The Psychology of Comfortable Air Travel

How to create an award-winning in-flight experience

4 min read

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to fly Singapore Airlines from Melbourne, Australia, to Singapore, and then again from Singapore to Frankfurt, Germany, both segments in business class. I had always heard from business associates about how wonderful it was to fly Singapore Airlines, but I didn't understand how good it could be. The food, the level of service, and the in-flight entertainment system were the best I have experienced in over 30 years of international flying. To be honest, I was a bit unhappy when I had to get off the plane. That may explain why Singapore Airlines was voted by international airline passengers in Skytrax Research's 2008 annual survey as the world's best overall airline for the second year in a row and also why it won the award for the best business class.

I was curious as to what makes Singapore Airlines so good. I spoke with James Boyd, Singapore Airlines' vice president of public relations for the Americas, who explained to me the philosophy behind Singapore Airlines' approach to business and especially the importance of its in-flight entertainment system. Below are some excerpts from that conversation.

Can you tell me how Singapore Airlines uses in-flight entertainment systems?

We are in quite a unique position at Singapore Airlines in that we offer longer distance and longer duration flights than anyone else in the world. For example, we fly the world's longest distance flight from Newark to Singapore—that's 10,371 statute miles and about 18 hours. We also fly the longest duration flight, which is from Los Angeles to Singapore, which outstrips the Newark flight by about 30 to 45 minutes, taking at least 18.5 hours. For many carriers, IFEs are a nice add-on or a nice frill; for us, they're absolutely essential. On those flights, IFE is as important as food, which is keeping passengers satisfied.

In-flight entertainment is not just about providing you with music and movies; it also fits into the psychology of how we create a satisfied passenger. This is a business where consumers who are used to having a tremendous amount of control in their lives have to give up most of that sense of control.

Airlines tell you when you have to come to the airport, when you can board, when the aircraft is going to leave, how long it's going to be aloft, and when you can get out of your seat, and that creates an enormous amount of stress for passengers. From a psychological perspective, we use the IFE system as a means of providing almost the illusion of control for the passenger.

If you can start, stop, pause, and rewind from a broad slate of options, it gives you something very specific to do. More important than that, it gives you a way to exercise control over your environment. We find that that is a really critical tool for helping to create a more satisfied passenger.

I had never really thought about an in-flight entertainment system in that way before. Does providing this sense of control extend to other services provided on board as well?

It's somewhat similar to our extensive wine program. We spend about US $17 million on wine per year, but making sure that you have something delicious in your glass is actually just a secondary benefit.

The primary benefit of the wine program and the sommelier training our cabin crew go through is in creating a credible point of interaction between the passengers and the crew. You can have a discussion about the wine, we can set up a little impromptu tasting for you, or our cabin crew can speak intelligently from an educated perspective about what it is that they're pouring and why this might be a better selection for the meal you selected from the menu.

So those few moments of credible, appropriate interaction between the cabin crew and the passenger are basically built around the ”prop” of wine. Obviously, it's important that we serve quality wine, because it supports the brand, et cetera, but in the same way that the entertainment system helps create a satisfied passenger by giving them control over their experience, the wine program creates that point of interaction that makes people feel that they have been looked after in a credible way.

If we don't approach it this way, the wine and the IFE become just another commodity, just another thing that someone else can buy and match and pour. The wine has work harder than just tasting good. The IFE has work harder than just keeping you entertained.

Peering into the crystal ball, what do you see the future of IFE systems at Singapore Airlines looking like?

It's hard for us to speak to hardware specifically, because we like to stay on the level of approaching it from the philosophical and psychological perspective. Anything else gets us back into the commodity wars of who has the biggest screen, who has the most movies, et cetera, and that sort of devolves into an argument we don't want to get into.

What is more important to us is continually finding ways to use every resource available on board the plane to make sure we are creating a satisfied passenger, whether it is as simple as a glass of wine or experiencing a blockbuster movie.

How can we go further in plugging into the psychology of the passengers so that they come off the aircraft feeling satisfied? That's really where our focus lies. They don't necessarily know why they're satisfied, they can't point to specific things that happened, but it's almost like creating stealth satisfaction. Everything just worked, everything was anticipated, and things just naturally fell into place, so they didn't have to worry about them.

I'll give you one example. American passengers find it very uncomfortable culturally to press the flight attendant call button when they need something. So each of our cabin crew has been trained to make a specific number of passes through the cabin making eye contact with as many passengers as they can. This allows the staff to identify a passenger who needs something without requiring them to go through the uncomfortable step of pushing the button.

It's one of those very subtle ways of meeting a passenger's need just as the passenger has it, or just before the they know they have the need, so that things naturally fall into place without calling attention to the process. That's the goal. The IFE system will always be a really central tool that we will use to create a satisfied customer. We're a hospitality company, but we're a hospitality company that moves you to the other side of the planet.

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