Mr Lee Kuan Yew Once Looked At Air India’s Excellent Service As A Role Model For SIA

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Air India Was The Inspiration For SIA

Singapore Airlines (SIA) made news in January when it said it had not ruled out making a bid for Air India. This announcement comes after Indian government said it is considering privatising the ailing airline, in a bid to revive its profitability.

Now that Air India is S$10.8 billion in debt, buying a stake in the Indian national carrier seems like a foolish move. But 50 years ago, doing so would have been a smart buy, since Air India was one of the world’s best airlines, according to the BBC.

Back in the 1960s, before our kebaya-clad Singapore Girl took the skies, Air India flight attendants ruled the skies in their golden saris and stylish hairdos. Add their glamour to Air India’s then-punctuality, and you had an airline that even other carriers talked about.

And it also had Mr Lee Kuan Yew talking: he looked to Air India as a role model for the then-newly formed SIA to emulate. The Air India-SIA story today is quite a reversal of fortunes, since Air India is said to have inspired SIA to make good service its priority.

And that focus on excellent service has arguably led to SIA’s world-class reputation.

A touch of lipstick before landing
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SIA Born From A Break-Up

After Singapore was booted out of Malaysia, both governments still shared a stake in Malaysia-Singapore Airlines. However, the Malaysians wanted to focus on domestic routes, while their Singaporean counterparts were keen to expand internationally – probably because Changi to Jurong flights weren’t quite feasible. That led to a conscious uncoupling and Singapore eventually welcomed SIA as its flag carrier.

Executives cracked their heads to transform SIA into a flying advertisement for Singapore’s excellence, and what better airline to model SIA on than Air India? After all, when a British airline introduced jet planes in the 1958, many passengers still chose to fly Air India’s slower propeller planes, just to have a comfortable flight.

Mr Lee was one of those passengers. There was a time that he used to be asked to be booked on Air India flights, before SIA’s founding. So it’s no surprise that he eventually invited Air India’s founder Mr J. R. D.  Tata to help set up SIA, and the rest is history.

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Leaving Air India In The Dust

As years went on, SIA went on to exceed Air India’s service standards and became one of the world’s best airlines. But this isn’t the first time SIA has been “inspired” by other airlines: remember its safety video?

As the Indian government ponders what to do with Air India, they might want to heed the words of Mr Lee. In an interview, he is said to have preferred letting the Indian airline “die naturally” and “start a new airline instead”.

Featured image via Singapore Airlines and Air India

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