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Updated: 7 hours 25 min ago

A Love Letter to Singapore Airlines

Thu, 2015-12-10 14:25
I used to be a Star Alliance Gold card holder from my extensive travel with BMI and other *A carriers. Eventually my travel tailed off a little and I dropped to Silver *just* before BA took over BMI and my *A status was converted to One World. Which was ok, because a BA Silver is in many ways similar to other airlines gold with all the lounge access I could need. The chances of getting or retaining a BA Gold card were about the same as those of me becoming a teetotal vegan, so I settled into my new position in life ;-)
However, it was a little disappointing and strange that I switched over to One World just before I landed a job in Singapore. In my *A days, everyone knew that Singapore Airlines were *the* top *A carrier (honourable mention to Air New Zealand) and so they always cropped up in any forum conversation about how best to use miles. Now I was in the perfect place to earn and redeem miles well, my new employer always uses SQ for travel but I was kind of stuck with my BA Silver and a whole bunch of miles and partner vouchers and the rest. To give you an example, when my new employer was helping me book our business class flights to move out to Singapore, you could tell they were a little confused as to why we weren't choosing SQ. Tier points, of course! ;-)
Don't get me wrong, BA are great and I've had some good rewards over the past few years, but my choice of loyalty program suddenly felt out of step with my life so I was considering a gradual cutover to KrisFlyer. But SQ never do status matches (as far as I know), so it was going to take a while. Making it worse was the fact that I've grown to like Cathay Pacific and so the temptation to stay put in OneWorld is stronger.
Anyway, I've said enough to merely touch on my intense geekery about airline loyalty programs and, for that matter, airlines and air travel in general.
However, the experience of last week has convinced me that Singapore Airlines are unparalleled in their customer service. The fleet and on-board service are already great, even in Economy (really - Europeans should try a dose of Far Eastern mid-haul travel to see the difference), but Customer Service is such a difficult thing to get right and SQ absolutely knocked the ball out of the park!
I'm terrible with names and remembering them but, in any case, there was such a large team of people over the course of 3 and a half days that were almost uniformly excellent, professional and warm that I'm not sure I want to single anyone out. I will pick out a few small examples (in order of the time they happened) but I'm not sure that will communicate just how happy everyone I know was with the customer service.
- I was constantly having struggles getting out of the terminal for a smoke and, on one occasion, I asked one of the senior ground crew how I could get out and he walked me out personally, dealt with security and stood there while I had a smoke, so he could then help me back into the terminal. He was a smoker too, so he understood, but he didn't have one himself. Absolutely not his job, but just caring about different passengers needs.
- At every single turn (and the passengers discussed this several times amongst ourselves), the airline made the right decision, at just the right time and so it always felt like we were ahead of the game. They couldn't change the situation or unblock the blockages but once they realised there was a blockage, they simply found a way around it. They didn't pussy-foot about and there was only very rarely a sense of "what's happening here?". Even in those moments, it was really just about the airline trying to work out for themselves what was happening.
- There were very few changes in team members. Where we went, they went. When we were able to sleep, even if it was on the floor of the terminal, they weren't. When we were able to sit and relax in the hotel, they were still chasing around trying to make plans for us despite having no sleep themselves. Whatever challenges we experienced, they experienced worse because they couldn't have a seat, grab a nap, get a shower or whatever either and not once did I get any sense that it bothered them. They must have been *shattered* with tiredness and they never let it show or gave even a hint of this not being their favourite work experience!
- When the Regional Manager turns up to deliver a short speech to passengers who haven't seen a bed or a shower in over 50 hours and is basically telling them that there's no quick end in sight and they *applaud* you spontaneously during your speech and at the end, you know you're doing this thing right. Embarassing though it is to admit it, and I suspect my extreme tiredness was a factor, I was practically wiping away a tear! In retrospect, I realise that it was because they seemed to genuinely care about our predicament. It's difficult to define the difference between this and fake customer care but it was clear as day if you were there. He then hung around until every single passenger had asked whatever weird and wonderful questions they had and answered them with calm authority and honesty.
- The free food was endless and of great quality, despite my personal preferences. Not your European - here's a voucher for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Instead - here are three proper meals a day at the right time. I'm guessing this was very important to most people, particularly the large number of families among the passengers and in the end (as you'll see in another blog post), they moved us at one point from one hotel to another, just so people could eat and wash.
- As soon as it became clear that MAA was shut down for days, they made a (heavily caveated) promise that they would try to organise some extra capacity out of Bangalore as the fastest way to get us home. They had to work with the air authorities on this, they were in the midst of every airline trying to do the same, were operating to tight timescales and were honest with us that it was starting to look unlikely and so spent hours trying to rebook people on to other flights to Mumbai and other routes. But they came through. They promised they would try something for us, they worked on it and worked on it until they made it happen and they got people home.
I can't emphasise enough how fantastic SQ were over my 85 hour (read that again - 85 hour) trip home. If it was just me saying this, then it would be personal taste, but a bunch of extremely tired passengers with a wide demographic all seemed to agree whenever we discussed it or I heard others discussing it. The interesting (but really unsurprising thing), is that I also found my fellow passengers understanding and behaviour far above what I've ever experienced in a situation like this. Mmmmm ... maybe when you treat people well, they behave well?
So, Seah Chee Chian and your team ... You should be extremely proud of yourselves! But I mean the whole team, working selflessly over hours and days and showing genuine care for your customers, which is so rare. I'm not a fan of low cost airlines in general - each to their own - so the small difference in fares has never been a question for me and it's at times like this you remember you get what you pay for! However, I can put Singapore's efforts up against any full-fare airline I've ever flown with and I can't think of one that would have handled things as impressively. I just always knew I could count on SQ to take care of me.

You have a fan for life!

P.S. All of this and having the best airport on the planet (SIN) as your hub. What more could I ask for?

P.P.S. I was obviously delighted to get any seat on any plane going back to Singapore to be home again with Mads. So when I was asked whether I was happy to be downgraded to Economy it wasn't a long consideration, but I'll obviously be reclaiming the cost of that upgrade. I mean, the experience hasn't changed me *that* much! ;-)
P.P.P.S. ... and you would think that such a glowing tribute to such an amazing airline might, you know, increase my chances of an upgrade one day. (See? Ever the frequent flyer! LOL)

My Indian Adventure - Part 1

Wed, 2015-12-09 08:29
Last week I had a small adventure and wanted to record some of the events before I forget them and to take the opportunity to praise both the good people of Chennai and the stellar staff of Singapore Airlines. You'll find nothing about Oracle here and unless you're a friend or my family, probably not much to care about, but those are the people I'm writing this for.
I suppose it began the previous week when we received a travel advisory ahead of my short two night business trip warning us of fresh rains and flooding risk in Chennai. I asked my boss if it was really a good idea for us to travel, particularly as I had to be back on Wednesday morning for my partners birthday trip to Phuket. But the decision was made and so I found myself in a somewhat wet Chennai on Sunday night. 
However, other than some occasional rain and the residual effects of earlier flooding - Chennai has been living with this for a while now - the business stuff went well and I woke up at 4am (jetlag) on Tuesday, looking forward to travelling home that night.

Sitting in my final meeting before travelling to the airport, one of the attendees suggested that we break up the meeting as people were getting calls from home to tell them that their homes were being flooded! So we broke up, the office cleared out and we phoned for the car to come from our hotel 25 minutes away. Estimated time of arrival 1-2 hours! Oh well. I'd be pushing it to make my flight, but would probably be fine.

We waited and after the first hour I stood outside with an umbrella, sheltering under a concrete archway until I'd venture out with the brolly at each possible hotel car sighting. It also gave me an opportunity to smoke outside but under the brolly. However, after an hour of this, I was absolutely drenched and my feet and trousers were soaking. Just me being an idiot as usual, but I would come to regret this more and more as time passed later. Soaking clothes were not ideal for the trip to come and I'd packed extremely lightly!
The car turned up at 6:15 and so began our journey to the hotel and then probably time for a quick beer, dry out a bit and then on to the airport.
We eventually arrived at the hotel 1:45 later and I was starting to panic because Chennai Airport (MAA) is one where arriving 2-3 hours before departure is definitely a good idea. Don't get me started on Indian airport security! I was 3:15 away from departure so after switching to another car to give our poor driver a break, we set off immediately. The next hour and 15 minutes were frankly chaotic and worrying as we passed roads that were now rivers, with cars almost under water and the wake from our own car more like that generated by a boat. Despite a very hairy ending to the drive, we made it to the airport 2 hours before departure and I breathed a huge sigh of relief because I knew I'd probably make it home now.
Except Singapore Airlines wouldn't check me in because the flight was going to be seriously delayed, the situation was changing all the time and they didn't want us stuck air-side. The incoming plane had been diverted to Bangalore (BLR) because MAA runway was closed. If the runway could be reopened, then they would fly the plane in from BLR, board us and we could fly home but it was clear there'd be a long delay in any case. I made the decision it was best to stick around as I really needed to get home but what sealed it was that there were now no rooms at all in the hotel I'd checked out of. I could share my bosses room, but that was the best on offer and all taxis had stopped operating from the airport anyway.
After an hour or two, the flight was cancelled and the runway closed until 6am. Singapore Airlines immediately informed us what was happening and organised hot airline style food and a blanket each. The food was the first of many South Indian meals I was to face over the course of the next few days and those who know me well know that means I was condemned to mild hunger! LOL. Fortunately I had a giant bag of Haribo Gold Bears I could dig into occasionally ;-)


Though the blanket was ok, sleeping on the marble floor of an airport terminal with your rucksack as a pillow and a thin blanket is never going to be an enjoyable experience and I think I managed about an hour. Others who had managed to commandeer seats and benches seemed to fair better. Here was my slot - always go Business Class, folks! ;-)

I wandered up and down the terminal aimlessly (and there really isn't much else to do in MAA), occasionally trying to get out of the terminal building through security so I could have a smoke. Did I mention how I feel about Indian Security guys? Really, just don't get me started on them!
I was hearing rumours from home that Singapore Airlines were flying a plane in and we would be able to get out so I stuck with it but, ultimately, it became clear that the runway was closed and was going to be closed for some time at which point Singapore stepped in and took control of the situation. They cancelled the flight and organised a bus to the Hilton Chennai where we wouldn't be able to have rooms (there were really none available and they offered to pay the costs of anyone who could find one) but we could at least get some food and get away from MAA. It was yet another great decision as MAA was starting to descend into chaos. After a surprisingly easy and short bus drive, we found ourselves at the Hilton but I wasn't sure how much of a benefit being able to stay in Ballroom 2 for hours was going to be.

Over time I came to realise it was a great move when I started hearing reports of what a car crash the MAA terminal had become. We also had wifi for a few hours, which meant I was able to contact Mads so she could start rebooking our trip to Phuket for the next day, in case I was going to get back to Singapore in time. Our original Wednesday departure was clearly a no-go by this stage.

It also helped that we could now get some decent coffee and biscuits and Singapore and the Hilton could start serving up some really pretty good hot buffet lunch. All South Indian food, of course! But then, what else should I expect really? LOL

But at least there were chairs, and power sockets, and some wifi and even occasionally a little 3G, but Chennai's communications infrastructure was slowly but surely disappearing into the surrounding water! I could go outside, try to find reception, smoke, chat to the Singapore Airlines staff who were taking care of us and two of those trips outside will stay with me for a while. (Note that although the flooding doesn't look too bad here, this was definitely one of the better streets and it got much worse later ...)

The first was when I was smoking with one of the SQ guys (hopefully not something that's disallowed, but I'm not handing his name over anyway! ;-)) and I asked him how he thought things were looking. He showed me a video he'd taken of the runway area and my heart sank. It was a lake. A big lake. With waves and stuff. He told me that realistically, nothing would be flying out of MAA any time soon and my heart sank. At the same time, I settled into the idea that this was going to be a long trip and maybe it's something about my military upbringing but I knew that we'd just have to put up with whatever was coming and we'd get there in the end.

Besides, the next visit outside cheered me up no end. As I was passing the time, smoking and day-dreaming, a commotion broke out in the crowd in the street with people running and pushing and laughing and shouting and I genuinely thought there was a mini-riot breaking out.

We all rushed over to see what was going on and then I realised, but I didn't get a photo of it! The crowd were grappling with a large fish! It must have been a good 2.5-3 feet long and fat. Absolutely not a tiddler! As they caught it, they all ran back up the street, laughing and celebrating with their prize. 

Catching fish in the street with your hands. Now *that's* flooding!

More to follow ....