In May last year, I attended the official unveiling of Singapore Airlines’ new First Class Lounge and The Private Room. After the tours concluded, the media scrum gathered for a doorstop interview with Singapore Airlines’ CEO and EVP for Commercial.
A palpable buzz was in the air as the time for Q&As approached. What were the reopening plans for the worldwide SilverKris Lounge network? How would the perpetually-delayed Boeing 777X affect the airline’s capacity expansion plans? Was the stalled ANA-SIA joint venture still on the cards?
Then the EVP motioned to another journalist, who asked, in all earnestness (I’m paraphrasing to the best of my memory here): “A passenger in Premium Economy told me she doesn’t get hot towels before take-off anymore, so she feels it’s not worth it. What do you say?”
There was an awkward silence (I fought to stifle a laugh, but then again I’m not media-trained). The EVP of course handled the question with aplomb, if not the slightest hint of bemusement, giving the usual boilerplate about Singapore Airlines constantly reviewing its service offerings.
But perhaps that journalist was on to something, because here we are eight months later. Singapore Airlines has restored 73% of its pre-COVID destinations and 67% of its pre-COVID capacity. Its once-mothballed fleet is plying the skies like never before. Paper menus, pre-departure beverages and even nuts in a warmed ramekin have returned, yet hot towels are nowhere in sight.
While I personally can take it or leave it, I know how strongly people feel about the issue. Facebook comments are generally not a good read of public sentiment (in addition to being a known carcinogen), but the hot towel question pops up with surprising regularity on SIA’s page. And it clearly has its fans.
“An entire article about hot towels?” you say. “How utterly gauche. Is it really that slow of a news day?”
Don’t be a wet blanket.
Why do people miss hot towels so much?
Why do hot towels matter? I decided to put the question across to a group of frequent flyers, and the answers were illuminating.
There’s the obvious one: “It’s refreshing”. Perhaps those of us originating from Singapore don’t feel it so much, but if you’re hustling across terminals trying to catch a tight connection, a hot towel on boarding is an invitation to catch your breath and freshen up.
“It feels premium” was another common response. The hot towel itself may not be made of Boca Terry cotton, but not every airline offers it, and their very presence can be a bellwether for quality.
Some responses were refreshingly utilitarian. “It helps me clean my area”, said a few. After all, you don’t know where that towel has been; do you really want to wipe your face with it?
It’s funny, because despite all the rhetoric about heightened hygiene standards in the new normal, I’ve noticed a discernible decline in the cleaning standards on my post-COVID flights (and this isn’t just an SIA problem). Maybe the cleaning crews are understaffed, or maybe the airlines are squeezing those turnarounds tighter than ever, but either way a hot towel lets you give your seat a quick once over (that said, unless they douse it in antiseptic, I’m skeptical as to how much good it actually does).
“It’s egalitarian”, suggested another. That’s true, come to think of it. While pre-departure beverages and amenities kit pageantry are reserved for First and Business Class, the hot towel knows no socio-economic boundaries. Pre-COVID, it was a staple throughout all cabins, although obviously distributed with more pomp and circumstance at the pointy end of the plane than at the back of the bus.
But my favourite answer by far: “It feels familiar”. The hot towel is the last remaining service item from the pre-COVID days that has yet to make a return. Course-by-course dining is back. Printed menus are back. Pre-departure beverages are back. Inflight duty-free is back. It now feels like the hot towel is the last piece of the normality puzzle, and once restored, it might as well be December 2019 all over again.
So is that it? The hot towel is some sort of totem, a callback to the days before masking, social distancing, and a pervasive sense of hypochondria? That sounds like a lot of significance to assign a moist piece of cloth, though considering how vehemently people protest its continued absence, perhaps I’m not that far off.
Singapore Airlines’ response
I really didn’t feel like reaching out to Singapore Airlines for this article, partly because I was quite certain I’d get the usual “constantly reviewing our service offerings” response, and partly because I felt silly for asking.
However, I swallowed my pride anyway and asked when hot towel service would be restored. A spokesperson told me they had no information to provide at the moment, but would let me know when there was an update.
And there you have it.
While Singapore Airlines has restored most of its pre-COVID service routines, hot towels continue to be elusive. I’m not aware of any regulatory restrictions that would prohibit them from being served (indeed, other airlines have restored their hot towel service out of Changi), so I’m just as puzzled about the delay as you are.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think hot towels are gone for good; they’re just too ingrained into the SIA service psyche for that to happen. I wager it’s only a matter of time before they return, which will spark no small amount of joy in some quarters.
And look, if you really miss them, Singapore Airlines will sell you 100 pieces for S$50 on KrisShop. Go nuts.
Where do you stand on the hot towel issue?