Rare glimpse into the secret SIA training programme

SINGAPORE - It may seem glamorous, but being part of a cabin crew means needing to deal with many situations, often at the same time.

BENSON ANG gets a rare glimpse into the secret SIA training programme and finds that it's...not all plane sailing.

It is still thought of as one of the more glamorous professions.

But being part of Singapore Airlines' (SIA) cabin crew isn't just about looking good.

The airline recently scored higher than rivals Cathay Pacific Airways, Qantas Airlines and Emirates, in the customer satisfaction index, released earlier this month.

SIA attributes this result to its intensive cabin crew training.

Training that takes in every detail, from the arrangement and serving of meals to the handling of every type of passenger - including the smelly or aggressive ones.

Each year, around 800 trainees - all hoping to make the grade - are put through an intensive 15-week programme.

The training takes place at the SIA Training Centre at Upper Changi Road East Road.

Training includes four weeks of learning about the company, its products and processes, as well as a month of fleet training which teaches safety procedures and how to carry out duties.

Before trainees meet their first real passengers, they have three simulated flights. They have to be prepared for every situation - even how to jump out of a plane while wearing the iconic SIA kebaya.

One of the trainers, Mr Azman Osman, 42, has been flying for 21 years.

The inflight supervisor says: "On a flight, we must always be observant and respond quickly."

He adds that the key to quality lies in the details.

A well-groomed appearance and using formal language like "sir" and "ma'am" are essential.

Crew must always smile and maintain eye contact when addressing passengers.

Mr Azman also shares how to deal with difficult situations.

If someone has body odour, and if moving those around them isn't possible, the crew may use air fresheners to quell the smell. " Some passengers drink too much.

If they are just merry and not a threat to others, the crew don't cut him off but do delay serving him any more drinks - either by starting a conversation or offering some coffee.

Should arguments happen, Mr Azman advises: "Don't take sides. We just want to make sure others are not affected.

"In general, passengers should feel confident in calling on us for help at any time."

Indeed, the image of the warm, attentive Singapore Girl has attracted trainees like Miss Nurhazwanni Taufik, 20, to pursue this as a career.

Says the polytechnic graduate: "It's my dream. A Singapore Girl is poised, elegant, confident - she can handle anything.

"I've realised the job is not all glamour. We spend a lot of time learning safety procedures and practising first aid.

"But then, while up in the air, passengers only have us to depend on."

'You don't want to sound like a robot'

I will never call cabin crew "trolley dollies" again - not after my brief but intense session with SIA trainees.

They are far more than glamorised wait staff. Why I thought I could just pose my way through those few hours of training on Wednesday, I'll never know.

You have to be "on" at all times.

Without any prior lessons, I had to learn on the spot. And I learnt fast.

While greeting the "passengers" on SIA's simulator - as good as a real flight but without the turbulence - I realised it isn't easy to keep smiling for any length of time.

And there's also more to the seemingly simple task of distributing newspapers than asking: "Newspaper for you?"

"Vary your sentences," Mr Azman, my assessor, told me. "You don't want to sound like a robot."

Repetition, at least for the same row, is out. Yet trying to think of five different versions of the same question temporarily threw me.

Every passenger gets a different line but with the same friendly smile. Likewise with towels and headsets.

Safety belts fastened, seats upright, and tray-tables and window shades up.

As the plane "took off", I had to make sure nothing was blocking the aisles, not least myself.

In the air, it's all about multi-tasking. It's like a memory game, but one where a passenger's comfort is at stake.

As I struggled to remember a drink order, the "captain" made an announcement.

If passengers ask, cabin crew have to be able to repeat the exact message. Amazingly, even with drink orders swirling in my head, I absorbed the captain's words.

And if you think that serving meals is just the cliche of asking "chicken or fish", think again.

Everything has to be exact.

Airline insignia - be it on cups or the creamer - should be upright and facing the passenger. Details make the difference.

Then there's the really scary part - pouring hot tea and coffee.

Try doing it with someone sitting just beside you. One wrong move and a potential lawsuit awaits.

As I focused intently on getting the cup to the passenger without spilling, my assessor told me to maintain eye contact.

My eyes flashed from the cup to the passenger sat before me, a knowing smirk on her face in reply to my worried grimace.

"Please enjoy, ma'am," I said, hands trembling as the cup finally touched down.

Thankfully, the plane soon "touched down" as well.

I left slightly dizzy after taking in so much, but left with a newfound respect for anyone who serves us in the skies.

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