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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. There was a good Nat Geo special on Singapore Airlines operations. It covered the grooming and makeup. Imagine US airlines enforced those policies? There would be lawsuits all over the place.

  2. It’s nice that they are not all tatted out like your local baristas. But honestly I’d gladly trade the bread service for a business class seat that doesn’t need to be turned inside out to become a bed. I’ll take an old UA seat any day.

  3. As an American I would be quite upset unless my flight attendant was elderly overweight wrinkled cranky forgetful uncaring and unhelpful as they are only there for my safety
    Only American Airlines can bring me such exquisite pleasures
    I especially like the high end bottled water like Crystal Geiser the one that Consumer Reports found to have arsenic in so I can feel rested and refreshed onboard
    Oh and those cheap plastic amenity kits from China simply amazing with penny rock hard toothbrushes and other premium contents provided complimentary
    And oh yes Heinz salad dressing in plastic packets in your 787 Premium business class cabins really adds a nice touch when playing full fare for a high end experience
    I can imagine being at a 5 star elementary school cafeteria
    Thank You American Airlines and Doug Parker for setting the highest standards worldwide and allowing your customers the best award availability and customer service in the industry
    I couldn’t think of flying another carrier like Singapore or other international carrier
    Not ever

  4. Love the business-class seats on the 777-200ER in your cabin photos from the post. I take them over every other business-class seat I’ve flown including delta’s A350-900 suites.

  5. The whole Singapore Girls thing creeps me out incredibly, and I find it to be backwards and sexist. These are women, not girls, and they should have the same right and respect that are given to all people. The amount of control that the airlines exercise over their appearance is totally unacceptable. Flight attendants aren’t here to be objectified eye candy, and if they weren’t trying to make a living for themselves they would never agree to this kind of corporate tyranny. I’ll gladly pay more for a US carrier where even if the service isn’t up to par, flight attendants are at least treated with individual respect.

  6. We are so hypocritical that we want that type of service but don’t like HOW it comes about.

    Typical…..”We” Would love to live the good life, but don’t want to know how the “hotdog” is made

  7. Gary, I am a bit surprised by your comment on Sri Lankan and didn’t think you were so shallow in your view. A sari (which is the uniform) always hasa bare midriff. It is not immodest and is the norm in India, Sri Lanka and even parts of Bangladesh (countries which are actually somewhat conservative in how they dress).

  8. How is this really any different than military regulations for uniform attire? I can only speak for my branch of service, but both in cammies and dress uniforms, women were authorized very specific shades of red for lip and nail color (and that differed based on cammies or dress uniforms, so even MORE regulation), and their hair was subject to another set of regulations and further scrutiny. The underlying tenet is that they represent the brand, whether it be an airline or a branch of the armed forces. Why do we question a commercial entity that’s selling customer service but not the military?

  9. My cousin was a Singapore Airlines stewardess once. She said it was like being in the army. She didn’t like it and left after a few years.

    For those who criticize Singapore Airlines extremely high dress standards: why don’t you also criticize the extremely rigid dress standards of the US Marines who clearly “subject their members to tyranny”. I mean, aren’t Marines supposed to be preparing for war and not modeling how to groom and dress perfectly? By the way, I know why the Marines do this. Isn’t it interesting how the organizations that insist on maintaining the highest standards are usually some of the best in the world.

    “I’ll gladly pay more for a US carrier where even if the service isn’t up to par,”
    This comment makes me want to puke. Thanks to people like Ray who happily accept and condone mediocrity the US continues to fall behind other countries that believe in pursuing high standards of customer service.

  10. Are they forced to work for SQ? NO
    Do they know what the rules are ahead of the game? YES
    So there’s nothing wrong with it.

    I work in finance and also have to use a stupid uniform (suit + tie). Would I like to wear jeans to work? Absolutely. But it is a rule I was aware of and I follow it. That simple.

    As an American, Gary, you should really expand your horizons and not be such narrow minded. If this really rubs you the wrong way, just don’t fly SQ. I am sure they will not miss you.

  11. Ray: “The whole Singapore Girls thing creeps me out incredibly, and I find it to be backwards and sexist. These are women, not girls, and they should have the same right and respect that are given to all people. ”

    That hits on all the PC talking points except for respecting other cultures. If that’s what they want to do, who are you to object? Don’t fly with them if attractive flight attendants trigger your sensibilities.

  12. The dress and deportment are not unlike many militaries. No big deal. If you don’t like it, get another job…

  13. I don’t fly an airline for the looks of the flight attendants. I am more inclined to fly an airline based on seats, price and service. I’m sure I’ll be accused of harassment any minute but as a man I can appreciate attractive female flight crew members. That being said I don’t think these women are slaves or are forced to take these jobs. My guess is that it’s tough to land one of these positions with Singapore or Emirates, etc. Like the old Pan-Am or TWA days. In defense of American carriers. They have their share of FA’s (men and women) who take their look very seriously. They seem to take pride in the service they perform. The problem is the ones that don’t seem to care and don’t even seem to enjoy people or their job. The airline is powerless to fire them or do anything because of the unions, etc. They seem to take the “we are here primarily for your safety” part to mean that you’re stuck with us and we might do you a favor and give you have a plastic cup of diet coke if you ask nicely but be careful or “you’re not flying today”.

  14. I have lived in Singapore and love SQ.
    The culture is different and it is not sexist or disrespectful. They represent the brand SQ, one of the most successful, premium airline and most do it with great pride. If you’ve seen an SQ crew, both male and female stride through Changi, it’s quite a sight! And anybody who’s flown SQ once will recognize them.
    I don’t think as many AA, UA, DL flight attendants share the same price in their airline and would consider themselves brand representatives…
    Oh, and they do the same grooming routine before landing – in case you wonder why the biz lav is busy…

  15. “As an American the airline’s female grooming standards made me a little bit uncomfortable.”

    Let’s all discuss this over beer and wings at Hooters.

  16. I fail to understand the accolades that SQ receives for service. Everything is so highly scripted that the service ends up insincere and robotic.

    I agree with @Ray about the creepy Singapore Girl branding. The grooming standards are meant to make the women look like dolls. They’re supposed to act that way as well. Subservient ones. On too many SQ flights, I have seen male service directors bullying female flight attendants, where the women do all the work and the men stand around barking orders. I find it particularly odd because Singapore as a country doesn’t work like that. Its airline, however, hasn’t progressed beyond the Mad Men era.

    Give me CX, NH, or LX for service any day.

  17. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I disagree with the very casual standards in business dress today. And I see nothing wrong with SQ having standards for its employees. They are free to work there, or not.

    When both my wife and I worked for a corporation (both in senior management at a Fortune-20 company), our mantra was “Dress for your next job.” In my department, “casual Friday” meant no jacket with the shirt and tie. My wife wore suits most days. It certainly did not make us feel uncomfortable to do so, did not unduly impinge on our freedom, and we were free to go elsewhere if either of us did not like it.

  18. Call me old fashioned too, but what is wrong with pride in appearance and looking professional. I want to look my best when I meet clients. American carriers have reached such a level of mediocrity in all aspects! I frequently pay out of my own pocket to upgrade on work flights and inwardly scoff at the excessive amount of money I’m paying for a breakfast scone or in some cases the basket of snacks to choose from. Really!!!! How can Lufthansa serve a full meal in Business on an hour flight when United provides a breakfast scone on a two hour flight? Mediochrity and greed!!!

  19. I am a liberal woman and I have an extremely liberal, millenial, anti-establishment twenty-something daughter, and neither of us, as women, find anything offensive about the SQ uniform nor employer requirements for hair and makeup. It is part of the uniform–a word we tend to overlook in our casual, anything-goes fashion sense in America, where we decry anything that hinders our so-called freedom. The SQ uniform is modest and tasteful, and the skirt opens to a slit that can facilitate ease of movement in an emergency. Furthermore, wearing one particular hairstyle and makeup palette is a timesaver. If you have ever watched one of those (American airline) FA videos on YouTube, you will see how much time can be wasted in trying to decide what type of hairstyle to wear that day, if false eyelashes should or should not be worn, and whether to cat eye the eyeliner, or just use a smudgy pencil. The SQ flight attendants don’t have to deal with all those unnecessary variables.

    Remember when those female college students visited Geore W. Bush in the White House? The photos showed a bevy of young women in their Sunday Best. It was only when you glanced down at their footwear–flip flops on every one of them!–that you realized how poor our American sense of propriety can be.

    Finally, you are appropriating American values to Asian culture. We are not always the same. Asian culture appreciates uniformity and professionalism. In many Asian countries, students AND teachers are given a strict dress code: white shirts, black skirts, black shoes, hair neat and tidy and pulled back if a woman; only stud earrings…this is accepted as preparing for the adult, professional world. Something we might learn from.

  20. Yes, SQ’s beauty standards may seem a bit outdated, but Singapore is a conservative country that isn’t afraid to do things one way for decades. It is not a country with a strong undercurrent of revolutionary/radical/leftist academia, whereas in the US, Canada, and Europe, the radicals definitely make themselves heard in academia as well as in the press, and consequently it makes us Westerners afraid to say entirely uncontroversial things like ‘women are generally better suited to being flight stewards because they are more pleasant and agreeable than men are’. In Singapore, they’re not afraid to state the obvious, even if that statement may rub some the wrong way. I really like how the Singaporeans do things, and I’m afraid that if the West keeps listening to the anti-truth, puritanical, censorious radicals, it’s going to be unacceptable to state the truth some day solely on account of hurting another person’s feelings.

  21. I agree with Kimmie A. The company has dress STANDARDS which it expects its employees to adhere to, male or female as they are the representatives of the Company who the passenger interacts with!
    I am in my mid 60s, with some older fashioned views and expect to be professionally served in Business Class as I would in a good restaurant. Likewise, the Captain has trained long and hard to sit in the left hand seat up front and wears a uniform which reflects his hard work and status.
    Would you feel comfortable flying with a crew who turn up unshaven dishevelled, jeans , T shirt and flip flops. They may have excellent training and qualifications, but no pride in their occupation.
    If you do not like standards or feel uneasy with other World Leading Companies, then I humbly suggest you find the cheapest and unreliable budget airline and expect catering equivalent to a back street Burger Joint!

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