Thursday, December 2, 2010

Oh Singapore Airlines!! - Why Hast Thou Foresaken Me?

Whenever any friends, family or even readers of my blog have contacted me for advice or suggestions on which airline they should engage to travel within the region, I have unhesitatingly always replied, "Singapore Airlines… they may be more expensive than many other carriers, but for the service and comfort that they offer, I think it’s worth the extra investment".

In literally decades of travelling around Asia, whether for business or leisure, I have always booked my (and my family’s) flights through SIA. Over the years, I have always been either a Gold or Silver Kris Flyer member (some years I’ve travelled more than others).

In all, I consider myself to be a completely dedicated and extremely loyal customer of the airline (even though we’ve sometimes had the odd mix-up in seating arrangements and non-availability of an infant’s meal a couple of times - these kind of issues are not commonplace and have not been enough to discourage me from still keeping SIA as my carrier of choice).

Unfortunately, just today, all the faith and confidence that I’ve built up over the years was completely crushed. Oh my dear SIA – Why hast thou forsaken me??

I don’t wish to complicate our plight too much with detailed explanation, so I will simplify and summarize as briefly as I can (at least I’ll try, anyway).

In preparation for our annual pilgrimage back to visit immediate and extended family in Shanghai for Chinese New Year, 2011, my wife had done the usual research on how we could get the best deal through SIA for our preferred departure dates.

All was looking quite encouraging. Flights were available and we had enough frequent flyer miles to secure two adult tickets (which require payment for just the taxes and charges).

The total cost scenario for booking online, without using frequent flyer miles, for two adults, one child and an infant would be as follows (on a 'sweet deal'):

That’s not too bad, right?? – So far, so good!!

So, next step was to actually make the booking. Given that we wanted to use frequent flyer miles to redeem the two adult fares, I knew that I would need to contact SIA customer service to make sure that there were enough seats available on the same flights for the whole family, also to link the redeemed itinerary with the kid’s tickets… of course, it’s not possible to book a flight online for a child or infant without booking a flight for at least one adult at the same time. NOR can you link current adult tickets or itineraries online to make a booking for a child or an infant.

OK - *ring, ring* - the customer service hotline was very efficient - I got through to a representative almost immediately. Smiling to myself, knowing that this is the kind of service that I’m used to from SIA, I began to explain my requirements.

The first lady with whom I spoke was very helpful, but did explain that I would need to make the online miles redemption for the two adult tickets first, so that I could provide them with the booking reference (not just the flight information), for them to check availability for the child ticket and a bassinet confirmation for the infant fare.

That’s ok – quickly back online, and I use what is a very efficient service to redeem the two adult tickets using frequent flyer miles. All confirmed, and at a total cost of just $548.60 (taxes and charges), thereby saving $1,100 (the top line of the above ‘sweet deal’ price). Pretty neat, hey? And feeling very proud of myself at this stage!!

So - *ring, ring* - back to SIA customer service again – and the same prompt service and immediate answering of my call.

This time, I spoke to a very helpful gentleman. I gave him the booking reference for our two adult redeemed tickets, and he very gladly looked up the flight availability for the child fare. Great news – there are plenty of seats still available. He told me that he will hold the seat for me, while he quickly checked the availability of a bassinet seat for the infant.

Before moving to this next section of the call, he explained to me the cost of the child ticket onboard the same flight… this is where things got very ugly indeed!!

I almost fell off my seat when he explained that the cost for one child would be $1,380.80!! Furthermore, because I was making the booking by telephone, I would be subject to a $50 processing fee – total child fare of $1,430!!

Wait a minute!!! That’s three times what we could purchase the child ticket online for! That’s more than half of the original cost to book all four tickets online – two adults, one child and one infant!

Absolutely aghast, I asked the customer service representative to repeat what he had just said… I know my hearing plays up sometimes from the years that I spent as a DJ in a nightclub in my early 20s. But alas, no, I did indeed hear him correctly!!
I proceeded to explain to him this gross price difference, and although very empathetic, the gentleman just replied that this was the best deal he could offer me over the telephone. I then asked if I could escalate this to someone more senior… "Of course, Sir – but this is still the best deal that we can offer you over the telephone".

He also explained that if I made the booking online I could get a cheaper price – I reiterated that I could not book online, because the system requires that at least one adult ticket is booked at the same time and that we already have both the adult tickets (through frequent flyer redemption), nor can we somehow link our current tickets or reference to a child and infant booking online. He replied, "Yes, I know that Sir, but that’s the best deal I can offer you over the telephone".

* SIGH!!!!! *

Now, I’d been left with two choices:

1. Pay the full child fare as offered by SIA along with the infant fare, thus taking the total price with our adult fare taxes and charges to almost the same full price of $2,500, which I could have paid for online with no miles redemption for all four of us. This means I would have practically forfeited 68,000 frequent flyer miles for no value – at the ‘sell price’ offered by SIA to ‘Top Up’ miles (US$40 per 1,000 miles), I would be forfeiting US$2,720 worth of frequent flyer miles!!!

2. Cancel the online miles redemption tickets I had purchased just 15 minutes earlier and purchase the entire package of flights for $2,525.80. The catch?? – A $40 cancellation fee!!

Let's just pause a moment and do the math:

Booking through frequent flyer miles and adding child and infant tickets:

Total Tickets, Taxes and Fees Cost (app S$2,200) + Cost of Flyer Miles (US$2,720)
= well in excess of S$5,000!!

Booking directly online for two adults, one child and one infant:

= S$2,525!!

So there you have it… I obviously opted for choice number '2', but when cancelling the tickets I had already redeemed, and finding out also that it takes 10-days for SIA to return the money back to my credit card (minus the $40 fee), then booking the full suite of tickets for $2,500 ($1,100 more than I thought I would be paying thanks to frequent flyer miles accrued as a result of my ongoing commitment and loyalty to the airline), I couldn’t help but feel the blood pressure rising in my cheeks, and I sincerely hope that my colleagues could not hear the very obscene curse words that escaped my lips!!

In all, I feel that I was punished financially for SIA’s system inadequacies of not being able to link redeemed flights with child or infants tickets. The system is not flexible enough to cope with something that I would think might be a fairly common scenario, thereby costing me serious $$.

Even with such system inadequacies, I would have hoped that SIA customer service would have been much more attuned to their customers’ needs – especially long-term, loyal and committed ones like me. The staff I spoke to on the phone were very professional and even empathetic (sympathetic?), but at the end of the day, that served very little purpose nor does it make the bitter pill any less difficult to swallow.

NB: As well as posting this very unfortunate experience on both my highly-trafficked and award-winning blog, http://www.aussiepete.com/ and my ‘star blog’, blog.omy.sg/aussiepete, I will be forwarding a copy of this article to SIA directly and through any official PR route, of which I am yet to determine. I do this in the hope that Singapore Airlines will address this process inefficiency and improve it in such a way that no other (loyal) customers are disadvantaged in this manner in the future.



e.chong said...

Very interesting.. and I thought dealing with budget airlines like Tiger and Jetstar is a nightmare...

Anonymous said...

Nothing has changed sadly. Even after their revamping their website couple of times, they have not bothered considering an infant in the the miles redemption scheme. Disappointing to say the least!