Garuda vs Thai vs Singapore Airlines vs Malaysia Airlines

Now that I have gained a lot of experience in flying with each of these tropical heavyweights, I thought I would try to evaluate what each of these particular airlines do well, and where there is room for improvement. In the foreseeable future, I can possibly see the likes of Vietnam Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines, Philippine Airlines, as well as possibly Myanmar Airways International, join the original ‘Big 4’ of South East Asia, but for now, it is those aforesaid ‘Big 4’ on which I am going to concentrate.

I will give a little background on each airline, and recount some of my own experiences flying with each. I will also analyse the food and uniforms of each airline, as well as examining and comparing the service levels onboard. I will also take a look at the prestigious first class cabins of each of the airlines featured in this article, as well as their hub airports, in addition to adding some final thoughts on what the future may hold for aviation in general in this part of the world.

garuda737

Garuda Indonesia were once known as something of an unreliable or even unsafe airline, and were also banned from entering EU airspace on the basis on their poor aviation safety. However, recent improvements have left many people, myself included, very impressed with Garuda. Now a firm member of SkyTeam, they are one of the only airlines I have flown with who offer pre-takeoff drinks in economy class, and it is these added touches that make Garuda what it is today, and also gives an edge when compared to other airlines in the South East Asia region.

TG
Such a sexy beast!

Thai Airways is a member of Star Alliance and is a sleeping giant of the aviation world. They should be huge, but for some reason always seem to play second-fiddle to those around them – and have not fared well against the onslaught from the ME4. I have flown with Thai many times, mainly on regional flights within south east Asia, and have grown accustomed to their style and brand. The onboard product from Thai is usually inferior to that of SQ or MH, but certainly on par with Garuda. It must be said that the new Airbus A380s from Thai look amazing both inside and outside (see below), as the cabins are fitted with the latest in-seat technology and catering options. Recent unprofitability has led to the emergence of Thai Smile, a budget airline wholly owned by Thai Airways, which focuses on domestic routes and new routes in central China and Laos.

SQ

Unquestionably one of the heavyweights of the aviation world, Singapore Airlines is a staunch member of Star Alliance. Singapore Airlines is also an airline that I have flown in the past few years to their hub at Singapore Changi Airport from 4 different continents/regions (Europe, Middle-East, Australia, China), and have tried out economy class in the A330, B777, and the A380, as well as the imperious First Class Suites onboard the A380. Without meaning to sound biased, I have never had a bad flight with them, and many of those flights would rank among my top 5 most enjoyable of all-time.

MH: Old and new…big and small.

At the moment, Malaysia and the world is still mourning the fatal losses of both Flight MH370, which went missing over the Indian Ocean, and Flight MH17, which was recently shot down in the Ukraine, and this brings into question the long-term future of Malaysia Airlines, a recent addition to One World. Over the past few years, MH has been losing money to the budget carriers operating out of Kuala Lumpur (such as Air Asia) and in a part of the world where international flying of 4 hours or less is becoming increasingly popular, there is no need for the consumer to pay premium prices for these flights. In order to survive, and to once again attract the customer base it once had, MH has had to lower its prices drastically. Singapore Airlines and the other airlines listed in this article have also felt the pinch, but none as much as Malaysia Airlines. I have flown with MH only twice, on Boeing 737s each time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but my experience was very good and I noticed lots of nice little extra touches in economy class, as well as some very friendly and caring cabin crew members.

Food is a very important discipline when flying, as the airlines’ catering crews work frenetically to meet the demands, making sure every passenger is fed and watered, with a litter left over to spare in case of emergencies. Every airline has different menus, as well as little variations in the way they serve their meals onboard, and I will now take a little look at each of them, but first let’s look at some pictures to enhance my words:

A typical Garuda meal in economy class
A typical Garuda meal in economy class
Garuda's first class catering is incredible
Garuda’s first class catering is incredible
Thai economy class lunch
Thai economy class lunch
The champagne is free-flowing in Thai's First Class cabins
The champagne is free-flowing in Thai’s First Class cabins
Singapore Airlines economy class lunch
Singapore Airlines economy class lunch
Beef Rendang in Singapore Airline's A380 Suites
Beef Rendang in Singapore Airline’s A380 Suites
Dinner is served in Malaysia Airlines' economy cabin
Dinner is served in Malaysia Airlines’ economy cabin
A Business Class snack in Malaysia Airlines (Photo Credit: Pokfur)
A Business Class snack in Malaysia Airlines (Photo Credit: Pokfur)

If you are in economy class, like the majority of the passengers, then your meals (if any) will be quite basic, but the airline food industry has come a long way from the days of the 1990s where undercooked meats and pitifully small portions plagued the reputation of many an airline. Nowadays, there is great pride taken, all the way from factory level where the food is cooked, stored, and prepared, right up to the way it is served by the cabin crew onboard your plane. Every airline in South East Asia has little variations of how they do this, and some are more noticeable than others. Clearly, if you are in a premium cabin, such as business class or First Class, then your meals will more closely match the price you paid for your seat. In particular, Singapore Airlines has a concept known as ‘Book the Cook’, whereby you can order your meal online when you pay for your ticket, and have it cooked fresh for you on the plane by the resident chef – and you can also choose to eat this meal whenever you choose (apart from ascent and descent, obviously), and not at the times dictated by the cabin crew! This was pioneered by Singapore Airlines, and has since been copied by Malaysia Airlines.

Now I would like to take a little look at the uniforms of the cabin crew of each airline, with a picture for each below:

One of the two usual Garuda uniform variations
One of the two usual Garuda uniform variations
Thai Airways cabin crew
Thai Airways cabin crew
Malaysia Airlines' uniforms are similar to Singapore Airlines
Malaysia Airlines’ uniforms are similar to Singapore Airlines

sqcrew

I think the Malaysia Airlines kebaya looks very similar to that of Singapore Airlines, but unfortunately for them much more bland. It just looks dull, and actually less impressive than the other cabin crew uniforms on display in this article. Singapore Airlines have a very famous uniform, which actually was first introduced to the air by Malaysia Airlines and since adopted by SQ. In fact, a lot of people consider the Singapore Airlines uniform to be among the best in the sky, and it recently won the award from SKYTRAX for the best Asian Airline uniform. Here you can check out the full results of its survey. The cabin crew uniform of Thai is a little plain, but the colours suit the livery of the aircraft, with a dark purple, and SKYTRAX also seem to like it. Garuda seem to currently have two colours for their cabin crew uniforms, as on the two occasions I have flown with them I have seen something different. I do much prefer the turquoise blue, though, as it suits the airline’s livery much better, and the orange doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than make the cabin crew stand out. It could be a kind of hierarchy thing on Garuda, where the senior members of cabin crew (purser) have a different colour uniform to differentiate them, much like on Singapore Airlines, where the senior members of the team wear a red kebaya.

Next, I think it is a good time to see each of these 4 airlines in action through some economy class YouTube flight reports that I have hand-picked for you from some of my favourite amateur videographers:

Garuda Indonesia Flight GA873 Hong Kong to Jakarta, by Flight Report Productions:

Thai Airways Flight TG910 Bangkok to London, by Myanmar Flyer:

Singapore Airlines Flight SQ15 Seoul to San Francisco, by FlightTravels:

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH3 Kuala Lumpur to London, by SwanInnSongkran:

What you can see from each of the videos embedded above is that each airline has its own style in-flight, with very different entertainment systems. It is worth noting that Malaysia Airlines and Thai both operate a large number of aircraft that does not have in-flight entertainment worthy of the name (in the case of Thai, even their much-maligned regional A330s do not have PTV), where as Garuda have PTV in many of their B737s even on domestic routes, which is a very impressive feat. You will have seen a lot of meals in the videos above, and from my own knowledge, I must say that in my experience, Singapore Airlines gets the top vote, as their meals are very consistent and plentiful, whereas the portions on my Garuda flights have been somewhat small, though tasty.

Now for a little look at some of the airlines’ premium services, such as the first class and business class lounges and cabins.

Photo courtesy of Dirk Traveller
Photo courtesy of Dirk Traveller
Garuda's new first class onboard their B777s
Garuda’s new first class onboard their B777s

For a great first class trip report on Garuda Indonesia’s A330 between Jakarta and Melbourne (I have also travelled this route, but only in economy class), check out this very detailed page over at airliners.net from Dirk Traveller.

Thai Royal Silk Lounge at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi
Thai Royal Silk Lounge at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi
First Class cabin on Thai A340s (a bit simple?)
First Class cabin on Thai A340s (a bit simple?)

In my experiences, and from what I have heard from others, Thai have great service in their lounges and this service extends itself into the first class cabins aboard their planes. Although, it must be said that, while the newer aircraft in their fleet such as the Airbus A380 have pristine and modern décor and facilities, most of the other aircraft, such as 747s and A340s have average facilities.

The Private Room at Changi
The Private Room at Changi
Inside my own A380 Suite
Inside my own A380 Suite

I have flown with Singapore Airlines in First Class Suites to Hong Kong and would love to one day repeat my experience. At Changi Airport, Singapore Airlines’ hub, there is a private lounge for Suites class passengers only called The Private Room. It is a very dark room with elegant colours. I was fortunate enough to spend some time in there myself, and the breakfast I had of waffles, strawberries and chocolate sauce was divine! Singapore Airlines also have a Book the Cook policy in their first class (and indeed business class) cabins, whereby you can order your meal online beforehand and have a talented chef prepare it for you on the plane during the flight. You eat when you want to eat on Singapore Airlines, so a quick touch of a button will call over a Singapore Girl, who will in turn let the chef know to commence the cooking!

Impressive Facilities for Malaysia Airlines at KLIA
Impressive Facilities for Malaysia Airlines at KLIA
Malaysia Airlines lie-flat beds onboard their A380s
Malaysia Airlines lie-flat beds onboard their A380s

Malaysia Airlines currently have the second most impressive premium cabins of the 4 ASEAN airlines listed in this article. In particular in their newer aircraft, such as the A380, their lie-flat beds with dark, welcoming colours provide a nice rest and relaxation area for travellers in long-haul flights. The service onboard is also world-renowned from the friendly MH cabin crew. Much like their rivals Singapore Airlines, MH also have a Book the Cook option, and this allows you to choose your meal well in advance of your flight – but of course this is no ordinary meal!

Now it is time to give some final thoughts on what the future will hold for the big 4 of ASEAN.

It is clear to me that Thai Airways need to improve drastically to cling on to the likes of Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. Garuda Indonesia, who last year were named the Most Improved Airline in the World, are now clearly ahead of Thai, as far as I am concerned. I base this on the service levels received in the cabin, the attitude of the ground staff and check-in staff at the airports, and the hard product in the aircraft itself, such as seats and PTV. Thai lag so far behind the other airlines in those departments, that you wonder how long it would take them to catch up. They are quite frankly a mess, at present. I think the future for Thai in the mid-term is to consolidate its east Asia trade, where it has traditionally been a very strong player to the likes of Japan and Taiwan. Conversely, Thai is being destroyed by Emirates and the other members of the ME4 for flights from Bangkok to Europe, so there is no room for expansion there, yet there is room for improvement in India, especially the central areas such as Hyderabad and Bangalore. European routes need to be trimmed; get rid of flights to Milan, Arnhem, Madrid, and Munich, and consolidate flights to high-yielding destinations such as London, Paris, and Frankfurt, with daily flights with the A380, rather than double daily flights. This would allow for Thai to sell some of their aircraft, as latest figures show they are running an average of 60% load factor across their entire network – and in 2014 traffic plunged a whopping 43%. A great detailed analysis of Thai Airways’ recent strife and future goals can be found at this page from the ever-reliable Centre for Aviation.

Being a key SkyTeam member, it is clear that Garuda is now a big player in the ASEAN region, and now they have ditched their plans for ultra-long-haul non-stop service to London Gatwick from Jakarta, they can focus more on the Indonesia-Japan market, which has a lot of room for expansion now there is so much disposable income among the Indonesian middle-class. Garuda is also a big player now in the Indonesia-Australia traffic marlet, with daily non-stop flights to Melbourne and Sydney departing not only from Jakarta, but also from Bali. Their strategic alliance with Etihad gives them a great codeshare route to Abu Dhabi and beyond to a whole wide-range of European destinations on the Etihad network that Garuda cannot and will not ever serve themselves. Domestically, too, Garuda seem to be winning the battle against the LCCs, such as Indonesia Air Asia and Lion Air, which is more than can be said for their Malaysian counterparts.

Although in regard to their onboard product, Malaysia Airlines do not have a problem whatsoever, and with arguably the friendliest crew in the sky to compliment this, I cannot see that changing in the foreseeable future. However, what MH need to do is focus on their core network, and continue to lose some of the glory routes in order to cut back on costs due to falling profits. They have already began this by axing Los Angeles from their route map, and while it is a shame that Malaysia Airlines no longer serve the US, it nonetheless now has the opportunity to relocate those planes elsewhere – perhaps get stronger foothold in Australia and within South East Asia – and try to capitalise on existing markets. A strategic alliance with Etihad Airways has also been mooted to try to improve the ailing MAS profits, which would replicate the strategy that Garuda already has in place (although I argue profusely that a link up with One World partner Qatar Airways would be a better option). Also, when compared to the way Garuda Indonesia handles its domestic operations, Malaysia Airlines are way behind, as Air Asia operating out of KLIA 2 are currently dominating the domestic and short haul market with their extremely low fares. MAS need to better utilise their regional brand Firefly to actively take on the Air Asia success. The brand image of MH may have taken a battering with the unfortunate tragedies of MH370 and MH17 but surely all travellers will earmark the airline as one of the best in the world in terms of what you get on board.

Singapore Airlines often charge a slight premium on their fares, as they are capitalising on their own good brand image, similar to what Malaysia Airlines do slightly less successfully with theirs. Many travellers, myself included, find this small premium acceptable for the level of consistently good service we know will get. What does the future hold for SQ? Well, aside from adding Premium Economy to its cabins to combat losses, I would like them to expand further into Africa with their own metal, even if it’s not directly from Singapore. Currently, SQ only serve Johannesburg direct, with that flight flying on to Cape Town, and also Cairo being served via Dubai. Perhaps Addis Ababa? Or maybe Lagos or Dakar in west Africa via the Middle-East or even Europe? The European network, which includes 4 daily flights to London, plus Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Munich, Barcelona, Moscow, Istanbul, and Copenhagen are all fairly profitable for SQ right now, and in terms of their A380 utilisation on some of these routes, they at least know how to spread their wings in the right places, unlike the military-controlled Thai.

garuda1

Please take a look at my other aviation blogs, including my analysis of Emirates vs Etihad vs Qatar vs Turkish in the battle of the big Middle East 4, Air India vs Srilankan vs PIA vs Biman Bangladesh in the battle of the Sub-Continent, and EVA vs Korean Air vs All Nippon vs Cathay Pacific in the battle of the Far East 4!

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36 thoughts on “Garuda vs Thai vs Singapore Airlines vs Malaysia Airlines

  1. Im a bit upset to read that you wrote kebaya for thai and singapore, actually kebaya is indonesian traditional daily outfit since my old old old grand mother.. :p anyway thanks for flight reference !

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    1. Hi there, thanks for dropping by! I think I wrote that the kebaya is worn by MAS and SIA cabin crews, not the Thai ones. And I don’t think Garuda cabin crew have ever had the kebaya as their uniform, even if it is an old traditional Indonesian attire. But anyway I will add into my post that it is an Indonesian garment.Cheers 🙂

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      1. Lee,if u look at the real history of Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines, MAS introduced the kebaya first before SIA.It’s just because SIA took that particular thing as a big business to make their airline great.Still, u did a great explanation throughout the the 4 airlines.I know SIA will be the best in South East Asia,and MAS is lagging a bit in terms of destinations.I hope MAS will have their destinations back.Thanks

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        1. Ummmm…get your facts right. MSA and Batey Ads introduced the Uniform, that’s why Singapore Airlines is still using the uniform and not Malaysia. It is designed by Pierre Balmain. It’s simple deduction. If Malaysia Airlines owned the rights, Singapore Airlines uniform would be the one that’s different. You need to get your facts right.

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    2. The Kebaya is also worn by Peranakans. It originated from Indonesia and influenced many cultures. The Singapore Airlines uniform is inspired by the Kebaya which is not exclusively Indonesian. Upset for what?

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    1. Thanks Indah! I was always curious with Garuda before I flew with them, but now I really am impressed. The cabin crew make a real effort to make you feel at ease during the flights.

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  2. Good analysis Lee! As I have only flew on MAS, I cannot compare with the other 3 but obviously your analysis has made me aware.

    As for the kebaya, I tend to agree with you that the MAS kebaya looks a bit bland, though I like the V neck better than the round neck donned by the SIA crews. Anyway, the reason both airlines donned the kebaya is quite historic. As far as I am concerned, it is due to the fact that during the days of MSA [Malaysia-Singapore Airlines], the crews wore kebaya.

    So, when they separated to MAS and SIA, both want to keep the historical outfit, thus both use the kabaya until today.

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    1. That’s a good point you make about the airlines being the same back in the 50s and 60s. Since they split, they both kept the Kebaya. It seems pretty obvious now you put it like that 😉

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  3. Hai.i just want to leave a lil bit correction comment about the Kebaya.Im asking the Garuda crew directly when i fly to japan..they said that is a traditional indonesia kebaya.not like the malaysian or singapore…and they explained to me about their skirts too…its from batik which is one of the fabric recognized by Unesco as a truly original fabric pattern from their country indonesia.
    One think im agree with you.i prefer the blue tourquoise one.hehehehe..but the orange isnt that bad too

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  4. Just want to make a comment that SQ’s book the cook meal is still cooked on the ground and not cooked fresh in the air. There is no inflight resident chef as you put it, on any SQ flights.

    Also the pic of Beef Rendang is a SQ’s Business class meal and not a Suites’ meal.

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    1. Thanks for the info Katya. The way my meal was prepared/heated didn’t look like somebody had done it on the ground (didn’t realise the cabin crew were so talented as to arrange my macrons and ice cream so amazingly, either!) but thanks for correcting me. 🙂

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  5. This is great information. I will be traveling to Tokyo in May from the US and I have been researching foreign airline carriers. I am so ready to try something different and it just seems that these carriers are way ahead of American brands especially in the business/first class arena. I love these kinds of blogs because it has helped me choose amongst all the different brands out there to see how I can get the most out of my money and experience! I think I have narrowed it down to Singapore first class, so thank you for your videos and reviews!

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    1. No problem, Angel B! Glad you found it all useful! I hope you have a great time in Singapore Airlines first class. If you fly on the A380 (depends on the route) you may get to experience the same Suites that I had! 😀

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  6. Malaysia Airlines has better service and the cabin crew is perfect. I used to fly alone annually from Auckland to kl as a child and they treated me well. Singapore airlines service was only ok. So in my opinion malaysia airlines is the better of the two in terms of service and in flight satisfaction

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    1. Interesting comments, Aaron. I think generally, SQ is a better airline than MH, but good experiences like yours always helps MH get a better reputation. But both airlines need to watch out for Garuda – they are on the rise!

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  7. Hi Backpackerlee, thanks a lot for your meticulous review. Really enjoy reading and getting to know deeper in those regional airlines. I read your review previously on the ME4 airlines, FE4 airlines and then came to these SEA4 airlines. I see comments here mostly debating (or even adding) info regarding to “kebaya”. Just my humble fairness opinion, “kebaya” is part of any South East Asian nation, because we blend in the same assimilative culture. GA cabin crews also used to wear uniform in similar style with their peers in SQ and MH, back in the 1990’s. Since GA underwent a massive restructuring, they transformed into more modern elegant look. They now have 4 arrangement colours (with latest additional of eggplant purple colour), kebaya style with “batik” clothing (kebaya is associated to the design, while batik is type of fabric).

    for further reference:
    http://www.uniformfreak.com/1garuda.html

    https://www.skyclub.com/blog/service-with-more-than-just-a-smile-cream-of-the-crop-cabin-crew

    Based on my personal experience, I have to admit SQ is by far the most well organised in the regions. They have done it professionally, the aircrafts (wide array of international routes), record of punctuality (delay flight is prohibited enemy for any flier, let alone cancellation flight), the efficient cabin staff (fast -somehow robotic- but with decent language speaking), all beats other airlines. Although I notice, they are lagging in personal touch service. When it comes to the sincerity and friendly smile, one can expect more from GA, TG or MH. By rule, SQ stewardess will smile for you, but I can see this doesn’t come from the heart. When you’re flying for hours and your home is squeezed into half meter booth, having a warm-hearted and friendly chaperone will make you feel like in a real home. Again this is just my personal opinion, others might experience differently.

    Looking forward for more review from you!

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    1. Thanks for more information about the kebaya, Gisela! That was very interesting, especially about Gardua’s new uniforms. 🙂 I also appreciate your comments on the SQ cabin crew – I have heard a lot of people say their crews can be somewhat robotic, although in my experience I have had good times with them.

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  8. I have flown from Bangkok to Manila flying thru Philippine Airlines and I like the way their crew entertain us. Such a nice crew way back to Finland. Hoping this Airline would have fly to London so it is easy for me from Finland to Manila and Bangkok for my summer vacation.

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  9. You facts are a little off. The Uniform for Singapore airlines was introduced when the two countries had a merged airline. Singapore introduced the uniform and as such, managed to retain it. It was designed by Pierre Balmain along with Batey Ads that conceptualized the “Singapore Girl”. Isn’t it obvious by comparing the two airlines now, actually, there really is no comparison, one is the original while the other is a sad and try hard copy.

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