Quality & Business Improvement

Singapore Airlines' improvement strategy

SIA's improvement strategy can be described as both innovative and retrospective - that is, in an attempt to anticipate customers' future needs, it is actually responding to customers' current needs. For example, a family party of Chinese passengers refused the food offered when travelling in 1996, and said they would prefer noodles(2). Since then, every SIA flight is reported to carry this food in case a similar request is made. However, the idea that SIA was not providing an adequate range of ethnic food led to the introduction of an increased range of gourmet cuisine in-flight(10), whereby first class passengers get a choice of 32 gourmet dishes, devised by 7 international culinary experts. Likewise, SIA flight attendants had their shoes redesigned to enhance safety after complaints that their shoes came off too easily in the October 2000 crash(11). This is a very worthy thing to do, but these retrospective actions could possibly be interpreted as reacting to the symptom, rather than to the cause.

SIA's improvement strategy has 3 focal points:

SIA as the best airline in the world

When SIA was formed in 1972(2), the airline was in a weak position, with the components of an international airline, such as Boeing aircraft, hangers and overseas lounges, but with a substantial debt to the Malaysian Government to correct imbalance of asset division and a majority shareholder (Singapore Government) who refused to guarante financial security(12).

Singapore had only recently (1965) achieved independence from the British Empore and although Singapore itself was situated in a geographically strategic hub(6), most other countries restricted access to their own airspace as a way of protecting their own national airlines.

SIA was unable to compete directly for Malaysian airspace, though was able to operate some domestic flights through its subsidiary, SilkAir. The dilemma was that SIA had therefore to operate long-distance flights as a survival mechanism, yet negotiate to obtain permission to use international airspace. This was an exceedingly long struggle, and the major weapons SIA used were customer retention and satisfaction, with publicity notifying everyone of its ambitions to provide the best service possible, together with continuous management support for accomplishing the corporate vision.

Struggle to maintain a national/regional identity

British Airlines (BA) chairman, Sir Colin Marshall, comments in 1995(13) that service brands need regular refreshment to remind the customer of value for money, and in 1997 the BA plane tailfins were redesigned to give examples of international art, rather than the formalised Union Jack - the aim was to show the international nature of BA. In contrast, SIA has used the Singapore Girl icon for 25+ years with minor variations, to demonstrate Asian hospitality in action. SIA has been forced to recruit staff from non-Singapore parts of Asia, having a need for more staff than can be achieved in Singapore itself, but it has still maintained an Asian image and has kept the Singapore identity as a major focal point.

The BA experience shows the danger of cultural reinvention - it may have sent a distinct message to customers, but BA staff did not appear to receive this message positively(14). But SIA need to ensure that the use of the Singapore Girl is not perceived as offensive by the gradually increasing number of female business travellers and must not take the loyalty of their Singaporean customers for granted. One recent (2001) tra veller, commenting on the diversity of Asian and Pacific staff, noted that "the so-called Singapore Girl is as fake as they ca get, as well as being politically incorrect"(15).

Over-whelming customer-oriented approach

SIA, aware that it is better value to the company to retain customers rather than replace them, has placed immense importance on delighting customers. A typical quote from Cheong Choong Kong, CEO of SIA is:

If there is one key lesson for us, it's that we have to stay with the customer ... Whenever we forget that, we get a solid whack and we are brought back to reality(16).

The service towards first class business travellers certainly has the reputation of being superb(17), but unfortunately passengers report different attitudes from economy class. The staff have been reported as being "condescending"(15), "so arrogant"(15) and "very rude"(18) to passengers. SIA emphasise how valued their customer feedback is, so it is unusual to read a complaint from a passenger that:

"I have made these views known to SIA and can assure you that their response was equally one of intolerance, rigidity and arrogance"(15).

Favouritism shown to Caucasians at the expense of Asiatics and (by implication) Afro-Americans has also been reported (15).

The general feeling expresed by recent (2001) SIA economy passengers is that economy passengers should try to take a non-SIA airline if possible(15) and a brief comparison of seat pitch (definted below in the next section) highlights the differences between first/business class or 78 inches and economy of 32 inches(19).

The major customer-oriented challenge for SIA, therefore, is how to delight customers who expect world-class service, but who are paying economy-class prices, while still maintaining a healthy financial position for the shareholders.

© Fell Services Ltd., 2004

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