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Saturday 4 April 2015

Has Singapore Airlines lost its way?

A decade or so ago just about everyone had a Nokia mobile phone. The Finnish company was at the cutting edge of phone technology and its competitors' offerings paled into insignificance. 

Then along came Apple's iPhone and Nokia paid a heavy price for its complacency and not keeping an eye on the opposition. 

After four flights on Singapore Airlines over the past week, it occurs to me that the one-time undisputed leader in the premium airline category seems to be suffering from similar complacency. 

Whereas the Singapore Girl was once "a great way to fly" she's now just average, a crone trailing in the wake of innovative and well-funded rivals like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, who offer slicker service, better meals and wider entertainment choices.  

My flights took me from Melbourne to Singapore and on to Malé in the Maldives and back; legs of around seven hours and four and a half hours respectively. No much-vaunted A380s to be seen here.

And while none of the legs were shockers, only one was truly comfortable - the Malé to Singapore leg on a three-quarters empty plane. On others seats were cramped, the amenities pack a laughable pair of socks and dud toothbrush. 

Despite my being a Virgin Australia gold frequent flyer, Singapore completely ignored that fact on the first two legs, giving me the middle seat in a full row of three both times. Yep, that's partner priority for you. I got preferred aisle seats on the way back after asking their PR company for help. If you are dealing with Singapore it pays to insist on your rights.

And the service was sometimes lacklustre, too. Not rude, just not as glossy as we've come to expect from Singapore and its carefully polished image of smiling superiority. 

Apart from one stunning sambal fish dish, the food was also disappointing; all around me people were rejecting the soggy pasta salad and stale cake on the final leg to Melbourne. The food offerings on budget airline Air Asia are vastly superior to this dross. 

The wines offered in economy (where I fly 90% of the time) were a French red and two whites; generic and barely fit for purpose. Clearly not a priority for "the world's most-awarded airline".

I spoke to two Singapore Airways staffers, who indicated that aging equipment and budget cuts were to blame for the falling standards. 

The old-style IFE system on one Boeing 777-300 was almost impossible to listen to through the crackles, while on another leg it was hard to get a drink of water during the night after all the cabin crew disappeared. And the TV screens were nowhere near the size or quality of those in this supplied picture (above).

I'm not saying, for a minute, that Singapore is a dud airline. It still has a formidable reputation for the quality of its business- and first-class service. And its economy service is, well, serviceable.

What I am arguing is that whereas it was once the automatic first option of any economy-class traveller with a choice of carriers; that is no longer the case. I elected to fly Singapore this time over several others flying similar routes; but no more. There are several options as good, or better. 

It seems clear to me that Singapore Airlines is resting on its laurels after years of acclaim. Let's hope it doesn't end up going the way of Nokia, which was swallowed up by Microsoft. 

It somehow just seems wrong for an icon to risk becoming mediocre.        

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