Image: Singapore Girls
Roslan Rahman  /  AFP - Getty Images
Two Singapore Airlines flight attendants are shown dressed in sarong kebaya uniforms at the Changi International Airport in Singapore. Columnist James Wysong — also a flight attendant for a domestic carrier — has flown Singapore Air with high expectations and was not disappointed.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 8/28/2007 3:29:25 PM ET 2007-08-28T19:29:25

If I were to offer you two tickets for the same route, at the same price, one on Singapore Airlines and the other on Northwest Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines or United Airlines, which one would you pick?

I won't even bother with a poll on this question, because I'm pretty sure 95 percent of you would go with the foreign carrier. Ah, Singapore Airlines: gem of the Pacific carriers, home of the Singapore Girl advertisement, outstanding in every area. I have flown Singapore with high expectations and have not been disappointed. I found adequate staffing on every level and friendly but respectful service the entire journey.

Is this the case on American carriers? Hardly.

And why not? Here are several possible reasons.

Hiring constraints. Thanks to federal regulations, U.S. carriers have some strict hiring and firing criteria. For example, they are not allowed to discriminate by age, sex, marital status or ethnicity. Many foreign carriers hire for all of the these points plus appearance.

Salary costs. Foreign airlines can pay their employees local wages, which many times is but a fraction of the U.S. salary standard. Lower salary costs mean more staff and ultimately better service.

Age issues. Many foreign carriers hire flight attendants as temporary contract workers. At the end of their contract, they are either signed up for another contract or they are released. Airline service is considered a temporary job, not a long-term career. In the United States, on the other hand, the Fly Me Girl of yesterday is generally still flying today. Moreover, because of seniority rules, the oldest flight attendants tend to fly the most exotic routes. I have flown with many senior crew members, and I have generally found them to be very efficient and kind to their customers, but many passengers are fixated on appearance and pine for the knockout stewardesses of the old days. This creates some disgruntlement in the cabin, among passengers and flight attendants alike.

Unions. Being a member of a union myself, I can say that my work rules are the better for it. But better work rules can mean less efficiency and more expense for the airline. And how many times has your flight been canceled because your crew's contractual obligations expired or because their worker protections kicked in? The gate agent may not tell you every time, but it happens a lot more than you think. To say nothing of how hard it is to fire a union member. The bad apple can keep his job quite a long time — and he knows it.

Respect. In the United States, airline pilots, flight attendants and ground agents used to get a lot of respect. Years of turmoil in the U.S. airline industry have eroded that respect. In fact, most U.S. airlines have lost their self-respect, and it's hard to respect a company that doesn't respect itself. The situation is entirely different abroad, where airline jobs are highly sought after and employees as a whole are proud of their position and their airline.

Morale. It is going to take a while for morale to improve in the U.S. airline industry. Pensions and staffing have been cut, work rules have changed, and management seems to have all the money. The only way the current negativity will dissipate is through attrition. But with the recent pension cuts, the employees who should leave can't afford to, so I guess morale won't be improving anytime soon.

So, given all these factors, how can the U.S. airlines compete?

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Price. Airfares from Chicago to Asia may be comparable on foreign and U.S. carriers, but most people need to fly in to O'Hare to connect to the overseas flight. The price for the foreign ticket gets substantially higher if they have to depend on a U.S. carrier to provide a leg of the journey.

Frequent-flier programs. To fly anywhere in the United States, you have to fly on a U.S. airline. Most frequent travelers join a domestic airline's mileage program to get such perks as free flights and upgrades. When those passengers have the choice of flying a foreign carrier or stocking up more points in their frequent-flier account, they usually choose their partner airline.

Loyalty. Believe it or not, there are still quite a few people in America who remain loyal to any U.S. brand and always choose domestic without hesitation.

It will be very interesting in the days to come to see what happens to the U.S. airline industry in terms of deregulation, foreign ownership, alliances, and mergers and acquisitions. Will it get better, stay the same or get even worse?

Yes, believe it or not, it can easily get worse.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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