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Newsmakers

Singapore Airlines ‘We were there from Day One’

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star
Singapore Airlines âWe were there from Day Oneâ
Singapore Airlines, reportedly the world’s most awarded airline.
Photos from www.singaporeair.com

When the world was gripped by anxiety because of the COVID-19 virus that upended lives and livelihoods, and the travel industry ground to a virtual halt, Singapore Airlines (SIA) decided it would be ready for “wheels-up,” nevertheless, at any given time.

“It was probably the worst crisis in general aviation industry and tourism,” SIA general manager for the Philippines Lee Yong Tat believes. And yet, SIA had its eye fixed on the horizon.

Lee said that except for two weeks, a time when the Philippine government imposed strict prohibition of commercial flights, SIA was takeoff-ready.

“We didn’t wait for things to happen before we planned a flight because it really takes time to mount one. You need to train your staff, you need to make sure the systems are in place. So from the time of decision to the time of actual launch, it could take more than a month, it usually does,” recalls Lee during a recent interview.

Looking back, he says the thinking at SIA was, “So, if today the government announces, ‘Okay tomorrow you can fly’,” they had to be ready for wheels-up.

Lee, who was previously manager for Eastern China, Surabaya and Eastern India, says, “So when the pandemic first started, I remember we only had a flight once or twice a week. At most, once a day. No problem going out, but coming in, there was some quota. You couldn’t bring people in. You could only carry cargo.”

“I mean, many countries were stopping people from coming in. So goods and cargo can still flow but people totally stopped coming in. The flights were mainly supported by cargo back then. Just a lot of cargo movements in and out.”

When government finally allowed flights to and from the Philippines to select destinations, Singapore was ready for the skies. Three times a day, even if the flights were “empty.”

“Of course, ‘empty’ is an exaggeration. It’s not always empty, we have cargo. It’s not maximum revenue but we were comfortable to be there. And even though it might have been uncomfortable, we still pushed through with it. So when the government announced that tomorrow we are opening, our flight was already there. We were ready for those who wanted to see their families. Can you imagine the frustration if we were not ready?”

Singapore Airlines (SIA) general manager for the Philippines Lee Yong Tat.
Photo by Geremy Pintolo

***

A lot had changed since the first months of the pandemic to the time we had our first face-to-face catch-up meeting. Singapore had just lifted quarantine restrictions for incoming travelers, as had the Philippines. At the restaurant where Lee, SIA head for marketing and public relations Aiza Garcia and myself had our meeting, it was filled to capacity as allowed by safety protocols.

“Before the pandemic, we had four flights a day. Now we’re back to four a day, by the way,” Lee says proudly.

He is also proud of the stability of SIA.

“If people are not flying, we get zero revenue. So you need the financial muscle to make it through the crisis. Our management was very good. At the start, they focused a lot on raising capital as early as 2020, just a few months into the pandemic. There were some financing activities done in Singapore. All these were done to strengthen our balance sheet. So, at least we knew that though the crisis was here, we have the financial muscle to weather things out,” he says.

Still, he acknowledges the challenges that remain, but those too, have been forecast.

“Just when we went on to recovery, oil prices came up. It never ends. For us, overseas officers, we have one key focus, which is revenue, bringing the brand, bringing the money for the company. As for costs, we try to watch them. But the fuel part will be taken care of by the head office,” he adds.

With his deliverables very clear to him, Lee is more than optimistic. He is confident, and has long prepared for the surge in travel now being experienced in the airline industry as people rare to take to the skies again.

Singapore Airlines is reportedly the world’s most awarded airline. According to its website, SIA is “both proud and humbled that customers and industry alike have recognized our commitment to service excellence.”

According to its website, Singapore Airlines is among Fortune’s “Top 50 of the World’s Most Admired Companies (ranked 32),” and ranked first in the Airline category. In December 2021, UK-based Business Traveller named it Best Airline, Best First Class, Best Cabin Staff and Best Asian Airline.

In November 2021, Business Traveler USA named Singapore Airlines Best Overall Airline in the World, Best Airline in Asia, Best Overall Inflight Experience, Best Airline First Class, Best Business Class to Asia, Best Airline Business Class, Best Airline Cuisine in Business Class and Best Airline Premium Economy Class

***

During the first few months of the pandemic, Lee, inspired by his wife, took to baking, particularly sourdough. Sourdough needs a starter dough, which you need to let rise for hours, even days.

Lee recalls that once, he and his wife actually let the sourdough ripen for a month!

“Sourdough-making takes a lot of patience. But there’s nothing like the smell of sourdough baking in the oven,” he shares.

Anyway, Lee relates that after leaving the sourdough to rise for 12 hours through the night, he would bake it for 30 minutes the next day. And what would come out of the oven would be a masterpiece.

In a way, Lee believes that the “grounding,” if you will, of the aviation industry in the first months of the pandemic did some good. It let some things rise, reboot and recharge. After the first lockdown, he noticed,

“The skies were beautiful. They were more blue.”

Just like the airline industry now. Once buffeted by strong winds brought about by the raging storm that was the pandemic, it now looks forward to bluer, more beautiful skies ahead — especially if the airline is as prepared and muscled as Singapore Airlines.

(You may e-mail me at [email protected]. Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.)

COVID-19

SINGAPORE AIRLINES

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