John Walton: Hello and welcome to Runway Girl Network In Conversation, a deep dive into aviation and the passenger experience. I am RGN contributing editor John Walton and today I am in conversation with Aaron Yong, a design partner at LIFT Aero Design based in Singapore and specializing in airline interiors and branding. Aaron, welcome to In Conversation.
Aaron Yong: Thank you for having me.
Walton: How are things in Singapore?
Yong: Besides the sweat rolling down my cheeks, yeah everything is fine. Compared to the rest of the world, we can’t really complain at this point. As far as the numbers game goes, we’ve got it pretty good compared to the rest of the world and we are at the point where the only way up, the only way is up right now I think. There were fears of a second wave and it didn’t really happen.
Walton: I must admit to a little bit of envy sitting here in the area of France that is well in some ways one of the epicenters of the second wave here. We’re at the very end of October recording this and we are looking like we are very much going to be in another at least four-week long lockdown. But we managed the first time, we shall manage again.
Yong: You will, you will. Definitely.
Walton: Humans are a resilient people.
Walton: As indeed is the aviation industry. Now, you know, Singapore is not alone in Asia in having a relatively greater level control over the situation. And I am seeing a number of air corridors that have been opening and so one of them is between Hong Kong and Singapore. Can you tell us a little bit about that for our listeners who might now be up to date with what is happening on your side of the world?
Yong: Yeah, so well they have actually, Singapore has actually established several so-called travel corridors with a few countries in the last few months. I think we have got one with New Zealand, that one’s not mutual. Yeah, so that is the other thing, some are unilateral and some aren’t, some are mutual. And so we have just, I think the latest news is that we established one with Germany as well. We have got one with Japan was announced, Malaysia, China. But the interesting thing about the Hong Kong one is it’s the first one that is not just for essential travel and that’s a big game changer. So for all the other travel corridors that have been announced or arranged you basically, it’s kind of making a really really inconvenient situation just that little bit less inconvenient by kind of speeding up the process.
There is still testing and what have you but at the end of the day you should not be traveling and they advise against it unless you absolutely have to for essential business. But the Hong Kong announcement, what they are basically saying is – and they haven’t set a date yet by the way – but when they do, they will be allowing leisure travel and I believe that Hong Kong will be the first destination to have this sort of nonessential travel corridor open up with Singapore. I am pretty sure Singapore is pretty anxious to get as many going as possible you know because as a city with no hinterland, no domestic market, a country with no domestic market, no domestic travel whatsoever, it’s really really important that we open the borders and international travel as quickly as possible.
Walton: And so what’s the situation if you do have to arrive in Singapore right now? Is it a full test and quarantine protocol?
Yong: Yes. So basically to give you a quick rundown of how it’s been since the borders de facto closed. All Singaporeans and basically anyone arriving into Singapore since April or May has had to undergo a mandatory 14 day quarantine. Now this quarantine, it’s an actual quarantine – it’s not a self quarantine like a lot of countries are doing – you are literally whisked away from the airport into a hotel room that has been set up just, in a hotel that has already been designated as a quarantine location and you literally cannot leave the room for that two-week period and so it is pretty strict, it’s all laid out, that’s what people are expecting. Tons of Singaporeans were returning and they had to all go through this, it’s all paid for by the government provided you are returning having left Singapore before COVID erupted. So if you decided to, so basically that’s the other thing is if you’ve decided to leave, nothing is really stopping you from leaving right now, our borders, there’s no law saying you can’t go on holiday right now to anywhere you want that will have you, but the catch is that on your arrival, on your return, sorry, you would have to foot the bill of that quarantine in a hotel for two weeks on your own.
And in addition to that, up until recently, I think they just announced a revisal, if you were to contact COVID you would not be entitled to subsidized healthcare, which you would if you had not voluntarily gone abroad and come home with the virus. So that’s basically how it stands and that’s what Singaporeans are looking at, have been looking at for last few months and not just Singaporeans but anyone whose wanted to come to Singapore for whatever reason and so basically you have to really want to come into Singapore to be putting up with that two-week hotel stay. It’s not, I know that in some countries – and most countries – I think you declare a place you are going to quarantine yourself and you are expected to stay there of your own accord, but in Singapore it’s pretty micromanaged in that respect.
Walton: Yeah, I mean that sounds I mean in terms of the hotel, the lock-in aspect as it were that sounds a lot like the Australian and New Zealand kind of situation but yeah look it’s strict and to be honest that’s probably why your rate is significantly less than many of the rates of other countries which have not had quite so strict set of lockdowns.
Yong: There was a spike a few months in foreign worker dormitories which basically sent the national numbers soaring because it’s really close quarters and it really shone a light on the conditions that these people are living in, and you know all it took was a couple people to get it and it really the numbers just ballooned from there and so that’s, I think that was something that they were really focused on bringing down and they actually have to give them credit. So the numbers as it stands we literally like in Singapore you can subscribe to government updates via Whatsapp, via telegram. And you literally they will text you everyday and tell what the latest COVID count was for the day and you know what, I am going look my government message.
Walton: This is a very Singaporean thing and I absolutely love it.
Yong: Okay and it literally says here as of 12pm the Ministry of Health has preliminarily confirmed that there are no new cases of locally transmitted COVID19 infection. There are seven important cases who had all been placed on stay home notice upon arrival in Singapore. So I think they have relaxed that sort of big scary hotel stay now and I think that’s mostly exceptional circumstances. I think depending on the country they come from, they will assess it and I think quite a few people will fall into the category of just being told to stay home and then they just check up on you and things like that. So it’s been whatever some may think of the measures they’ve definitely been effective.
The numbers speak for themselves, I think, and it’s I think – and it’s unfortunate to make the comparison but – seeing some parts of the world like Europe and North America start having numbers go up again at this point really puts into perspective I think so people here are understanding, they, I think we generally get that all of this is necessary and we’ve also kind of got like phases. So there was that full on lockdown thing that happened for a couple of months that was April and May where we were literally, you couldn’t go out of the house unless it was for something really important or for groceries and then there was phase 1 where it was very gradual like a few people started going back to work but other than that it was almost the same as the lockdown and phase two which we are still living in right now, which feels like business as usual except that everything has to shut down but 10:30pm and there is enforced distancing like government-mandated distancing at all restaurants, shops everything and it’s kind of become I think people are starting to get used to it.
Walton: In that context, you have Singapore Airlines for example which is trying to do a lot of as much as it can to keep flying including with the return and extension of the world’s longest flight from, which was previously from Singapore Changi to Newark across the Hudson river from New York but it’s now going to JFK. Obviously with the arrival situation at Singapore pretty complicated that is going to do something to demand. So what do you think about this whole situation? Who’s going to be flying this or is it really just a cargo flight with a few passengers on board?
Yong: While it is interesting you mention the cargo thing because I, from what I understand, one of the factors for them choosing JFK instead of Newark is because they have, SIA has their own, they have a cargo handling facility in JFK that they don’t in Newark and it’s pretty easy, pretty safe to assume that cargo makes up a big chunk of the reason to be flying this route. Like everything I’ve said leading up to this, like laying this out what all the barriers are in place you can see how you won’t exactly have a lot of visitors to Singapore. The other way around is actually from what I understand and correct me if I am wrong, but the US is not, the US hasn’t closed its borders to a lot of countries actually have they?
Walton: No, I mean that would be bolting the stable door but in only one direction and the wrong direction. Wouldn’t it?
Yong: Yeah so, I mean technically there is nothing really stopping me from hopping on that flight right now to go to New York, my wallet notwithstanding. So if you, but if you wanted to come the other way you have to be prepared for what’s on the other end and obviously Singapore is not going to be adding the US to any travel corridor or at least any time soon but it is interesting that they’ve chosen to reinstate that route. It is also interesting they’ve, the route is technically a bit longer than the Newark one but they are are, from what I understand they are not declaring it their longest route in their route network and that distinction stays with the Newark flights.
Walton: I think it’s all about what five km more or whatever,
Yong: But they have basically done a bit of scheduling tweaking to such that on a technicality, the EWR flight is still technically the longest.
Walton: Oh it’s time blocked for loner rather than?, Okay.
Yong: It’s like 5 minutes longer on paper.
Walton: Well and that makes sense on paper because if you are going to fill a plane even one of their, or business plus, premium economy ULR aircraft rather than this which is going to be the regular standard A350.
Yong: It is yeah.
Walton: Even if you are going to fill a plane it is going to take an extra five minutes to get people on and off I guess. But yeah it is amusing to me that they’ve decided that no, you know what’s important here is to make sure that our world record flight is still there.
Yong: Yes, the flagship, they don’t have to make any revisions to their flagship press material or anything. And yeah it is interesting that they are using the standard range A350 with the three-class configuration because, well the first thing that came to my mind was that they are obviously not expecting a full load of passengers and so they can afford the payload restrictions that might come with such a route on that aircraft and not as opposed to the ULR version. It probably doesn’t matter very much at this point what the cabin configuration is because it’s not going to be full either way.
Walton: Right, but yeah and it’s interesting that they’ve put that in place rather than doing something like the onward hope from Frankfurt as the option which is what in before times, that’s what they used to do with the A380s right? The A380s would go to Frankfurt and one of the A380s would do that extra hop onto JFK. And yeah, it’s fascinating to me that that’s, that they’ve decided New York is going to be the destination and I, you know, obviously I wonder if that’s got something to do with the United Nations is there and if they are doing anything around, you know there’s been a request from your Ministry of Foreign Affairs to basically provide a way for essential Singaporeans who travel to continue to travel. Or whether there is indeed that incoming demand. I mean Singapore’s importance as an Asian and particularly Southeast Asian financial center has only been growing in recent years and you know it seems to me that there could well be people whose companies say actually, you know what, we do need you in Singapore for the next three months, four months, five months and Zoom just isn’t going to cut it so you know we’ll, here is your medical card and a large pile of cash.
Yong: Well it is interesting actually that you mention the Frankfurt, the 5th freedom flight because that probably if you think about it, in the era of COVID where you basically trying to avoid as much sort of crowded contact as possible obviously nonstop flights are preferable to ones with transits. And so if you, I suppose if you want to go to New York from Singapore and you want the lowest COVID risk possible, I mean you definitely wouldn’t want to be transiting in Europe right now. I don’t, I am not necessarily saying Frankfurt is a risky place to be transiting but it’s certainly, I think it would factor in and I think the traffic between Europe and the US of course, I mean obviously these are people we are all just armchair speculating at this point but yeah definitely I think that transit factor in the age of COVID is definitely important to consider. And all the European flights as well as far as I know have all been down-gauged to A350s as well. Actually I believe they recently announced I think it was last month that the route network for December and I think they reinstated quite a few European destinations. The slightly thinner routes like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. So that’s also encouraging for I mean, for the industry in general really that it seems to be picking up.
Walton: Well indeed, you know just fingers crossed that this second wave starts to plateau swiftly so that’s going to be you know an option. Obviously we are coming up to the Christmas holidays but it’s not like any allotment was made for changes to protocols for aid or like there is a lot going to be made for Diwali or indeed some slightly earlier this year, Hanukkah. So it’s really, you know it’s one of those things where trying to figure out exactly what each family should and can do. So yeah it’s this whole question of in-cabin safety is a fascinating one. Obviously over the last month or so we had a spate of research whether that was pre-published or pre-submitted or study of studies sort of research looking at the early transmission of COVID-19 within cabins and within among traveling groups. Some which basically said well we haven’t been able to detect anything at which point IATA of course turns out and says ‘flying is safer and you are less likely to be infected than struck by lightning’. Which I think was perhaps an unhelpful intervention in terms of safety.
Now of course we have a growing number of studies which are either funded by the aviation industry saying ‘it’s perfectly fine’ or not and flagging up some issues. So for example you have the case of a flight into Ireland which I believe there was something like 49 people on board of whom 13 are known to have contracted the exact same genomic identifier variant of COVID-19 and the only commonality of these people who came from three separate continents and transited in an airport that is probably Doha but was not identified, the only thing that they had in common was the fact that they took this one flight. Now of course we don’t know whether it was that they were too close in the boarding gate area. One assumes that that’s been adequately spaced or that you know perhaps they were all in the queue in Dublin for an hour which again doesn’t seem hugely likely. It seems much more likely that this was on aircraft but all of that means that the cabin is still an area of much question right now. Now, you are a cabin designer, obviously you have seen a lot of cabins over the recent years trying to avoid that kind of wall of beige which is the exposed thermoplastics in giant sheets which are, I suppose, rather inherently easy to clean. And now people are wanting rather than sort of a broken up cabin to see a visible lack of dirtiness. Visibly clean is the trend that is trying to see something that isn’t there. What’s that looking like for you? How are you addressing that as a designer?
Yong: Well I think from our end a lot of it, well first of all a lot of it that we are working on is at this point is a lot of blue skies work because it’s all happened so quickly. And in the first place one has to realize and remember that with the industry in recovery mode, spending on design features, cabin enhancements, physical cabin enhancements is going to be taking a backseat for a while as far as airline spending goes. But for us in the design world we definitely want to put forth some ideas that show that we are taking people’s fears into consideration and the thing is that there is so much flying around, pardon the pun, that there are too many different opinions on what constitutes a safe environment, a clean environment because we know that what you see isn’t necessarily representative of how sanitary a surface in an aircraft might be.
But on the other hand it is important psychologically for the passenger to feel like they are in a very clean space. Now at that this point like I said because not a lot of immediate work is going to be happening to aircraft interiors, it really comes down to what airlines can do with what they already have. And some interior designs will certainly lend themselves better to appearing clean than others. Some unfortunately – and this will be a lesson for designers in the future – some unfortunately will have designs or colors or patterns that no matter how sanitary, how sanitized, how spotlessly clean they are will always kind of look a little bit grubby because of just harmless wear and tear. And that will certainly be something to take into consideration for designs going forward because even outside of the COVID context, these things do matter. We do think about these things already when we are designing cabins pre-pandemic, you know how long will this hold up, will this carpet hold up? Will this fabric hold up? It looks beautiful now, is it going to look as beautiful in a year after thousands of cycles. And when you compound that with people’s heightened sensitivities to perceived dirtiness, perceived uncleanliness then all of that becomes even more important. It’s important in the sort of, I mean there is a lot of talk in as far as industrial design goes as to what sort of arrangements we can have, what sort privacy screens and isolation, sort of isolating designs that you can do.
But the CMF aspect is also really important and so when it comes down to the choices of colors, materials, all of that has to be given I think even more priority, even more consideration than it did before. And it also is a reminder I think that this is, well in aviation this is always a long game, because the process, the gestation period for any new product is so long that by the time, you know we’re literally are, LIFT included, are caught in the middle of projects that were well underway before the pandemic broke out and will be completed after the pandemic. Realistically speaking after a vaccine has been developed. So that’s just working within these challenges of our timeframes is always at the back of our minds. A lot of the proposals that have been put out there, there are some really interesting proposals out there by different design agencies and all to varying degrees of I should say realistic potential.
But yeah, I think from our perspective, what we are not seeing enough, I think, is that focus on perception. Because on the backend we know, at least we the aviation industry, we know and we have faith in our colleagues across the industry that they are doing everything they can to create a safe and clean environment for their passengers. It’s their environment as well and we know that it is going to be clean. It is going to be as clean as they can make, let’s put it that way but convincing the customer is a different ballgame and so that’s where I think design can really help and how we’ve chosen to design something that might not even be very different but you know things like even a simple material choice for example I think people will, I think passengers, the average passenger will pick up for example that leather or even faux leather is definitely easier to clean than fabric, than a textile. You can imagine it’s going into play in someone’s mind when the are clambering into a seat and sitting down and wondering to themselves just how clean is the seat? How much dust is it harbouring? Have they really cleaned this as effectively as they can? If it’s a smooth surface like leather, a bit of that goes away because it’s easier for the passenger in their own layman’s terms to judge the situation and to decide for themselves whether they think it is clean or not.
Walton: And in many cases, to take either their airline provided alcohol wipe or their Naomi Campbell style Dettol wipe that they have brought from home to take it into their own hands.
Yong: Yeah and that’s an interesting point as well because I think there was a bit of hesitance, I can understand the hesitance at first to provide cleaning kits like that at the beginning because it kind of, you do run the risk of insinuating that additional cleaning steps are needed. Right so it’s kind of like, you know, if analogous of should a train have seat belts, you could add a seatbelt and it would probably make it safer but if I did add a seatbelt to the train, you’d probably feel less safe because you are wondering why do I need a seatbelt in the first place. So I think that providing little sanitary kits, sanitizing kits for people, I think most people will appreciate them and some people might take it the wrong way but I think that was, I think at first that was what I was thinking at first and I think some people in the industry were a bit concerned about that but at this point but then you reach the point that if most airlines are giving them out, you don’t want to be the airline that isn’t right.
Walton: Yeah and it’s kind of the same way the actual onboard cleaning protocols. We’ve seen a couple of airlines this year, they missed for example something in the seatback pocket and then people get on the airplane and they think ‘why is this on the seatback pocket? How did this get missed? And what does that mean for the rest of the cleaning protocol.’ Right? And that’s really interesting to me in terms of how that, you can easily spot if something is dirty, you can’t easily tell if something is cleaned.
Walton: Right? It could just have been missed or skipped and I think that is going to be really interesting and we’ve seen a lot of designers and suppliers talking about using antimicrobial methods whether that’s an applied coating or whether it’s something that is created inherently in the material during its manufacture. But then how do you then flag up to passengers that this is ‘oh this is a whatever it is in terms of the actual material’? How do you flag them and actually say this is a safer material? This material is itself antimicrobial. And then how does that then effect what people do to it? If part of, one of the reasons why we might be being safer is that you are, the people are still inherently wearing masks because it makes sense and they are avoiding doing the antidotal thing where people will bring a coffee and then spend the entire flight drinking their coffee and just not put their mask back on. You know, look it is kind of perverse in a sense a situation and so you end up sort of thinking okay what are the ways to communicate this in the best, it’s almost an industrial psychology way and how to design both the item, the structure, the seat, whatever it is and figure out how passengers are going to use it and then how you explain it to passengers is, it feels like that’s more important than ever.
Yong: Oh definitely, yeah. I mean assuming we have the opportunity to get a new product to market for example that’s a new seating product to market, that’s designed with all of this in mind. I think visual cues for certain things that set it apart from something in the past that hasn’t considered sanitation and cleanliness so heavily are important for the passenger. And it can be as simple as even the use of colour for example with mood lighting, with certain hues, like blue for example is a much more clinical colour normally and it’s not usually something you go for when you want to suggest warmth but in a time when people are concerned about hygiene it is certainly a more desirable thing to be clinical of all things. And I think you mentioned highlighting to people whether or not a material was I guess you could say special in anyway, slightly better for hygiene in any way, antimicrobial or whatever and you know there’s lots of ways to go about that.
I personally tend to gravitate towards the least environmentally impactful option because it’s very easy to say okay so now we are going to give everyone a little card that says you seat has been specially designed with all this in mind from an antibacterial fabric that you know practically cleans itself and so and we wipe this plane down every few hours but I think there are smarter ways to do that. I think with the use of technology and with design cues as well that kind of you could have sort of, you know, you could get something as simple as having permanently printed elements on or permanently or debossed elements of the seating product that state its function. That states its antibacterial properties or something. There’s a lot to explore there I think and also when it comes to design, like I think the topic of nesting came up recently where we’re a bit more sensitive now as to all these different nooks and crannies that previously were purposely designed to give you more space, more places to put your things, more ways to hide yourself from the next passenger now they are a bit of a liability because they are all possibly dirt and bacteria trapping places and so future designs I think are also going to keep that in mind have a bit less complex surfaces and not just less complex in their construction but visibly so. So that the passenger can see that this is easy to clean that this is, there aren’t any going to be hidden surfaces here and there and like I said treat it with whatever design decisions in colour and material to reassure the passenger I think.
Walton: Yeah definitely. It’s all fascinating just to think about how designers are going to be incorporating this in both the current generation of seats which are really are in production and will be produced during and after this pandemic. But also the next round of design seats. Fascinating stuff. Now this has already been a bumper episode but I wanted to end on a bit of a fun note. So in Singapore, Singapore Airlines has been doing all sorts of things around reminding people of the passenger experience. So let’s talk about that, first let’s talk about the on-ground dining experience that they have been offering. Aaron, tell us about this because it sounds great to me I am not going to lie.
Yong: I wish I could tell you from a firsthand experience first of all but alas I could not stomach the asking price, but to be fair, as far as novelties go, I think it’s a pretty good use of a grounded plane. I think it really sheds a lot of light onto the flight of an airline that has no domestic market to speak when borders are closed. So they really have to go all out and be pretty creative.
Walton: And so they are literally sort of parking a Singapore A380 at a gate at Changi boarding people on it and giving them dinner.
Yong: And it is interesting that yeah, not just any airline could do this, right, you have to have, and I guess this is what separates certain airlines that capitalize on the experience a lot and it really comes into play even when the plane is not even flying, even when you are not going to a destination because they built the brand so strongly that the mere experience of being on a Singapore Airlines flight in a Singapore Airlines cabin, being served by Singapore Airlines crew is considered desirable on some level. And so not every airline could pull this off. They also have the hard product to back it up. They have, they deployed their latest A380 product and rightfully so they want to show it off and I think it was a great strategy for a lot of people who otherwise might not get a chance to fly this. Even if you are someone who does fly regularly, you may be a well heeled individual but you may not necessarily be on these limited routes that this specific product flies on. You might not find yourself ever in that business class seat which is the best one, the most up to date one in SQ’s fleet. Even frequent business travelers, it still might be new to them. So I think it was a great opportunity for them to show off the hard product.
The food aspect of course that’s also a way for them to show off what they can do with the inflight dining experience but I think to be honest most people really bought into it because of the fact that it was on a plane. And of all planes the flagship of one of the most highly regarded airlines in the world. So we all know by now that the prices are not cheap. They were, and again you are paying for the novelty and let’s keep in mind that they did sell out really quickly, the entire, all four cabins, all four classes were on sale, so you could be paying something like 60 Singapore dollars for an economy class experience all the way up to I think, don’t quote me on this but, I think 500-600 Singapore dollars for a suites experience. So yeah and I think it was, you know, it’s the best they could have done with the situation. You mentioned the Kris shop as well that they’ve definitely kept capitalized on as well, and of course these are things that airlines have been doing for years but now the catch is that they’ve opened up a lot of, well Kris shop for example which is their inflight duty free catalogue, which also has a website that also does home deliveries has been focusing a lot more on the home deliveries side during COVID because that’s a source of revenue.
Walton: And because not a lot of duty free right now.
Yong: Exactly and so opening up a lot of the retail opportunities for that normally were reserved for inflight sales. Now they are giving, even things like liquor and electronics that normally would be subject to duties they would be selling them domestically in Singapore and absorbing a lot of the costs as well and so basically incentivizing people to keep engaging with the airline brand, with the airline product. On the face of it, I myself have been happy to order from them because you get, it’s kind of the best of both worlds. You don’t have to fly and you still get your mileage perks or whatever and of course everything is priced pretty aggressively in this time. So they are doing whatever they can and it’s quite understandable especially for an airline like I said that hasn’t got any domestic market to sustain them through this period.
Walton: Yeah, and to me it is fascinating how the brand equity which the airline has invested and lets be very clear this is a financial investment as well as anything else. Over the years, you know even if that’s going back all the way to the 1969 Pierre Balmain sarong dresses which I think is probably the greatest investment in a piece of airline branding ever, right. The same year as Concorde which it outlasted. The same year as the 747 which it outlasted. It’s fascinating to me how much benefit, that it has been very clear that that can bring to an airline in a time of crisis and I think that’s something for, once we all get flying again, hopefully next year, fingers crossed. Once things start to return to, not even return to once we start to find where the new normal is and as airlines start to think about how they position themselves, how they discover who they are in the post-COVID world. And who their travelers are. And who their customers are. That’s certainly something to think about and Aaron thank you it has been a very thought-provoking conversation today. Listeners, we certainly hope that you enjoyed and we are always keen to find out what you think. Please feel free to email me at John@runwaygirlnetwork.com with any suggestions. Aaron, thank you for joining us today and where can folks continue the conversation with you online?
Yong: Well I am on most socials at @AaronSamuelYong that’s my name spelt out and we are also with LIFT at LIFT.Aero. It’s exactly how it sounds. We’ve got some interesting products in the pipeline, we can’t wait to share. It’s unusual to be optimistic in this time but we are looking on the bright side and we are looking forward to sharing what we have been working on with the world as soon as we can. Hopefully we really stand in solidarity with everyone in aviation and depending on what job you are employed with, it can range from mildly inconvenience to extremely tough and so our thoughts go out to everyone affected but this crisis especially in our industry as well.
If you enjoy these conversations please do leave a rating review wherever you get your podcasts and thanks for listening.
Main image credit, John Walton.