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Sunday December 16, 2007

Golden assets

IT began as Malayan Airways Limited (MAL) in 1947, became Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) in 1967 and then into Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in 1972. 

After its take-off, MAS steadily climbed the commercial aviation stakes in its first 20 years. 

Then it encountered serious turbulence after being privatised to Tajudin Ramli in 1994. The turmoil continued until late 2005, when new CEO Datuk Seri Idris Jala pulled MAS out of its nosedive. 

In this second and final part of our report on MAS in conjunction with its 60th anniversary, we pay tribute to the airline’s greatest asset: its staff. 

IN 1972, the bulk of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) staff were based in Singapore and efforts were made to persuade the Malaysian personnel to return to Kuala Lumpur and help set up MAS. But fewer than 200 returned and indeed, this was an unsung act of patriotism on their part because the yet to be launched Malaysia Airline System (MAS) was an uncertain prospect.  

“Initially, there were some expats. But we eventually trained thousands of Malaysians as pilots, engineers, flight operations, finance and sales people,” says Lee Shu Poh, 77, who served as MAS customer services manager and then director of operations from 1972–1988.  

Faridah Abdul Rahman (in jacket) was a MAS crew trainer for 17 years after serving 12 years as a stewardess.
Bernard Thomazios, 65, who joined in 1972 before retiring as deputy managing director in 1992 adds, “We trained Malaysians to operate our own airline.”  

One senior executive who returned says: “I came back as Malaysia needed me. But my former colleagues (who went on to join SIA) all retired as multi-millionaires. Over the years, our salaries in MAS were not that high.”  

Nevertheless, MAS has made immense contributions to Malaysian human capital. This included the training of commercial pilots. 

And as Captain Hassan Ahmad, 71, the first Malay civil aviation captain, recalls, the route to pilot-hood was long and arduous.  

Crowds lining up for MAS job interviews in KL, 1972.
At 16, he was an air cadet and had to cycle from one end of KL to the other for flying lessons (from his home in Sentul to the Sungai Besi airport). After that, he became a teacher based in Tanjung Malim, Perak. 

“I had to take the bus or train down to KL every other weekend to do my PPL (private pilot’s licence),” says Hassan. “Later, I managed to get a Colombo Plan scholarship to take my CPL (commercial pilot’s licence) in Jakarta.”  

He joined MAL as a pilot in 1962, as one of only two Malay pilots then. By the time he retired in 1992, MAS had trained some 500 pilots.  

“By the 1990s, MAS pilots were a proven product,” says Hassan. “We could speak pretty good English. In fact, many of our pilots were taken by other airlines, especially SIA, since the routes were almost the same. Many also joined Air Asia .”  

Captain Ahmad Zuraidi Dahalan, 50, the current senior general manager of flight operations, says that many of his colleagues have also left to join airlines in Korea, China (in the 1990s) and the Middle East (in the past few years). 

“The pay is better,” he reveals. 

To demonstrate how advanced the training is, several journalists are invited “on board” the Boeing 777 flight simulator. 

“OK, let’s fly to Port Dickson,” announces Captain Tan Poh Keat, 52, while his son, Tan Chun Wei, 23, is the assistant pilot.  

Shortly, we “take off” from KLIA, glimpse the “beach” through the cockpit’s “windscreens”, and return for a perfect landing. It’s the ultimate “video game” (with a180-degree screen) except that the whole cabin tilts and jerks – just like a real flight!  

This simulator, one of five that MAS has (they cost between RM40mil and RM50mil each), is a crucial tool in training.  

“The training standards are high,” says Zuraidi. “We have a good safety record as certified by IATA (International Air Transport Association) in its Operational Safety Audit. It’s not easy to get that. There are stringent checks.”  

What about the air crash of 1995 in Tawau, Sabah? 

“That was due to human error. We study human performance, and learn from flight accidents around the world. Airlines share their experiences,” he says.  

The pilot's life  

One perk for Zuraidi is that his family has seen the world (captains are entitled to free/discounted family tickets) .  

“But it's also a tough career as you are often away from home,” he says. “My wife was very understanding and she had to take care of the children by herself. She is the pillar of the family.”  

Zuraidi's only son, Johan, used hide his father's cap.  

“He was a small boy then and he didn’t want me to go away. He didn’t like my uniform much.” 

Both father and son, now sitting side by side in their MAS pilot uniforms, smile at this recollection.  

“The pay is good and you get to travel,” says Johan, 22, a first officer. “But we have not flown together yet as my father flies Boeing 747s while I am handling the Airbus A330.” 

“Maybe one day,” quips Zuraidi. “My daughters also tease me about they wanting to be pilots.” 

At present MAS does not accept female pilots but he thinks that “it’s a matter of time” before this policy changes.  

Zuraidi has had to deal with engine failure (luckily, the other three were still functioning!) and even a mentally unbalanced passenger who once tried to open the aircraft door – in mid-flight.  

Another father-son pilot team in MAS are the Tans. The elder Poh Keat joined MAS after 17 years in the Royal Malaysian Air Force.  

“I used to be a limousine chauffeur (in the sky),” he jokes. “I was piloting the executive jet for VIPs in the Air Force so it was not difficult for me to convert to flying passenger aircraft.” 

His son, Chun Wei, has served as a MAS pilot for just three months.  

“I was always interested in flying and when my father showed me the cockpit, I was amazed. ” 

In attendance 

The first interviews in 1972 for flight crew saw hundreds of applicants. Some girls who were barely above the minimum height of 5ft 1in (155cm) resorted to wearing the highest heels and even hot pants beneath slashed maxi skirts, according to Airborne, the 45th anniversary commemorative book of MAS.  

Lee, who was then director of customer services, recalls that he would mildly provoke his interviewees.  

“ Sometimes I would tell the girls that `Your lipstick colour does not suit you.’ And then we would see how she responded. Some were clever and diplomatic. Others were offended and defensive.”  

Alice Nazareth, 54, joined as a stewardess in 1973. 

“When I was in Form Six, I saw this MAS van stopping at the traffic lights. Inside, were smiling stewardesses all dolled up in their vivid kebayas. I knew then what I wanted to be.”  

The first uniforms, by local designer Andy Chiew, were a navy blue sarong kebaya for air hostesses and western style jackets and skirts (above the knee, ahem) for ground hostesses.  

By the 1980s, the shorter skirts had gone maxi and Alice recalls how stewardesses had a choice of brown or green kebaya tops. In 1986, the full kebaya with stylised jasmine flowers and kelarai leaves (which continues till today) was introduced.  

Another pioneer was Edmund Read, who joined MAS in 1972 (at a salary of RM250 a month) and worked his way up to Flight Services Manager in the 1990s.  

In Airborne, he recalls the early days when barefoot passengers with spears and parangs would sometimes board the aircraft in Sarawak.  

“Those were pre-hijacking days. They often brought all their worldly possessions along.” 

Other passengers would board the aircraft with ringgit notes, sometimes in baskets, and dole them out to the in-flight crew. 

“What else could we do but get ground services to issue them tickets on the spot,” he says. 

Faridah Abdul Rahman, 50, who was a stewardess for 12 years (after joining in 1977), remembers that on some flights in Sabah, people would bring whole coops of live chickens on board. 

“We were flying (48-seater) Fokkers then and the cargo would be at the back. Sometimes the coops would break and little chicks would be running among the seats.” 

“It would be our duty to go and catch them!” chips in Mazlan Mokty, 48, who has been a steward since 1980.  

Despite such misadventures, his daughter, Mazrynna Dyanna Mazlan, 26, has also signed up as air crew. 

“In fact, about nine of our relatives, including Mazrynna’s brothers and sisters-in-law are flying,” says Mazlan. “There are also other people whose sons and daughters have joined as air crew.”  

Nevertheless, there were times over the years when attractive terms of service had to be fought for. A major labour dispute began in December 1979 when staff boycotted overtime work. It grew worse until the Government directed the airline to suspend all flights in February 1980. Soon after, 18 union leaders were arrested under the ISA. 

The strike ended in April when the Government raised its salary increment offer from 8.8% to 17.9% but not before the dispute gained international attention when International Transport Workers Federation members supported their Malaysian counterparts by refusing to service a MAS DC10 plane that landed in Sydney. It returned only after the Royal Australian Air Force refuelled it.  

Alice recalls those times: “Initially, MAS was a small airline and could not afford so many benefits. But after a few years, we wanted to be on par with other airlines. I remember one of the biggest things we were fighting for was better meal allowances. Some destinations had a high cost of living and we had to pay just as much for food as crews from SIA or Cathay (Pacific). 

“During the strike, we would spend time together at the airport and sing songs such as We Will Overcome (made popular by Martin Luther King while fighting for blacks in America during the 1960s),” says Alice. “After MAS gave us generous increments, it still reaped profits. To us, it was about looking after the staff as assets.”  

The right stuff 

And what assets they turned out to be. Selma Osman, who oversaw stewardesses in 1972, forecasted then that friendly in-flight service and winsome smiles would be the standout features of MAS.  

“(It’s) not so much (about being) a sophisticated swinger but rather a sincere, pleasant girl,” she says in Airborne

That vision has come to pass, what with MAS aircrew having won the prestigious Skytrax World’s Best Cabin Staff Award in 2002, 2004 and 2007. 

“It’s not just about looking good and smiling,” explains Faridah, who became a crew trainer for 17 years after her flying days ended. “It’s also about the ability to care, to show compassion. Customers nowadays are more sophisticated and the ability to communicate and meet requests are important.” 

In fact, as long as they are in uniform, crew members are expected to be on their best behaviour. 

“When walking from the plane to the hotel, the stewardesses should walk in a brisk yet feminine and graceful manner. As for the stewards, they should walk tall, not slouch, with their noses pointed neither upwards nor downwards but straight-ahead,” says Faridah. 

While the airline's aim of striving to provide friendly and professional service remains unchanged, times and attitudes, however, have changed.  

“In the past, there were few aircraft and we were like a small family. Those were simpler times and we were always together. I remember how we all used to go to Chinese movies (when stopping over) in Taiwan even though some of us could hardly understand any dialogue,” recalls Alice.  

“Now the airline has grown so big, and we don’t stick so closely together. There’s also the generation gap. The young are more sophisticated and independent minded.”  

On the Tajudin Ramli era and the continuing freefall that MAS was caught in, none of the people interviewed would comment on it – which is telling in itself. Instead, they prefer to talk about the present and the future. 

Mazlan, for example, says: “In the past two years, the morale has really gone up. We have a lot of faith in the new management.”  

And Zuraidi sums it up nicely, “MAS has gone through ups and downs and we have weathered the storms. But we are here to stay.” 

Part 1:
Flying high once more

Related Stories:
How the Government helped MAS


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