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Sunday February 24, 2008

Welcome ‘home’ - to an airplane


starmag-feedback@thestar.com.my 

It’s nice to know that one of the best traits of Malaysia – warm hospitality – can be experienced all over the world, courtesy of the national airline. 

MALAYSIA Airlines (MAS) won the prestigious Skytrax World’s Best Cabin Staff Award from 2001 to 2004 and again in 2007.  

And this year, the national flag carrier is making an all-out effort to rebrand its airline code, MH, as “Malaysian Hospitality”. 

“Every time you see MH, remind yourself you are not dealing with passengers or colleagues. You are a host making people feel good in your own home,” Datuk Idris Jala, the CEO of MAS said in a circular to staff last year. 

Inflight services controller Zurina Abdullah (second left) showing trainees how to prepare passenger seat tables in a mock aircraft interior at the MAS Training Academy. – Photos by NORAFIFI EHSAN / The Star
In an interview with StarMag, Idris added, “Hospitality is in our genes-lah. We are a naturally warm and friendly people.”  

The reputation of MAS had been brought low in the past few years due to massive losses but that was due more to financial/corporate mismanagement rather than any deficiency in cabin service.  

Now that the airline’s profits are soaring again, its service can shine without any distractions. 

 

Rigorous training 

This writer got a glimpse into what makes a world class air crew at the MAS training centre in Petaling Jaya recently. 

First off, the quality of people applying to join has risen.  

“Last time, maybe those who joined were those who didn’t do well in SPM. Nowadays, graduates are joining too. I myself have a Business degree,” revealed Nadzmeen Mohd, a steward with 12 years’ experience. “We get to see the world and the pay is good, up to RM6,000 after several years of service.” 

“More than a thousand candidates go for interviews and only 50 or 60 are chosen each time.” 

It’s not just about looking pretty. At the training centre, I got to see stewardess plunging into a huge pool in full sarong kebaya (no, not much is revealed!) and clambering onto life rafts. 

Safety runs the whole gamut from firefighting to using defibrillators to revive heart attack victims.  

“We are not just tea and coffee boys,” added Nadzmeen. 

Stewardesses are taught to walk with feminine grace, poise and confidence.
Aziz Al Rahim Hussin, the Flight Operations Manager in charge of safety and training, underlined that all crew members must be tested on safety procedures every 13 months. 

Since the events of 9/11 in 2001, air crews around the world have had to be extra vigilant about terrorist threats. 

“Before, everybody was welcome to visit the cockpit,” he said.  

“Nowadays, if someone approaches the cockpit, the air crew have code words to raise the alarm.  

“Despite their nice kebayas and smiles, don’t try anything funny on board. Everybody has their soft spots,” added Aziz, referring to the self-defence courses that the crew go through.  

 

Looking good 

Of course, appearance is part of the job, too.  

“Parents have told us that their children have been transformed from rough stones into diamonds,” quipped inflight services manager Gunalan Unni Nair.  

“When passengers board the flight, our crew should present the correct poise, politeness and confidence. It’s about how they stand, smell and speak,” said Carol Chang, an inflight service controller (trainer).  

At the grooming and deportment training room, there were mirrors all around a catwalk. A trainee walked up some steps, coyly holding onto the front slit in her sarong while a flash of lower leg appeared.  

“The ladies have to walk with the proper posture, gracefully and lady-like, with the nose pointed neither upwards nor downwards,” explained Faridah Abdul Rahman, a senior crew trainer.  

Training in using makeup is part of the course for stewardesses.
Chang added that hair could only be coloured in certain approved shades of brown and certainly not a shocking blonde or blue. .  

“The uniform is very traditional and the hairstyle should also reflect that,” she said.  

As for the men, another inflight service controller, Zurina Abdullah, pointed out,  

“They should not drag their feet or hunch. Hair can be spiked, but it can't be longer than 4cm.” 

There are rules even for facial hair.  

Saga Devan, an inflight supervisor clarified, “We men are allowed to have a moustache only if it doesn’t look too fierce. Like mine, it’s considered okay. And even then, we must carry an authorising letter around with us!”  

 

Hourglass figure?  

Are stewardesses required to have an hourglass figure?  

“It would not do justice to the sarong kebaya if they put on weight,” said Chang. “During recruitment, those who look too heavy, or even too thin and anorexic, will not be selected.” 

Air crew trainees take the plunge, literally, in training to deal with emergencies such as an aircraft ditching at sea.
Crew members are measured against a body mass index (BMI) chart correlated with height and age. If supervisors feel that certain air crew are overweight , they will be given three months to trim down .  

Chang explained, “ We will advise them on diet and exercise. We also don’t want them to go on unhealthy crash diets. If they still don’t lose weight after three months, they will be grounded with desk jobs. ”  

 

Real life test 

Theory can only take you so far. And so, I was invited on an actual flight to Bali to experience this Malaysian Hospitality for myself.  

First off, there was the plush MAS Business Class lounge at KLIA, complete with a golf putting green, massage chairs and even a spa!  

Upon boarding the plane, there was the customary warm welcome which I have come to like about MAS.  

After some two decades of air travel, I have had my share ofairlines (especially European ones) where there is a certain “frostiness” behind the “professional” politeness.  

But on MAS flights, whenever I have been overseas for some time, I always feel like I have arrived “home” upon boarding due to the easy-going warmth of the Malaysian air crew. Maybe it's just their innate Asian affability. And oh, that smell of nasi lemak wafting through the cabin.... 

Flight Operations Manager Aziz Al Rahim Hussin ensures the cabin crew can maintain air safety.
Our take-off to Bali was delayed by some 15 minutes as they had to trace a missing bag. It was nice of the captain to apologise, even though his voice was barely audible over the plane’s public address (PA) speakers. 

The economy class service was excellent on the flight to Bali. After take off, I wandered to the galley and saw how tricky it was for the crew to pour welcome drinks as the plane rocked and rolled in mild turbulence.  

“We’re used to the work,” said stewardess Christy Lee. 

On my return flight from Bali on Business Class, the service was also warm and gracious. 

“On Business Class, we address all passengers by name,” said Baljit Kaur, the stewardess serving me.  

However, when I switched on the overhead light to read, the top half of my copy of The Star was dark as the light was misaligned. My grilled chicken in thyme was adequate, but certainly not scintillating. Neverthe-less, the bread and butter pudding, as well as the wines, were more up to Business Class standards. 

When I asked several people about their experience of flying MAS, most were quite happy.  

“The service, especially on the long haul flights, was excellent,” said one.  

 

Mat Salleh factor 

However, Anixi (not her real name) had a bad experience, “ Once, after I boarded the aircraft and had already put away two bags, I was made to move to accommodate two American women who were travelling together and had arrived much later. 

“I questioned why I was being inconvenienced and the steward insisted that I move, saying I would be holding up the entire flight. I refused and he went away only to return and say ‘The captain orders you to move!’” 

Inflight services controller Carol Chang turns young women into world class stewardesses.
Indeed, I have heard complaints that MAS air crew seemed “extra nice” to Mat Sallehs (Westerners) while speaking rather plainly to Malaysians.  

Kee Thuan Chye, Associate Editor at The Star commented, “Sure, they talk different to Mat Sallehs but that’s a national malaise.”  

Is this a case of our natural Asian affability (towards foreigners especially) going too far? Is that why MAS used to have those annoying announcements – “Thuan-thuan and phuan-phuan... kameee akan mendharatt di... sila ikat taleee pinggang...” – where Malay is spoken in a fake, almost breathless, Western accent?  

Gunalan acknowledged the problem.  

“Discrimination is discussed at length during training. There are case studies, role playing and constant reminders. Misconceptions may also arise because we always serve ladies or the person at the window seat first.”  

Chang added, “Well, it's just that Mat Sallehs are also more extroverted, chatty and curious to find out about our culture. So when crew indulge in conversation, it appears like preferential treatment. 

“We remind our crew, for instance, if the Mat Sallehs ask for a drink, please ask the locals seated next to them if they'd like one as well.” 

I myself have never experienced such discrimination in my many MAS flights over the years. And on the flipside, air crew also have to contend with certain Asian routes renowned for “difficult and demanding” passengers. 

Nadzmeen replied, “Maybe it's their culture. We have to deal with them firmly without being rude.”  

Stewardess Shazly Bashah related, “Sometimes they will pull our kebaya and tease, ‘Oh sister, sister’. I have to tell them ‘Please don’t touch’ yet try to joke a bit.”  

Over the years, stewardesses have also occasionally had to contend with snide and salacious male chauvinist comments. For instance, Idris Haron, the Member of Parliament for Tangga Batu, Malacca, told the august Dewan Rakyat in 2005 that the “sexy dress, make-up and voice” of MAS stewardesses might arouse the desires of male passengers – especially during long, boring flights – and “cause them to release their frustration” onto those ladies.  

“You can’t just pick on the stewardesses. It’s all up to one’s upbringing and values. It can happen in any job or nightclub,” said Alice Nazareth, a trainer and former stewardess.  

Rewards 

Have many stewardesses married millionaires?  

“Oh, you mean lucky draw?” laughed Norhana and Baljit. “It’s a personal choice.” 

Inflight supervisor Saga Devan and his approved ‘not too fierce’ moustache.
Chang said many stewardesses have indeed married Datuks or rich businessmen.  

“Many also married their colleagues. I married a ‘bus driver’. That’s what I call my husband, who pilots an Airbus,” she smiled. 

Such are the real life pressures and concerns of air crew.  

Nevertheless, MAS training standards are well recognised.  

“Our instructors are well regarded internationally. Some have joined other airlines, especially in the Middle East,” said Saga.  

And, surely, standards can only improve with the current MH campaign.  

As one of the slogans go, “We believe a smile is the shortest distance between different cultures.” 

As we landed at KLIA after the pleasant flight from Bali, I heard over the PA, “To our visitors, selamat datang, and to all Malaysians, selamat pulang.” 

Yes, it's all about feeling “at home”.  

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