasis is put on the relationship between staff and passenger. Even on entering the centre, a group of trainees all bow in unison to us, with warm genuine smiles on their faces, perhaps due to the fact they have beaten very difficult odds in securing a role. “We don’t have a set quota of cabin crew each time we hold a recruitment drive.” Says Nicholas Ionides, VP of Public Affairs. “Sometimes we could take on more crew than we need, sometimes we may take nobody. It’s about finding the right quality, not finding the right number.”
The proof is evident. Singapore Airlines only look for the very best, and quite actively only recruit from a small pool of Asian countries, so as to maintain their unique and globally recognised brand image. Their training program lasts a few months, and the emphasis is on service, and customer interaction, and during our tour, we come across recently qualified cadets going through a very tough ‘difficult passenger’ scenario, under the watchful eye of senior cabin crew and the rest of their graduates. “This is tough, but these crew members should already know all the tools they need to deal with a passenger like this.” This may have been little solice to the Singapore Girl who was now greeted by a swarm of camera wielding press, but she dealt with the situation with poise, professionalism and still the iconic smile. Image is very important to the carrier, with the signature 1972 Pierre Balmain uniform still featuring on the girls. The boys, however, feature a much simpler charcoal suit which helps them blend in and the girls stand out, which may explain the baffling statistic that 40% of Singapore Airline’s crew are actually men. The men get it much easier in the grooming department too, a simple ‘no beards, clean shaven and neat short hairstyles’ seems to be the only obvious guidance, whereas the ladies have a much tougher time. On entering the grooming and beauty department, we are greeted by banks of Lancôme products brightly lit mirrors and a very talented and imposing full time hair and make-up stylist.
Grooming is tough, and very specific. Only 5 hairstyles are allowed for the girls, and on cue, unsuspecting cadets are brought through the door, showcasing the unbelievable detail in their beauty regime. “We’ve managed to cut down the time from three hours to 45 minutes.” the girls laugh about their intiail attempts at getting the standards right. Hair-buns aren’t allowed to be more than 6.5cms wide and need to be perfectly positioned on the head, and most definitely no pins can be shown. Make up is as equally as specific, with a colour card for new cadets to match their nails and lipsticks. Nails can be no longer than 4mm from the finger tip, but that’s not just for style. “This is a safety reason more than anything.”
But safety is paramount in the airline too, on a tour of their extensive training hanger, we were given a first hand tour of the impressive cabin mockups, all with fully functioning escape slides, wave machine pools and fire fighting equipment. As we arrived at the pool, we were greeted by another training exercise in full swing, with cabin crew and pilots alike jumping from an aircraft into a very choppy pool. “The clothes are very heavy when they get wet, but the girls can still swim very well in their dresses.” The training facility manager tells us, as the crew try to pull themselves up onto one of the rafts. As a fully trained commercial pilot, a lot of these training exercises seemed both familiar, but also executed at a very high standard, and the whole way through, the crews worked as a team, and the team-work element shone through. “We invite our cadets to spend time together outside of the training environment. It’s about encouraging them to work as a team, and becoming more social with each other.”
The staff training is meticulous, and whilst a stressful environment for any cadet, you can’t help but see their excitement. None was more evident when asked to make the A380 Suite bed in a mock-up for us, with cabin crew piecing together the bed like a perfectly choreographed ballet, the whole time, thrilled to produce a fully made bed for us to try out. There is a sense of pride that runs through every member of the training facility.
Closer to the airport itself sits SATS, the behemoth catering department for Singapore Airlines. The centre features some impressive stats, such as 40,000 meals a day, all prepared by hand. That’s 14.6million a year. 1000 employes including 100 chefs hand craft meals from 7,000 different products, all stored in a 3 storey automated chiller cabinet that whisks palettes of food across to the kitchens on order. 5,000 omelettes are made each day… by hand!
Whilst it’s interesting to see all this care and attention to detail from fully trained staff, technology comes into play too, from a dedicated pressurised cabin atmosphere so chefs can taste their food in the same conditions all their passengers will. There are also two robots, Jack & Jill, who navigate the busy kitchens to collect food and deliver small items from one part of the centre to the other. The technology also allows the centre to accommodate the increasing use of Singapore Airlines ‘Book the Cook’ centre. Special orders for meals can be accommodated no less than 6 hours before the flight. This gives the centre enough time to process an order, collect the elements from the chilled storage, have it cooked, prepped and stocked onto the correct trolley, before it is taken to the aircraft 2.5 hours before take off.
Split into 11 different kitchens, there are a wealth of different cuisines prepared, and the most impressive was the sushi kitchen, where four specialist trained Japanese chefs prepare the food with such precision that the catering is more an art form, than a mass-catering environment.
But what of your meal onboard? We were surprised to find out that Singapore Airlines caters for a flight exactly, that means there are no extra meals onboard for passengers who can’t make up their mind on what to have. But how do they make sure that the three options available to passengers are carefully orchestrated to fulfil everyones desire? A clever computer algorithm constantly checks each route, and passenger demand to make sure that passengers are catered for on each flight. Certain routes will mean a different weighting on each meal type. As for premium passengers, they also have their own kitchen, which prepares much more expensive ingredients and prepares them in a variety of separate dishes, so they can be heated and cooked individually onboard, and assembled by the cabin crew following very strict presentation standards.
It’s no surprise then that as our tour came to a close, we saw no less than 27 carts ready for a flight to Paris on an A380, and 17 carts ready for an A330 flight to Brisbane. In just one day, we saw just one small part of why Singapore Airlines, by most, is referred to as the best airline in the world.