'Singapore Girls' versus the West

It started innocently enough, but quickly turned into a major issue when managers and flight attendants began a search for flight attendants to be nominated for an American Airlines promotion for the carrier’s Chicago crew base.

In the "Face of Your Base" contest, flight attendants were asked to vote on who looked best in the airline's new scarves, ties and striped shirts.

But, when it heard about the promotion, the national leadership of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants went ballistic. The union urged its member to boycott what it described as a "ridiculous, insulting beauty contest" that undermined flight attendants’ primary job of ensuring flight safety.

“This campaign just transported us back 50 years to the days of girdles, weight-checks and single, female-only stewardesses having to quit when they were married, pregnant, or reached the ripe old age of 30,” the APFA’s national president Laura Glading said in an email to the union’s members.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the “Singapore Girl” is only a year shy of the beginning of its fifth decade as the most successful airline customer service campaign in history that has guaranteed Singapore Airlines almost continuous profits since its invention in 1972.

In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine such a marketing campaign being possible or even legal in Western countries like the US or Australia with their myriad equality opportunity laws.

These days it’s politically unfashionable for travellers of either sex to admit they like a little “eye candy” in their flight attendants – even though looks are a primary qualification. Instead, the popular conversation in Australia is more likely to be about whether women can qualify as front-line combat troops in the army.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Girl – and those of other Asian airlines – are winning more and more of the popularity and market-share stakes Down Under. Yes, a lot of it is about strong customer service, but, at Singapore Airlines in particular, it’s also about the pretty young Asian girls in their kebaya sarongs, chosen for their "femininity, sophistication, and worldliness", their "clear, glowing complexions" and their "polite, professional manner", as an article in Travel and Leisure magazine put it.

Readers of this blog in the past 18 months have left me in little doubt about how far Asian airlines are ahead in the customer appeal stakes. But it also seems to me that it’s becoming an advantage that’s much more difficult to achieve for Western airlines living in jurisdictions with Western laws.

Do you prefer Asian or Western airlines? Is it just about customer service or is there more to it?