Singapore Airlines has just been voted the best carrier in the world for the fifth time, beating more than 300 other airlines in the Skytrax awards, which are based on customer surveys covering everything from comfort to value for money.
Brits can use Singapore to fly from London and Manchester to destinations all over Asia, and on to Melbourne and Sydney. Flights in business and first class can be pricey, but economy fares can be lower than those of British Airways (BA) or Qantas — though not always. At the time of writing economy fares from Heathrow to Singapore on August 1 cost £1,187 with Qantas, £1,474 with BA and £1,497 with Singapore.
Nevertheless, Singapore wins the popular vote. So what does it get so right?
An observation bridge at Changi airport in Singapore
OSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A good airline experience starts not at 39,000ft but on the ground. Singapore Airlines has an advantage in that its home, Changi airport, is only 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Singapore. Other hubs — notably Istanbul, Milan Malpensa and Paris Charles de Gaulle — are much further from the cities they serve. The carrier and Changi are partly state-owned, so it’s easier for them to work hand in glove to make the airport easy to navigate — another plus for the airline. Electronic check-in and passport e-gates mean that you can arrive less than an hour before your flight departs and still have plenty of time to board.
Changi’s connection times make Heathrow blush. London’s privately owned and run hub is inefficient partly because BA and other carriers have to work with so many different partners. In fact BA has just announced it is increasing by 15 minutes the time that passengers must allow to make connections. This is one reason why BA is 18th in the Skytrax rankings, down from 11th place last year and behind Air France, Turkish Airlines and Iberia.
Unlike most hubs, Changi has a vast duty-free offering in the arrivals hall, so you can wait until you arrive to buy your favourite wine and perfume, and not lug your purchases halfway round the world (Heathrow take note). And there is a Uniqlo in the departures hall — there should be a law that every airport in the world has a Uniqlo because there’s always something you’ve forgotten.
Passengers’ views of Singapore Airlines are no doubt boosted by the pleasant airport experience, but the carrier does plenty for which it can take credit directly. For instance it has always been innovative in the air. Most people think that Emirates was the first airline to fly the double-decker Airbus A380 “superjumbo”, whereas in fact it was Singapore Airlines. And it’s on those A380s that it operates Suites Class — more luxurious than first class, with leather seats bigger than anything most of us have at home, as well as Malossol caviar and Krug Grande Cuvée available with every meal (BA stopped serving caviar in first class years ago).
More to the point for most of us, the cheap seats ain’t too shabby either. The seat pitch (leg-room measurement) in economy is 32in, which is par for the course, but Singapore Airlines is the first carrier to offer all passengers — including those at the back of the bus — free unlimited wi-fi. It also allows you to use its app to preprogramme your onboard entertainment.
On many flights passengers in premium economy — which costs about 50 per cent more than economy — can use the airline’s popular “Book the Cook” service to preorder meals. On its A380s the premium-economy cabin is in the nose cone downstairs, which means that it is large and quiet; other carriers, Emirates aside, stick premium in the middle of the aircraft.
BA has a chance to copy Singapore Airlines as it starts to refit its 12 A380s — let’s see whether it learns that lesson. (While it’s at it, it can move first class upstairs, as Singapore Airlines has done with its Suites.)
Service in the Asian airline’s cabins is authentically Singaporean — from the staff uniforms to the menus that feature the national dish, chicken rice — and consistently attentive. Other carriers, notably BA, are intensifying crew training to try to match it. I once transited in Changi en route to Sydney — the crew on the London-Singapore leg passed on to the crew flying with me to Australia what drinks I liked so they could bring them without me having to tell them. If you have a long layover the airline has great hotel offers in the Lion City that you can book when you buy your ticket.
No airline is perfect, of course. For some Singapore Airlines can be a bit “Singabore”. While the cabins and lounges are luxurious, you won’t get the cutting-edge design you find on Virgin Atlantic and Qantas. The colour palette runs from beige to greige. Humour does not come naturally to the cabin crew — service is strait-laced. And good though Changi is, it’s maddening that the security screening is at the gate, not before entering the departures hall, because it slows down the boarding process.
But these are minor quibbles, and Singapore Airlines remains the king of the skies. It may have some structural advantages over its western competitors, such as state backing, but it combines innovation — especially new technology — with good old-fashioned service to create an experience that many rivals would do well to emulate.
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