There’s an interesting article on CNA’s website published yesterday by executive editor Lin Suling titled “Singapore Airlines doesn’t deserve our online hating“. In it, she argues that a lot of the criticism levied at SQ online is unwarranted, and concludes by saying “Perhaps next time, we should withhold judgment on SIA’s moves until more facts emerge. And more importantly, let’s not get our nationalistic attachment to SIA go to our heads.”
There are so many things about this article I find frustrating. Maybe it’s because the writer has grouped silly complaints about the airline (“SQ didn’t upgrade me to first class”) with legitimate ones (“SQ charged me for travel insurance without my consent”). Maybe it’s because she falsely correlates short term stock price with management performance. But I think the biggest issue I have is how she’s missed the point when it comes to why people are upset with SQ’s recent PR blunders.
Unfortunately, the comments at the bottom of her article are just as frustrating, with some bordering on idiotic. Ad hominem attacks against the writer accusing her of being in the pocket of SQ are groundless, silly, and quite frankly only play into her narrative of there being some sort of online anti-SQ agenda. I disagree with what she’s written, but is there really a need to resort to personal attacks?
There’s a lot to address here, so let’s go through her article point by point. (I’d strongly encourage you to read through her piece before reading mine for full context)
SQ’s on again, off again credit card surcharges
Earlier this month, SQ announced it would be levying credit card surcharges on the lowest economy fare tickets, a move that drew widespread condemnation and a hasty back down barely 24 hours later.
Here’s what the writer has to say about that:
Just look at how netizens responded on the back of SIA’s announcement that a credit card surcharge would be imposed on some passengers – and the subsequent cancellation of these plans.Raising fees of any kind is a difficult business, so it was no surprise netizens were initially peeved.
What was surprising, however, was the scorn poured on SIA’s response to cancel these plans.
Instead of giving SIA credit for reacting decisively, some observers said its “flip-flopping” was a “bad move” that risked hurting SIA’s premium brand, because it suggested that SIA was not confident it could justify its decision.
Two things wrong with this. First, I’d take issue with characterising SQ’s backtracking on the surcharges as “reacting decisively”. That’s sort of like saying someone who jumped into the pool to swim and jumped right back out because it was too cold reacted “decisively”. Maybe don’t jump in the first place?
Second, and more importantly, the flip flop criticism was raised by Karamjit Kaur, senior aviation correspondent at the Straits Times, not by the same netizens who slammed SQ in the first place. In fact, it’s quite clear from the way the writer phrased her sentence (“hurting its premium brand”, “flip flop”, “bad move”) that she’s referring to Karamjit Kaur’s article because those are the exact same words used.
By conflating the two criticisms, the writer creates the impression that the same people who criticised SQ for imposing these fees are the same ones criticising it for backing down, a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t dynamic. But that’s simply not true. For the record, I thought it was good that common sense prevailed at SQ. Yes, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place, and the whole idea smacked of poor judgement, but I’m hardly going to slam them for backing down. Therefore it’s wrong to cite this as an example of unfair criticism.
SQ’s auto-inclusion of travel insurance
The writer then, somewhat confusingly, cites the backlash SQ received for automatically charging customers for travel insurance as another example of netizens having it out for the airline.
SIA’s auto-inclusion of travel insurance also drew the ire of watchful Singaporeans who wondered what the company was up to, even though it clarified this was implemented last year.
I don’t understand how the second part of this sentence (“even though it was clarified this was implemented last year”) relates to the first. My best interpretation is that the writer is saying that even though travel insurance was already being automatically charged from the year before, people were only jumping on it belatedly as a stick to beat the airline with. In other words, “it wasn’t an issue until someone decided to make it an issue”.
First of all, it’s unclear precisely when last year auto-inclusion of travel insurance became the norm (SQ didn’t exactly do a press release announcing this development….because transparency). I started getting reports of this in December, and if that’s indeed the case then it’s hardly a delayed response to be talking about it in January.
Second, regardless of when it actually happened, I don’t see how the timing of the criticism has anything to do with whether the act itself is wrong or right. For reasons I’ve explained extensively in this post, charging passengers for travel insurance without their consent is flat-out wrong. It’s an unscrupulous practice designed for the benefit of the bottom line, not the passenger.
Criticising SQ for sneakily including travel insurance isn’t jumping on the bash SQ bandwagon. It’s calling out a shady business practice that consumer watchdogs the world over are cracking down on. And it’s not something you’d expect from a trusted brand.
The new A380 product criticism
The writer says that SQ simply can’t catch a break, despite its stellar safety and punctuality record, or its new A380 cabin products.
Never mind recent news that SIA was ranked one of the safest carriers in the world, and one of the most punctual in this region, or that it has just unveiled new A380 jets.
Many say this was all expected of SIA. In fact, some readers complained SIA’s makeover of its A380 jets was lacklustre.
Punctuality and safety is a red herring, because that’s expected of all airlines, not just SIA. As for cabin products- I’ve given my thoughts on SQ’s new A380 cabin products here, suffice to say I’m a fan of the new Business Class, less so the Suites.
But I think some subtlety and nuance is needed in this statement. SQ’s new A380 Suites and Business Class products, in and of themselves, are incredible. The level of personal space you get in SQ’s new Suite would have been unthinkable a mere 10 years ago. And a double bed in Business Class? Sign me up.
Unfortunately, no airline operates in a vacuum (except Virgin Galactic, har har). And therefore the natural reaction to a product unveiling is to ask how said product measures up to the competition. I believe that SQ’s overall business class product continues to be a cut above the rest, but its Suites product, when compared to what others have, was a missed opportunity. This is all the more so when you consider the role of First Class as a halo product.
So being underwhelmed by SQ’s product launch doesn’t point to any sort of vendetta, it points to fair criticism. It’s simply calling it as it is. Speaking of vendettas…
Silly complaints do not invalidate legitimate concerns
The writer lists several anecdotal complaints she’s heard about SIA from people online, because, shock horror, people on the interweb like to whine.
One netizen bemoaning the fact that he now had to ask for champagne in the Silver Kris Lounge said the way SIA was saving costs was “becoming an embarrassment”.
Another took the chance to complain about how he never gets any free upgrades to first class anymore.
Where a few others also asked SIA to “spare a thought” for economy class passengers who have to deal with “leg cramping” seats, it was starting to sound like Singaporeans believe that the airline should be providing some sort of public service.
And she’s absolutely right. These are groundless complaints.
Complaining that champagne in the lounge is now on request only is the first-est of first world problems.
I’ve gone on record as being amused by the fact that SQ started playing hide-the-bubbly in its SilverKris Lounges, but I hardly think that’s a deal breaker (and if I squint hard enough, it kind of makes sense for something highly perishable like champagne to be kept in proper storage instead of out in the open).
Complaining about not getting free upgrades to first class is lame. If you want a free upgrade, you’re flying with the wrong airline because that’s just not how SQ works (try Emirates, I hear they’re quite good at upgrading top tier frequent flyers). In fact, I’m not sure why the complaint says “anymore”, because SQ has never upgraded passengers for anything other than operational reasons.
Complaining that SQ’s economy is “leg cramping” has no basis in reality. SQ is indeed still much better than the competition when it comes to economy class, both qualitatively and quantitatively. For example, they still offer 9-across seating on their 77Ws when many airlines have moved to 10-across. They still have 32 inches of seat pitch in economy when many others have downsized to 29-31. And when you fly economy on other airlines, you’ll realise that SQ’s service is still head and shoulders above the competition.
The annoying thing about the economy point is that the writer’s conclusion is right (it’s not that bad), but she justifies it completely the wrong way. Have a read of this photo caption:
Seriously? “The seats doesn’t (sic) look as cramped as some netizens have made them out to be”? That’s what you’re basing your judgment on? It feels almost silly for me to have to say this, but are we really drawing conclusions from glossy publicity photos now rather than, I dunno, objective facts?
Now, all that being said, the writer is still correct to assert that some of the complaints made online smack of a “personal vendetta” against SQ. I agree. Unfortunately, whenever any GLC has a faux pas there’ll be no shortage of keyboard warriors looking to capitalize on the situation to reinforce whatever pre-existing narratives they have. They’ll blame FTs, “the 70%”, “paper generals” and a countless litany of tired tropes for the situation.
But here’s my point: these spurious complaints by no means invalidate the legitimate concerns that people have about SQ’s recent management blunders. It’s not a vendetta to say that SQ has unnecessarily lost goodwill by adopting practices more in line with budget carriers, or resorting to dubious tactics to generate incremental revenue (i.e. the travel insurance fiasco). By lumping together the facetious with the factual, you let the fringe voices drown out the reasonable ones. Now, to her credit, the writer concedes , almost as an afterthought, that “one might be tempted to argue the criticism they received for extra charges was fair game“. But it hardly seems accurate to characterise the frivolous complaints as “vast numbers”.
But look at the stock price!
Say what you will about SQ’s management, but their moves to rejuvenate the airline are paying off, argues the writer. Just look at the stock price.
In fact, where it has made bold moves to transform its business model amid strong headwinds, surely the fact that its stock price has been on an upward trend in the past year is more telling of whether it has succeeded?
She’s not wrong. If you look at the past year, SQ’s stock price does appear to be on an upward trajectory, from $10 to $11.50.
But here’s the thing about stock price movements: it all depends on what period you’re looking at. For example, if you zoomed the camera out to a five year period, you see the stock price is basically back where it started. That’s to say if you held SQ stock over a 5 year period, you’d have lost money due to inflation (unless of course the dividend yield beat inflation. I’m not going to dig up those figures now).
What am I supposed to read from this? If that were our basis for evaluating management performance, I could look at endless permutations of time periods and come to endless different conclusions. The fact is, you can’t cite short term stock price movements as de facto evidence of management’s success or lack thereof. There’s way too much noise in that measurement.
One other small thing (more semantics than an actual criticism of the writer’s argument structure):
SIA is not a public agency but a privately-owned, profit-driven company that answers to shareholders and has to keep its head above water
I’m pretty sure it’s incorrect to say that SQ is “privately-owned”, given that they’re a publicly-traded company.
The writer also highlights that SQ is answerable to its shareholders, so you shouldn’t expect it to run like a charity and give you “special benefits”. Which brings me to my last point…
Are we expecting special benefits from SQ?
Do we have an unfair expectation of SQ given the central role it plays in our shared heritage? The writer argues yes:
Might it be that years of treating Singapore Airlines as a national asset of strategic importance is now leading us to expect SIA dispense benefits other ordinary companies wouldn’t?
That’s a straw man argument, if I ever saw one. Let’s be very clear: believing that SQ shouldn’t be imposing credit card surcharges or charging customers without their consent for travel insurance is not asking for special perks. It is a legitimate expectation.
There is nothing unreasonable in thinking that SQ should be absorbing credit card charges as a cost of doing business (just as many other merchants do), or that it should properly inform customers about charging them for travel insurance (instead of hiding it on the booking screen).
Yes, there’ll always be that handful of entitled people who think the airline owes them a living, but I think you’ll find the majority of people don’t lean that way. Most people have reasonable expectations about how a business will conduct itself, and are therefore disappointed that SQ’s recent behaviour has not lived up to those standards.
I’ve been blessed enough to experience flights on many, many different airlines in various cabin classes. There is no doubt in my mind that SQ’s overall in-flight experience is still up there with the very best.
I don’t think it’s inconsistent to say that and still be upset by SQ’s latest blunders. I don’t think it’s contradictory to love SQ’s product and still think that management has got some recent decisions very, very wrong. We go down a very dangerous path when we write off any dissenting views as those of ill-informed malcontents without seeking to truly understand where they’re coming from. And this article comprehensively misses the point about why the majority of people are upset by SQ’s gaffes in the past month.
It’s not about no champagne in the lounges, or no free first class upgrades on the plane. It’s about upper management making decisions that reflect how out of touch they are with customer sentiment, and letting the hardworking frontline staff bear the public’s wrath for their policy missteps.
SQ management can and must do better.