If we are to believe the recent international travel news, then it looks like more exciting things are in store. Countries are opening their borders to international travel once more, and many of us are looking forward to it.
A recent WISE International Travel Survey revealed that 82% of U.S travelers plan to travel internationally as soon as it is possible to do so. More than the destination itself, many of us have missed going on flights. In fact, ‘flights to nowhere’ surged in popularity during the pandemic when most people could not travel internationally.
People appear to be missing flying so much that they’re willing to board a flight without the reward of landing somewhere new. They simply fly around for a couple of hours or so. Call it the flying equivalent of a car ride.
It’s not hard to see why many of us miss being passengers on a long-haul flight. The excitement of boarding a plane, being greeted by the cabin crew, having your in-flight meals served while you enjoy the latest movies. And, if you’re lucky, the sheer bliss of uninterrupted sleep. It’s undeniable that in-flight service has a big impact on our flight experience.
October marks East and Southeast Asia spotlight month at AeroTime. So, let’s talk about Asian carriers, a group who are famed for their exceptional in-flight service.
Recently, Skytrax has published the results of the 2021 World Airline Awards results and, except for Qatar Airways who managed to secure the 10th spot, the Top 10 Best Cabin Crew is dominated by Asian Carriers, with Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY) taking first place.
This year is not an exception. If you review the winners and placeholders in the Best Cabin Crew category from the last two decades, you will find that most are East and Southeast Asian carriers.
But just what is it that sets the in-flight service of Asian carriers apart? AeroTime talks to Beige de Lange, former senior cabin crew and flight service instructor for Asiana Airlines who has more than 22 years of experience in the industry.
Asiana Airlines places 8th in this year’s Best Cabin Crew category, and has remained in the Top 10 for the past 20 years.
It’s in the culture
The traditional culture in East Asia tends to be indirect, deferential and extremely polite. For de Lange, this is an integral reason for the first-rate in-flight service offered by Asian Carriers.
She says: “[Politeness] in customer service is ingrained in the Asian culture whereby it is expected that service provided should be above and beyond.”
It’s quite likely that no other region in the world has a multitude of ways of saying no than Asia. Not that cabin crew from Asian carriers cannot say no. But when certain values, such as being polite, are deeply ingrained in a culture, it’s only natural for a passenger to feel pampered and catered to.
Keeping competition close
During her 22-year career, de Lange has observed that East Asian carriers tend to focus competition within the region.
For example, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, who used to be direct competitors (but are due to merge shortly), kept a close eye on each other’s service patterns. As a result, the two carriers almost mirrored one another when it came to in-flight service sequence and quality. If one airline came up with an improvement to the service, say, getting rid of trolleys during meal service in the first and business class sections, then the other would follow suit.
Competition is neck and neck within the region, so it is hardly surprising that the calibre of in-flight service offered by Asian carriers is delivered consistently to a high standard.
The importance of image
De Lange, who also has a degree in marketing, cites the importance of the sixth ‘P’ in marketing principles to Asian carriers. Presentation and packaging, even when it comes to the people the airline employs, is of huge importance.
Asian carriers capitalize on a good image and a company will allocate a substantial amount of its yearly budget to cabin crew and ground personnel’s uniform and grooming.
“Image is an integral part of branding in Asia. How you package a product reveals a lot about how a brand values their product and their customers”, de Lange says. “An airline’s cabin crew is the visual part of the entire brand experience.”
De Lange reveals that, in comparison to carriers from other regions, adverts for Asian carriers tend to focus more on cabin crew, rather than destinations or fleet.
This can be traced back almost 50 years, when Singapore Airlines’ (SIA1) (SINGY) ‘Singapore Girl’ was born. The term was coined in 1972 when Pierre Balmain, a French haute couture designer, was hired to create the airline’s now-iconic uniform.
Since then, the Singapore Girl has become a visual trademark and brand for Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY). She represents Asian values and hospitality, and her image exudes the warmth that is associated with the service a passenger will receive when flying with the airline.
The Singapore Girl is a classic example of a strong brand marketing strategy. It has been so successful that when Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY) did a brand review in 2019, it was still considered relevant five decades later.
It’s not all about good looks, charm, and being polite. Like most carriers, de Lange says that Asiana Airlines sets aside two whole months in the initial cabin crew training for safety alone. This is to ensure that cabin crew are highly trained in the event of emergencies and unusual situations alongside first aid training and how to safely evacuate passengers from different types of aircraft. Additionally, all cabin crew are required to undergo and pass safety recurrent training every year.
For Asiana Airlines, the efficiency of this training was tested in July 2013 when Asiana Airlines flight OZ 214 was involved in an unfortunate accident. The airline’s Boeing 777 aircraft crashed on final approach into San Francisco International Airport. The cabin crew on that flight played a huge role in keeping casualties and injuries to a minimum and were lauded as heroes.
De Lange says: “Asiana Airlines is quite strict with safety training. The cabin crew in that accident showed competence in handling a very difficult situation. It was the cabin crew who actually initiated the evacuation.”
De Lange recalls seeing an image of a cabin crew member who, during evacuation, carried an elderly passenger on her back.
She says: “They displayed selfless courage, strength and leadership. These things we don’t teach in training. We don’t tell the cabin crew during training to carry passengers, but it was innate among the cabin crew to help and save. Without their presence of mind and reliability, I think the outcome would have been worse.
“Ultimately, the key role of a cabin crew is really to be responsible for passenger safety.”
Adapting to modern times
During the last 15 years, the emergence of Asian low-cost carriers has also affected the way full-service carriers commence in-flight service. As a result, de Lange has witnessed in-flight service become more streamlined.
For instance, many airlines have abandoned the hot towel service, which used to be customary before meal service. In some carriers, first and business class passengers can even order their meals digitally through in-flight electronic gadgets.
De Lange says: “Although streamlining the in-flight service diminishes interaction between cabin crew and passenger, it actually works because there’s less disturbance for the passenger and it saves more energy and cost.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered in-flight service. Steps have been added to ensure hygiene and safety and the usual cabin crew uniform is now embellished with protective equipment.
While we are waiting for things to return to pre-pandemic levels, passengers can continue to look forward to an excellent in-flight service experience in the new normal. After all, face masks are not a barrier to providing excellent customer service.