Becoming a World Class airline brand – what Emirates can learn from Singapore Airlines (and how I missed my first flight)

I recently read a quote by famous poet, Dr Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.” The essence of this quote is a person’s true colors show when things go wrong. The same applies to businesses too, especially those in aviation.

I go to Dubai often, four to five times a year, and often get the sense it aspires to be the Singapore of Middle East. Etisalat wants to be like Singtel. Singapore’s SMRT has built the new Dubai Metro (which has WiFi!). Dubai Airport now offers more shopping space than Changi. And Emirates is close on the heels of Singapore Airlines as one of the world’s best airlines.

But there’s more to becoming the world’s best airline than posh seats, brand new planes and great crew (which both airlines have). There needs to be consistently excellent service delivery not just on-board, but also on the ground. This is where the difference shows. And I’d like to share two personal stories, to make my point.

The Singapore Airlines story: The flight I almost missed

August 2005, Tokyo-Narita, Japan

I was short of 500 yen, to pay for my train fare from downtown Tokyo to Narita Airport. For that, I had to run to find a currency exchange facility, convert my USD into yen and run back down to the station to buy a ticket. Once I reached Narita Airport station, I realized I had grossly underestimated how long I’d need to walk (or run) to get to the international terminal.

After running for 15 mins, I reached the departures level, desperately trying to look for the Singapore Airlines counter. But there was none to be found. The flight information screens showed it was the Final Call for my flight to Singapore. There was no way I was going to make it, with two bags to check-in, I thought to myself.

In desperation, I ran to the Air France counter, the closest to me, and asked them where the Singapore Airlines counter was. And I was told that it was now closed. Running out of options, I dashed to the airport information desk, asking them to call someone from Singapore Airlines. Within minutes, a ground staff wearing the Singapore Airlines lanyard rushed to us, checked our passports and tickets and said, “Sir, you’re very late. Our check-in counters are closed. But let me see what I can do.” That in itself was re-assuring.

Within minutes, she had radioed the staff at the gate and asked them to print my boarding pass. Then she turned to me and asked me to follow her quickly. She grabbed one of my bags and started rushing toward security, and when I mentioned it’s too big to be carried on-board the aircraft, she said she’s going to check it in at the gate. We went through the Express lane at security, she helped getting my bags scanned and we continued running toward the boarding gate. Even before we reached, there was another ground staff, who rushed towards me, boarding passes in hand. He grabbed my bags from the other lady, went to print the bag tags and escorted me to the aircraft. He handed my bag to the baggage handlers, who loaded it right from the gangway.

I was still panting as the Boeing 747 taxied toward the runway, thanking my lucky stars and thanking the Singapore Airlines staff who went above and beyond what was expected of them, even though I was clearly late. Now, that’s undoubtedly a World Class airline.

The Emirates story: The flight we missed

October 2012, Entebbe, Uganda

It was the long weekend celebrating Uganda’s independence day when my wife got the news that her grandfather had fallen severely ill and been hospitalized in Mumbai. Having just landed from Amsterdam,  I didn’t want to take chances with reliability – and was happy to pay a premium fare on Emirates to get my wife and I to Mumbai the very next day to visit him. We’d still get a couple of days in Mumbai, due to the long weekend.

Entebbe Airport is a good one hour drive from Kampala and since we had already checked-in online, with only carry on bags, we left a good three hours before the flight departure time. Unfortunately, there was a severe traffic jam due to the independence day preparations and we got the airport barely 70 mins before the flight was supposed to depart.

Multiple hurdles, to even get in the airport…

To be frank, Entebbe airport is not among the most traveler friendly airports in the world – so first we had to show our tickets to a guard at the gate just to get in. And she refused to let us even in to the airport, claiming we are too late, even though the Emirates counter was open and I could see the staff there. I showed her my online check-in receipts and told her that we only have carry on bags and should be able to make it. She did not budge and told me to go to the Emirates ticket office, in an adjacent building.

As I ran up to the Emirates ticket office, there was already a ruckus going on, with four passengers who had supposedly missed the same flight arguing with the lone staff member about getting on the plane. I didn’t bother to queue up and went straight to ask him if I could still make the flight – still 60 mins to go before departure. He replied in the negative. I ran back down to the Departures building, where my wife was waiting. Meanwhile, she had spoken with one of the airport staff, who said we could try our luck with the Emirates check-in staff directly. We insisted to the security guard that we need to speak to the Emirates staff. This time, she let us in.

At the gate, still no respite

We went through security (1st round) and straight toward immigration, and saw that the Emirates flight was still boarding. We heaved a sigh of relief as we only had carry on, had our seat assignments and check-in confirmation on our mobile devices. We went through security at the gate (2nd round) and presented our documents for checking. When asked for the boarding pass, we showed our online boarding passes. The Emirates staff immediately stood up and asked us how we had made it so far. She explained that Entebbe airport doesn’t accept mobile boarding passes and neither do they have printers at the gate to print our boarding passes. She asked us to wait at the side while she contacted her supervisor.

Ironically, just a week prior, I had boarded a flight with the exact same information – online check-in, seat assignment and carry on bags – but in Vancouver, Canada. But Entebbe happens to be one of 67% of airports in Africa that doesn’t support a mobile boarding pass. After waiting for a while, the supervisor arrived, and immediately told us that it’s our mistake and we are late. She then instructed the counter staff not to re-open the flight as we had been “off-loaded”.

When we tried to explain that we have no bags checked-in, have our seat assignments and boarding passes, she shouted (in front of everyone there), that she has already sent the passenger manifest to the Captain and to revise it now would mean going to the check-in counters to print our boarding passes and re-sending him the list. That would potentially delay the flight (still other passengers were boarding), and she ended with “what reason am I supposed to document, and what for should I write a report?”

When my wife once again tried to explain that we were going to see her ailing grandfather and are back in two days, the curt reply came, “You’re late. We are not re-opening this flight.” Of course, we made a mistake and were helpless, but being spoken to like this made matters worse. We were told to go back to the ticket office, to re-book our flights.

Before we could leave, the Emirates station manager approached us and spoke to us in a calm, but firm manner. He asked who had suggested we come to the gate – my wife recalled it was someone with an official lanyard at the airport entrance. But the station manager pointed to the ladies at the counter, saying, “this is all my staff. Was it any of them? If not, it’s not our responsibility. You’re late.” By this time, my wife had tears in her eyes, and I knew there was no point arguing further. So we left.

And that was how I missed a flight, for the first time ever.

How things could have been done differently?

If Emirates aims to be a world class airline brand, they need to deal with Externalities better (see 6X airline brand model). Even if we give them the benefit of doubt, that they had to deal with the realities of Entebbe airport – no printers at gate for boarding passes, mobile-boarding passes not accepted – there are things they could have done better.

  1. While it’s important to let the customer know it’s his mistake, re-iterating it multiple times and making him or her feel like a criminal doesn’t bode well for long term brand affinity. We knew we were late, and we accepted it. But there was no reason to keep repeating that.
  2. We were told that there’s nothing that can be done, and explained why nothing could be done. At no point did we see the Emirates staff make any effort to go above and beyond what’s expected of them. The lady supervisor seemed more concerned with what reason she is to put in a report if she issued our boarding passes, than anything else.
  3. The last thing to be done to customers ever is to humiliate them, especially publicly. And that’s what being shouted at felt like, unfortunately. No matter how bad the situation, things can always be explained in a more civil manner.
  4. What is the point of having online boarding passes if you have to go through the same process as for those who have not done so. If arriving an hour before the flight is not adequate with online boarding passes in hand and no baggage to check in, then the online system doesn’t quite work, isn’t it?  Perhaps for stations like Entebbe, online check-in should not be allowed in the first place so that people don’t get the false impression that they can report an hour before the flight and still board with their e-documentation.
It’s not the end of my relationship with Emirates – I’m flying them in a couple of days again. And while they have an impressive product and growth story, more needs to be done if they aspire to one day join the ranks of Singapore Airlines as a World Class airline brand.
After all, we can tell a lot about an airline by the way it handles customers when things go wrong.

Image Credit: Flox Papa (via Flickr)

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Showing 4 comments
  • sasboy

    No Mr Nigam, I disagree with your article and its assessment completely. An airline is NOT under any contractual obligation to delay the departure of an aircraft from an airport to accomodate passengers who arrive late at the airport. If one does not appear to check in on time, then delaying the aircraft’s departure costs the airline time, as well as money.
    There is no guarantee that you would have made it for your flight on SIA if you had arrived 5-10 minutes later than you did. The question of whether an airline is world class or not is completely beside the point.

    • Preetham Nazareth

      I think certain points were valid such as not shouting at the passengers and speaking to them politely . Also , the online check in does not make sense if EK does not recognise it at certain airports. But handling late passengers does affect the airline and does cost them money , time and a bad reputation which can be hard to shake off. Credit to SIA for making that extra effort and I guess EK can indeed learn a little something from SIA.

  • Sharon

    Just by following procedures does not create service excellence. While I do agree with sasboy that airlines are not obligated to delay any flight (no one is obligated to do anything in this world isnt it?) BUT I believe Mr Nigam comes from the point that organisations who do above and beyond what their procedures tell them to do, differentiates themselves from others alot more. I believe partly is due to SIA’s culture and the empowerment their staff is provided so that in times of turbulence, they can better handle the situation efficiently. This reminds me of a KLM case which my lecturer shared with me. It looks like airlines from the other end have a different culture in ways they work comparing to the Asian context. Mr Nigam, I hope your flight experience on SIA has not deteriorated and Emirates flights has improved over these two years.

  • james bond

    Unfair comparison.
    Narita Tokyo is a major Asian airport, serving as a transit point for many Asia-US flights such as SIA’s SQ12. Uganda… not really Africa’s world city or major hub. Considering this situation from the airlines’ manpower administration, they are likely to put better trained staff at the major airports owing to the higher volume, so higher standards can be expected there. I’m sure you’d get the same standard if you were flying Emirates and were at Dubai Airport.

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