Singapore Air 1980s First Class myths

Don’t ask me why, but this week I suddenly recalled my initial First Class experience aboard Singapore Airlines.  I cannot pin down the year, either 1988 or 1989.  ’89, I think. Reminiscing reminded me that the marketing hoopla didn’t match the experience.

In the late eighties and early nineties I often bought around the world (ATW) First Class tickets using the Star Alliance carriers, which included Singapore Airlines.  Going in either direction the First Class ATW fare was then a pittance at $5024 for travel in the northern hemisphere, including taxes and fees.  Rules were simple: Must travel in the same direction (eastbound or westbound). Backtracking not allowed unless making a connection that necessitated going backward.  Which meant no stay-overs in cities that required backtracking.

Dipping down into the southern hemisphere, such as to Johannesburg and then back up to Europe, cost an extra $500 at the time, making the ATW First Class fare $5524, something I did more than once.

But I digress.

At the time I was engaged by a consulting client that made patented industrial strapping and fastening machinery with facilities all over the world.  Based in Chicago, the company wanted me to stop in their Bay Area office, then at their Singapore factory, and also in Frankfurt and Hamburg.  On my own time en route I wanted to attend an Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW&ST) commercial aviation conference in Hong Kong. So the First Class westbound ATW ticket worked out well:  First, United RDU/SFO, then Singapore flight 1 SFO/HKG (in the 1980s, not even a 747 could make SFO/SIN nonstop).

After my 4-day AW&ST conference in Hong Kong over a weekend, continue on SQ1 HKG/SIN to visit the client factory in the city-state.  Thence Singapore Air from Changi to Frankfurt, a flight that stopped en route at Bangkok.  Visit the client facilities in Frankfurt and Hamburg (via a fast drive up the Autobahn), and then United FRA/ORD, where I would stop to report to my client on the visits in San Francisco, Singapore, and Germany. My final flight home would be UA ORD/RDU.  Total time away: just over two weeks.

I have no memory of the United flights RDU to SFO.  At the time I was a UA top tier flyer (I believe this was the pre-IK era), and such trips were routine.

But I sure remember the Singapore flights starting with SQ1 flight SFO/HKG because, though I had by then flown around the world in first class on a number of carriers, I had for some reason never done it on Singapore Air.

Oh boy!  The famous Singapore Girls!  The advertising hype made SQ flights in First Class sound as close to heaven as a human could experience without shuffling off the mortal coil. I was excited that I would finally be pampered in loving embrace of the best airline service on earth at the time!

Image result for 19080s singapore girls
Singapore Girls on the march in this early 1980s Singapore Airlines advertising photo

The first shock of reality came when I entered the Singapore Air First Class lounge at SFO Airport.  It was not exactly shoddy, but it was rundown, shopworn, over-crowded (too small), ill-lit, too warm, and under-catered.  The meager foodstuffs on offer were on par with UA’s Red Carpet Clubs of that 1980s period—which is to say, pathetic—and the beverage selections were pedestrian at best.  I was immediately put off by the dim, claustrophobic atmosphere and warm California bubbly rather than real French Champagne.  The place lacked elegance. It was a jarring feeling, like hearing a discordant note at the beginning of a symphony and wondering what might come next.

I soon found out.  There was an abrupt call to board First Class about an hour prior to departure.  I was told the gate was a very long walk from the club, so I promptly started off.  Sure enough, it took about 20 minutes to reach the gate.

On arrival I could see that economy class boarding had commenced some time before, resulting in a chaos of bodies thronging the boarding gate door.  I joined the masses, expecting to be rescued and escorted to a short, civilized queue for elite First Class passengers.

But, no, I had to make my way down the jet bridge in the crowd lunging for the 747. I could almost hear the groan of the big plane as it engorged its multitudes.  When I finally reached the airplane’s sharp end, I was, at last, acknowledged and escorted to my chosen seat, 1A.

International First Class cabins at the time were not yet fitted with lie-flat sleeper seats, but the big reclining lounge seats were enough for me to rest in on long flights.

20190807_105747-AIR NZ 747 1980s First Class
This is Air New Zealand’s 747 First Class in about the same era (late 80s). Singapore’s 747 First Class cabin was very similar.

A chilled glass of boarding Champagne was brought quickly at my request, and my mood settled a bit.  I could stop thinking about what a hash Singapore had made of the lounge, the long walk, and the confused boarding procedure.

However, I was startled to be served not by a lovely Singapore Girl of my fantasies, but by a stocky, not-so-young fellow who looked as if he aspired more to sumo wrestling than to proving Singapore Air was the best thing flying.  I soon realized this man was the steward who cracked the whip up front, the sole male among the young girls who began to flit around other boarding First Class passengers to help with coats and luggage and Champagne and such.

I remember taking off nearly an hour behind schedule.  The delay was attributed to delays boarding, which struck me as sloppy and avoidable. Was this typical SQ operational excellence? And why, then, had we been called to board so early? However, I had no meetings planned in Hong Kong the following morning, and so relaxed.

20190807_111508-SINGAPORE AIR 1980s First Class Dom Perignon
Taken from a 1980s Singapore 747 on-board wine menu in my collection of airline menus. I prefer the non-vintage Krug which Singapore also served, but not on this particular flight.

Pretty soon the various trolleys bearing food and drink came wheeling around, portending the long and famous Singapore First Class meal service.  Upon reaching me, however, the smiling Singapore Girls were put off their stride when I elucidated that my nutritional needs consisted solely of a never-empty glass of Krug or Dom Perignon and huge dollops of Beluga Black Sea caviar on toast points with onion.  I did not want or care for the other courses, I politely explained.

This prompted the sumo steward to approach me.  With a surly tone and sour expression, accompanied by lots of hand-wringing, he told me that Singapore Air did not have sufficient quantities of Russian caviar for everyone in First Class to have more than one serving.  I replied politely that I completely understood, but begged that he and the other flight attendants please let me know when all other First Class passengers had been served caviar to their hearts’ content and thence to allow me another serving.  He grunted, which I took to be assent.

After that, the lavish First Class meal service proceeded to unfold for more than an hour, with luxe wines poured like the 1982 Chateau Talbot pictured (1982 was the finest Bordeaux vintage in decades).  In lieu of a second serving of caviar, I ordered a smoked salmon appetizer and began to think of sleep. I never got another caviar serving and assumed it had run out.

20190807_111526-SINGAPORE AIR 1980s First Class Talbot
Taken from a Singapore 747 on-board wine menu in the 1980s in my collection of menus. The 1982 Bordeaux was among the top vintage of the century, though Talbot is not a First growth.

As the meal service was cleared and after-dinner drinks were sipped, I decided to explore the First Class cabin and to locate the lav before napping.  I was especially curious to see how all that grand foodstuff was so perfectly prepped in the galley, and so I headed that way.  A curtain was half-drawn to the galley, and I proceeded by it, intending to thank the crew for their fine meal service.

To my shock and dismay, I surprised the First Class flight attendants, all of whom were clustered around several of the First Class food carts and trolleys.  There was the fat older male flight attendant surrounded by his bevy of Singapore Girls, and all were gorging themselves ravenously on Beluga Black Sea caviar from four full tins of the stuff.  It was a set piece of expensive gluttony, with every one stuffing themselves on caviar.

Upon seeing me, the chubby steward let out a squeal that sounded like the swine he was and immediately turned bright red in the face.  The young women dropped their eyes and their arms in shame.  No one said a word.  I stood staring with a frown for a long moment, then returned to my seat.

My anger at their lies flashed first, but it quickly passed.  Reflecting, I realized that these young Singaporeans were probably very underpaid and overworked by the airline. Such secret greedy consumption was likely one of the few perks they could wangle.  The ugly truth of Singapore’s advertising hypocrisy had been suddenly revealed, and I felt sorry for the young crew.

Within a minute or two the portly steward came to my seat with an entire heaping tin of Beluga caviar and toast points and two bottles of Dom Perignon, one opened, which he used to refresh my glass, and one unopened, which he helped me to squirrel away in my luggage.  I was thereafter pampered and treated like a king all the way to Hong Kong.  I never reported the incident to the airline.

My onward flight four days later from HKG to SIN went well, but the SIN/FRA flight did not.  That flight made a stop in Bangkok, and it was the monsoon season.  BKK Airport was flooded with torrents of rain.

I had checked my bag because the several business suits, shirts and ties packed for the two week trip made it too big to carry aboard.  For reasons never explained by the airline, the tarmac crew at BKK must have removed my bag from the belly of the 747 and laid it on the flooded runway during the stop.

Why? Who knows? Perhaps an underpaid and nearly drowned bag handler pulled my bag in error and then shoved it back in.  Perhaps my bag fell out by accident.  All I know is that when I retrieved it from the luggage carousel in Frankfurt, my bag was completely soaked through.  It was so wet that it appeared to have been dunked into a bathtub full of water.  My suits, shoes, shirts, and ties were ruined.

And there was no Singapore staff whatsoever to help me or to complain to at Frankfurt.  So much for the much-heralded Singapore First Class royal treatment.

Since the airline had let me down, I went through the Frankfurt airport staff, who generously arranged for me to phone (at the airport’s expense) SQ in Singapore.  The airline’s people I spoke to acknowledged that I was shown as a First Class paying passenger, but they denied that my bag could have been soaked and called me a liar.  Luckily, an English-speaking senior FRA Airport manager confirmed that my luggage had been damaged by the airline, not by me.  His Germanic certainty and stern tone carried weight. But Singapore Air had seriously dropped the ball.

I left for my business meetings, quickly buying a new suit, shirts, ties, and pair of shoes. After three months of wrangling with Singapore Airlines via several letters and phone calls, I eventually received a check for about $1800, an amount which failed by a mile to cover the replacement cost of the luggage and contents.  I remember the letter from Singapore accompanying the payment was rude and accusatory, reeking of superiority and self-righteousness, demonstrating an utter lack of responsibility for their service failure.

Thus the myth of Singapore Airlines being the pinnacle of First Class flying was debunked on that trip.  I did book the airline in First Class after that, but only when I had to, and I never again checked a bag on SQ.  And I always made sure I got all the caviar I wanted the first time around.

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