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One nervous "Singapore Girl" is going through an inflight announcement. She's done it countless times for real in the air, but this time she's being judged on the ground – albeit in a replica economy cabin of an Airbus A350-900, under the keen eyes of the tutor re-evaluating her language skills.
Five minutes later, we've arrived at another full-sized aviation mock-up. This time, it's the business class galley and cabin of a Boeing 777-300. Here Singapore women and men who have graduated from economy class are learning how to prepare, present and serve the latest business class fare precisely as the executive chef had demanded.
Ten minutes later, we interrupt another group of female cabin staff. They're sharing lunch midway through a wine appreciation course. Most are experienced cabin staff who have opted for this course so they can better recommend which wines and spirits suit a particularly discerning passenger.
It hasn't been easy getting into Singapore Airlines' huge training facility on the outskirts of Changi Airport. Like the Pentagon or the Kremlin, it's not top secret, but you need an invite and you'll have to surrender your passport at the equivalent of an airline "Checkpoint Charlie".
Still, I'm here on assignment. First, because the airline is celebrating the 50th anniversary of flights to Australia (the first flight, from Singapore – via Perth – landed in Sydney on April 5, 1967). And second, to find out why the new recruits (60 per cent women, 40 per cent men) go through four months of training – twice the industry standard – before graduating as fully fledged flight attendants.
Why so long? Since 1966, when Malaysian Airways Ltd became Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), exemplary service has been one of the airline's key points of difference from its rivals. It claims to have won more awards than any other airline, including being named "World's Best Cabin Crew Service" in the Business Traveller Asia-Pacific Awards for 23 consecutive years.
The "Singapore Girl" was born in 1972, when MSA split into the two separate airlines, Singapore and Malaysian.
Australian-raised adman Ian Batey directed the airline's first marking campaign – and decided to use real female flight attendants dressed in the distinctive "sarong kebaya" uniforms created by French haute courtier designer, Pierre Balmain, in 1968. Batey came up with the marketing icon "Singapore Girl" and the airline slogan, "A Great Way to Fly" (also still used today).
Batey has since said his Singapore Girl concept is a visual embodiment of "the soul of the airline. She represents the caring aspect, the graciousness, warmth and efficiency of the brand".
Critics say the term is sexist and outdated, reinforcing stereotypes of subservient Asian women (only Asians can apply to become Singapore Airlines cabin staff, although men and women are now recruited from India, Japan, Indonesian, South Korea, China and Taiwan as well as Singapore and Malaysia).Yet the branding has been so successful – immediately recognised by passengers who haven't even flown on the airline – that there are no plans to change it. As The Straits Times once put it, removing the Singapore Girl icon from the airline would be like "removing Mickey Mouse from Disneyland".
Controversy aside, both male and female flight crew divide their four months of training between fine-tuning their cabin crew skills and passing stringent safety courses.In another part of the complex, I'm greeted by Celine Kwah, a former flight attendant who is now the airline's assistant manager of Safety Training, Flight Operations Division.
We enter a huge cavernous space bristling with activity. For obvious security reasons, this part of the tour is mainly off the record. Suffice it to say, each cabin crew member has to be able to rescue both a baby and an obese passenger in a smoke-filled aircraft cabin before they pass.
What I can also tell you is that cabin staff are learning how to open the emergency doors on the next aircraft they will be working on.
Below us, another group has to demonstrate how fast they can thrust themselves out of those secret sleeping spaces cabin staff retire to when off duty. If there's an emergency on board, do they choose the correct trap doors to aid their on-duty colleagues to help with an evacuation?
Meanwhile, across the hall, another group of experienced cabin staff are perched the equivalent of three floors up ready to leap into the inflatable chute that will open in the event of an emergency landing. It's an international requirement that all cabin staff on all passenger airlines undergo this test once every two years. But as aircraft get ever larger and ever higher to accommodate ever more passengers, the chutes get ever steeper. (Tip No. 1: sit up as much as possible to slow your descent before you hit the ground.)
Next year, these same cabin crew will return for their biennial "water landing" test. Kwah guides me through to the next training hall, passing wet-haired examinees as we enter. Imagine an Olympic swimming pool with a replica of a floating plane where the diving boards would usually be. The pool is flat-calm now. But a few minutes earlier, when those wet-haired "students" were in an emergency situation, the wave machine would have ensured they faced a heaving ocean as they leapt from the fuselage before safely hauling each passenger into the life rafts. (Tip No. 2: if you're female and wearing a long skirt, try to keep it at knee-height. Female flight attendants are trained to tie their classic kebaya above their knees before launching into the water.)
But back to dry land. We now meet Juat Fang Foo, assistant manager of cabin crew training.
"Miss Foo" is a legend among Singapore Airline cabin staff, acknowledged with a "Good morning, Miss Foo" by every trainee we meet.
She first donned Balmain's kebaya 40 years ago, in 1977 when she began flying.
"It's a very figure-hugging uniform," she admits. "If you don't have the right posture, or you slouch, it shows very clearly.
"We tell the girls they need to respect the uniform the wonderful Monsieur Balmain made for us. We must not make the poor man cringe when we wear his creation."
Foo readily admits cabin staff training is much harder today: "I had about a month's training before I was allowed to fly. But there is a lot more to learn now. The service has become a lot more sophisticated.
"Take inflight entertainment. When I started, there were no inflight movies, no games, no music. "We had people playing live music back then. But really, it was the cabin staff's job to keep the passengers engaged. We were the inflight entertainment."
But now, for the first time in my life, Foo is escorting me into a first class cabin. Sadly, it's another replica, though I'm shown its Wedgwood china and its Dom Perignon champagne.
"Apparently Singapore Airlines is the biggest purchaser of Dom Perignon of any airline," the legendary Singapore Girl says, avoiding my empty – but exquisite – champagne flute.
STYLED FOR THE SKIES: HOW NEW FLIGHT ATTENDANTS GET THE LOOK
1. SURE, THE WOMEN HAVE IT SO MUCH HARDER THAN THE MEN.
Yet male cabin staff must be clean-shaven (apart from a regulated moustache – Einstein would never have made the grade). Their fingernails need to be no more than 2mm. And their hair must be cut every three weeks – no shorter than No. 3, and never styled at a larger angle than 45 degrees.
2. NO SINGAPORE GIRL CAN CHOOSE HER OWN HAIRSTYLE
There are five approved styles: the Pixie, the Bob, the Bun, the French Twist and the French Plait. Each new recruit (male or female) goes to grooming lessons. But the women are told on their first day in styling class which hairstyle suits their facial features. "It's about making the girl as attractive as possible, and her flaws less visible," says Amy Ling, the airline's grooming consultant.
"The girls are terrified of me, but if they have a square jaw line they are better suited to short hair. We don't want them to look like a mother-in-law, hiding under an unsuitable hairstyle."
3. REGIONAL WELCOME
Ever wondered why you've never seen an African or Caucasian cabin staff member on Singapore Airlines? "Because the Singapore Girl represents Asian hospitality," I'm told.
4. MAKE-UP, FRANKLY, ISN'T MY FORTE. BUT EACH 'SINGAPORE GIRL' HAS IT CHOSEN FOR HER.
"Many of our recruits are fresh from school," Ling explains. "They have limited experience of hair and make-up. My job is to make them feel proud on their graduation day." Each new recruit has one half of her face dressed in blue eyeshadow, and the other in brown. "I decide whether the girl has a warm or a cool skin colour," Ling says. On that basis, she chooses each "girl's" approved lipstick, blusher and nail polish.
5. NO FLIGHT ATTENDANT (IN UNIFORM) IS ALLOWED TO BE SEEN EATING OR DRINKING IN PUBLIC
Likewise they need to be as well groomed as they walk through the arrivals airport as they were in the departures hall many hours earlier.
WHAT'S IN THE WHEELIE BAG?
1. A spare uniform (in case anything happens on board – spillage or emergency – which requires a quick change).
2. One pair of safety shoes for take-off/ landing. Balmain specified a sandal as part of the kebaya.
3. One set of "office wear" ("no jeans or mini-skirts") in case the flight is diverted to an unscheduled airport or country.
4. A toiletries kit containing a spare hair net, multiple hair pins and spare (suitably approved) nail polish – in case of chipped nails on the flight.
WHAT DO THE FOUR COLOURS OF THE KEBAYA SIGNIFY?
If you've ever travelled on Singapore Airlines, you've probably witnessed female cabin staff in different coloured kebaya. Did they choose the colours themselves? Definitely not. Each colour is an honour earned. Arguably, they're the most beautiful symbols of rank ever devised. (And, if you look closely, the make flight attendants of the same rank are wearing ties of the same colour.)
Flight attendant: usually in economy, but also seen in business class if they have more than 18 months' experience.
Leading flight attendant: one in each cabin, leading duties.
Chief flight attendant: only found in first and business class cabins.
In-flight manager: in charge of all cabin crew.
Steve Meacham was a guest of Singapore Airlines.
THE MAKING OF A PILOT
There's something about a man or woman in uniform, and airline pilots cut a dash when they stalk through the terminal in their smart navy get-up. You might even find yourself wondering just what the cockpit job is worth? Is there a zillion-dollar salary to go along with the natty tailoring and the gold braid?
According to Australia's Fair Work Ombudsman, the minimum award rate for pilots on larger commercial aircraft varies from $77,189 for a first officer on a Fokker 28 to $171,317 for a captain on a wide-bodied twin-deck aircraft, the largest aircraft in the skies.
In the real world, what pilots take home is much higher than that.
Back in 2011, at the time of the Qantas industrial disputes which led to the grounding of the entire fleet, it was reported that some of the airline's pilots were taking home more than $500,000 a year, way more than the prime minister at the time.
Starting base salary for a captain with a Middle Eastern airline is about $180,000. On top of that is a raft of top-ups, such as flight duty allowance for every flying hour, an hourly meal allowance during layovers, housing allowance – which can be about $60,000 a year – plus an education allowance for any children.
Contract completion bonuses, annual bonuses and annual pay increments are standard, and the package is most likely tax free.
Jobs with a major airline are the flight path to the big time, but it's a long and rough road. First rung on the ladder with an airline such as Qantas is likely to be a trainee second officer, and that takes dedication. Minimum recruitment criteria for a Qantas pilot include a bachelor degree in aviation, science, maths or engineering, a pilot licence with at least 500 hours in command of a powered fixed-wing aircraft or 300 hours in command of a twin-engine aircraft.
Getting those hours is tough, usually requiring employment with a regional airline. Most of the entry-level jobs are in remote locations in the Top End or mining sites in the north of Western Australia and Queensland, or even in Papua New Guinea or the outer islands of Indonesia. For a look at the truly terrifying flying conditions that novice pilots face in Indonesia's Papua Province, search for "Worst Place to be a Pilot" on YouTube.
Another path to becoming a commercial airline pilot is via the military.
Airlines actively recruit military pilots, and since it can cost many millions of dollars to train a RAAF pilot, that's a sweet cost saving for the airlines. As well as Australia's airlines, the aviation boom in China has sparked a demand for qualified pilots, with RAAF pilots among those in the cross-hairs. The bait is huge salaries, between $300,000 to $400,000 per annum, tax free, with promises to relocate and offers of rapid promotion to full captain status.Some airlines operate cadet pilot programs, under which airlines select and train the candidates they want under their wing from the start of their careers.
Candidates get flying training, support and experience all the way through and a job in the cockpit waiting at the end. Qantas has offered cadetships at various times in the past and Virgin Australia does have a pilot cadetship program, although the current intake is now full.
Qantas is actively recruiting pilots for the first time in several years. The careers page on the Qantas website features a woman in pilot's uniform. While the cockpit is still overwhelmingly a male domain, reports suggest the national carrier is set on levelling the gender balance.
Female pilot Eser Aksan Erdogan's Instagram account is a hit. In the booming world of air travel the Asian and Middle Eastern carriers are the most active recruiters, promising a fast track to wide-body commands for successful candidates, with low to zero taxes and housing and living allowances to further sweeten the deal.
While times are good for pilots right now, the airline industry is subject to the vagaries of the market, and there are big forces in play. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, American Airlines laid off 7000 employees. Over the next two years the airline shed more than 30,000 jobs, a 25 per cent reduction in its workforce that included many pilots.
When the chips are down, loyalty and past performance don't count for much. Just a month after he landed his US Airways Airbus A320 on New York's Hudson River when both engines failed following a bird strike, saving the lives of all on board, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger testified before the US House of Representatives that his salary had been cut by 40 per cent.
He also noted airlines were "under pressure to hire people with less experience. Their salaries are so low that people with greater experience will not take those jobs. We have some carriers that have hired some pilots with only a few hundred hours of experience." A year later he flew for the last time as a commercial airline pilot, followed by a stint as an aviation safety consultant.
FIVE MORE DREAM TRAVEL JOBS
Tough to make a living from travel images these days, but if you can carve a name for yourself as a commercial photographer able to deliver images with the Wow! factor for hotels and other corporate entities, you're in business.
RESORT HOTEL MANAGER
The plum postings are scarce, it's a busy life and you've got to be calm and smiling 24/7, but you're well paid, you get to dine in style and you live somewhere most can only dream about.
White water rafting, rock climbing, mountaineering and horse riding all require expert guides. If you have the skill set, you can indulge your passion somewhere special and get paid for doing it.
CRUISE SHIP ENTERTAINER
Musicians, dancers, actors and performers of all kinds are in constant demand to keep passengers happy. Duties are relatively light, you can save big time and unlike the crew, most cruise lines encourage their entertainers to mingle with guests.
You'll be crewing for the rich and the beautiful and absolute discretion is as important as nautical skills, but you do get to see some of the glossier parts of the world and taste the lifestyle of the rich and famous, at least from the sidelines.
See also: The truth about being a flight attendant
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