Being There

Trying to be nice up in the sky

Being a showman and marketer, cleaning toilets and saying sorry keep a budget flight soaring high

Aisle be back: Making a quick trash run with the trolley to help passengers dispose of empty bottles, magazines and newspapers during the four-hour flight.
Aisle be back: Making a quick trash run with the trolley to help passengers dispose of empty bottles, magazines and newspapers during the four-hour flight.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

There is more to being a flight steward on the budget airline Tiger Airways than being able to pour a drink 10km up in the air.

Because a good part of the cabin crew’s pay comes from commissions on the sale of food, drinks and duty-free products, you have to be part showman, marketer and psychologist. All this while doing the usual things, such as cleaning the toilets, picking up rubbish, handing out immigration cards and doing safety checks. And, in the flight I was on, telling a senior citizen to take his leg off an armrest.

Beat that, Singapore Girl.

I join Tiger on a four-hour flight to Hong Kong, and back, as a fifth member of the usual four-person cabin crew.

Ms Suriani Jemain, 36, a five-year veteran with Tiger and my trainer, explains the basics of service. This mostly concerns things I am not good at, such as being patient, smiling and being pleasant, no matter what.

“Just say sorry and keep saying sorry,” she says, outlining the strategy for dealing with passengers in awkward situations, even though – no, especially when – they are at fault.

I give it a go. “I’m so sorry, could you please refrain from using your mobile phone? We are about to take off,” I say, when I would much rather go: “Are you trying to kill us all? What is the matter with you?” 

Pretending to be nice for eight hours would be the hardest thing I would ever attempt in this series.

Serving food and beverages on a trolley along the narrow aisle of the aircraft is tricky. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

And it is a myth that budget airline crews are less polite than those on a full-fare airline. Any member of staff who ticks off a passenger risks alienating a potential beer and duty-free customer, and everyone else within earshot.

Seasoned travellers know the worst service comes from staff who have nothing to lose. As someone who has flown once on Aeroflot and too many times on full-fare American airlines with trade union-protected crew, I have learnt that being treated like vermin and a potential terrorist is par for the course.

My flight to Hong Kong leaves at 6.50am and one hour before takeoff, we attend the standard pre-flight briefing in a spartan room. Everyone goes over the weather and takes note of security and safety supplies on board, among other things.

I have burnt with envy whenever business- or first-class passengers board first, so it is fantastic to board with the crew, ahead of the hoi polloi at the departure gate.

Chatting with the crew, I learn that the top reason for joining the regional airline is that every night, they return home in time to see their families and sleep in their own beds. 

There is also the entrepreneurial aspect they like. They get to keep part of the proceeds of what they sell. The airline will not reveal the exact amount, but industry insiders know that 4 to 10 per cent of total income on a flight would be shared among the crew working on it.

Why does in-flight food cost so much? 

The sales commission and profit margin are factors, but the other major cost is the fuel burnt when pushing food into the sky, not to mention the weight of the ovens, chillers, carts and other gear designed to serve it. 

On Tiger, a hot meal of nasi lemak costs $10 and a sandwich is $6. A can of soft drink is $3.50 and a beer (only Tiger, aptly enough) is $6.

Selling with a smile

On the Hong Kong run, the crew aim to make two rounds of the food and beverage cart. Speed is key on early morning and late-night flights. Take too long to start beverage service and you will be hawking to sleeping passengers.

Pushing the cart along the narrow single aisle of the 180-seat Airbus A320 aircraft on the almost-full flight is tricky enough, but doing so without shearing off someone’s leg makes it an added challenge. 

On my first run, I bump the cart against a man’s shin, leading to muffled curses from him and profuse apologies from me. This, I fear, could cast a shadow on my sales performance.

Still, orders do come in for Coke, Sprite, sandwiches and cup noodles.

Flight team leader Hayati Jaafar, 48, who is my trainer, has told me the simple rules of successful service, such as treating the passenger as a friend, reading body language, making eye contact and adopting a soothing speaking voice.

But all this goes out the window when I have to calculate how much change to return and manoeuvre the cart without crippling anyone.

Then, as I am focused on putting ice into a cup and grabbing cans as fast as I can, she gently reminds me: “Smile.” 

I realise that my face, all this while, has been frozen into an expression of intense concentration. “Fierce,” she calls it. It must be incredibly off-putting to be served by a man who looks like he is trying to wrestle and kill a small squirming animal.

My service smile, I realise later, is not much better. It is a fake, tight-lipped smirk more likely to make people feel uncomfortable than at ease. Some of us are born to look grim.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. “Snoring, snoring,” says the middle-aged man with a Singapore accent, obviously too agitated to use full sentences or speak politely.

There is indeed a sleeping passenger whose sonic blasts are causing almost as much vibration in the cabin as the engines. As I wonder what to do, Ms Hayati has already done the correct thing, by asking his friend to wake him up.

Having failed one test, I get another from her. A Chinese woman who looks to be in her 70s has brought her own food and I am to ask her to put it away, in line with policy. A small, furtively consumed bun is forgiveable, but she has opened up a full rice meal on a tray and is chomping away in plain sight.

I gulp and say: “Sorry, but could you please put that away?” 

She blinks and looks at me. Her relatives suddenly find something very interesting to look at on the seats in front of them and stare intensely at the fabric.

I stare at her. She stares at me. My nerve fails and I walk away. What do you do when the person you want to intimidate is not interested in being intimidated? Test No.2: Fail.

I fare better at Test No. 3 when I tell an elderly man to take his leg off the armrest in front of him. Not his foot, but his entire leg. I can only hope to be as lithe as he is when I am his age.

The return flight from Hong Kong to Singapore the same night, leaving at 8.30pm, is much less eventful. As with the early morning flight, many passengers are asleep. 

The crew can get good commissions selling duty-free liquor, jewellery and perfume aboard. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

On both runs, we make a respectable few hundred dollars from drinks and snacks. The crew reminisce fondly about runs that have raked in thousands of dollars in sales.

The flights to India and Australia, for example, do very well in sales of beer, wine and spirits, because people returning home want to blow the remainder of their holiday budget. 

The flights to China and Hong Kong can do well in duty-free sales of jewellery and perfume, because there is a cachet to gifts bought on aircraft. 

Lucrative flights can double monthly salaries. Staff are rotated around different routes, equalising everyone’s chances of getting good commissions.

With a total of only 10 aircraft in Tiger Airways Singapore and just 200 cabin crew, everyone knows one another and the family feeling is clear when I chat with them in the galley, the pilots included.

The family is growing fast and the company is hiring. If you like service and flying, there might be a job for you. Just do not expect that just because you wear a yellow uniform, old Chinese aunties will pay any attention to you.