It's just another job

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 16 Mar 2014

A career in the air has its risks but it is worth it.

WHERE is he? Her husband was the first thing that crossed Alyssa’s mind when she heard about Malaysia Airlines MH370 going missing.

Mystery of MH370

“He is also a cabin crew staff, and he had flown out to London the same night. My knees went weak and I started trembling.”

Alyssa was so relieved when she heard from him a few hours later. “I had checked on his flight and knew it was all right but still the fear was there.”

As a former cabin crew herself, Alyssa knows too well how safe flying is, and how well trained the cabin crew staff are in dealing with all sorts of incidents.

“But when you hear news like this, it is still a shock,” she says, adding that she and her family have been praying for the safety of the missing flight.

The country, let alone the whole world, has been gripped by the mysterious disappearance of the Beijing-bound Flight MH370 less than an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur in the past week.

Lee: ‘My mum watched every prime time news on TV.’

While the news, theories and speculation of the unfortunate incident have been hogging the headlines, some of the spotlight on the Internet have been turned on to the cabin crew and the risks of their job.

Flooding the social media are trollings of “No matter how much money they pay me, I wouldn’t want to work as cabin crew. Too dangerous.” Or “Why allow your loved ones to take the risk and work on a plane?”

Comments like these are the last thing we need at times like this, an irate Alyssa fumes.

“They don’t help at all, not just for the relatives of those in the missing flight, but also families of others who work in the airline industry and those who travel frequently for their work. On the same logic, why do you then travel on a plane or allow your loved ones to travel on a plane?”

Another former cabin crew, Salbiah Abas, agrees that working in the air is safe.

“There are risks like any other job, but I never worried about them because we are trained well and when we go on a flight, we know our colleagues, including the pilots, are well trained too and prepared to handle all kinds of risks and situations. You can trust them with your own life and they are as safety conscious as you are,” says Salbiah.

“They have stringent procedures and safety precautions for each flight.

“Before we take off, for example, we have safety briefings to make sure everyone is in the correct frame of mind and that we are prepared for any risks.”

She admits that her parents were wary at first when she told them that she was joining MAS as a stewardess, but they soon got used to it.

“When I first started, the question they asked was ‘What if you crash?’ But accidents happen everywhere and statistics show that you are more prone to have accidents on the road than in the air.

“I told them if it’s your time to die, you would die anyway, it does not matter,” says Salbiah, who left MAS in 1997 after seven years of service.

Flying is safe, she insists.

“Travelling in an aircraft is a norm now, and MAS is one of the safest airlines in the world if you look at its record.”

Salbiah shares that she was attracted to the job because of her love for travelling.

“It gave me a chance to visit other countries, the pay is quite good and it is not a nine-to-five job.”

In fact, she adds, she is hoping to return to flying.

“I believe that everyone who has stopped flying will miss it and want the chance to fly again. I have met lots of ex-air crew who will jump at the chance.”

Salbiah’s older brother Zainal Abas admits their family used to worry in the beginning.

“I suppose there was a bit of concern when she first started in 1990, not just because of the possible dangers of flying but also for her being in foreign countries. But as time passed, we got used to it.

“I guess everybody accepted the fact that it was her chosen profession and it came with some risk,” says the athletics coach at the Bukit Jalil Sports School.

Zainal adds that his sister would call their mother regularly to let her know where she was and when she would be back.

“That eased her worry a bit. Having said that, can you imagine that was in the ‘90s before we all had handphones and smartphones.”

When asked if having a workshop or briefing for families of cabin crew would help prepare them for the worst, Salbiah disagrees.

“I don’t think family members have time for it. Anyway, whatever your working situation, even if you work in a factory, accidents could happen. Does the factory management need to conduct a workshop for your family?”

Abdul Rahman Abdullah, whose son works as a pilot for a Middle Eastern airline, concurs, saying: “There is always a risk anywhere. You drive a car, it is risky; you ride a bicycle, you can get knocked down.”

The 69-year-old says he was supportive when his son, now 33, announced that he wanted to be a pilot. “That was his ambition all the while, so I had no problem.”

Abdul Rahman considers the risks as part and parcel of the job.

“I take it as part of his profession. Anyway, all parents whose sons or daughters are pilots, we can’t be worried about them all the time. It defeats the purpose,” he says.

To all young people aspiring to become a pilot, Abdul Rahman has this to say: “If you want to do something, just do it. Don’t let one incident stop you. For example, just because an accident happens, it does not mean that you cannot drive any more. Same as flying.”

Steven, who has 19 years under his belt in the airline industry, is another whose family has not only become used to the nature of his profession but has also accepted it as a very safe environment to work in.

“I feel very secure working in a plane due to the very strict requirements on safety at the workplace and the vigorous training provided to us, and the measures we have in place to avoid the worst in the air. With the airline I work for, a very high level of security measures is in place and, as an example, flight deck access to passengers is strictly not allowed and everyone abides by it,” says the air steward who puts in around 160 hours a month in the air.

Steven adds that counselling is always available at his workplace and staff are always encouraged to call their helpline should they have any problem.

Former cabin crew Yvonne Lee, 43, who wrote about her experience working in the airline industry in her book The Sky is Crazy, says that when she first started flying, her mother became a news junkie.

“My mum watched every prime news on TV and whenever she saw news of an air crash, she would get all paranoid. But there’s nothing much she could do other than pray and be informed of my whereabouts before I travelled and after I got home.”

Lee, who was attached to MAS from 1989 to 1995, says she remembers how it was then, before “the era of mobile phone and Internet”.

“There was no Skype, Facebook, email or smartphone then, so if we wanted to inform our loved ones, it was only through the conventional phone and it was expensive to call from every city.”

What she would do then was to call her parents from the public phone at the airport before her flight and after she landed to let them know where she was.

When she entered a steady relationship, she devised a method with her boyfriend (now husband) to keep in touch.

“Every day I was away, I would give him a three-ring missed call from my hotel room in whichever city I was in. I wasn’t charged as it was a missed call. Those missed calls were a signal that I was fine. Often he would call me back in my hotel after getting that missed call,” she says.

Lee stresses that being a cabin crew is like any other job and they too work hard for their money.

“Despite the fear and vulnerability, this was the best job option or, for some, the only one. The same for me. I was studying in Lower 6 in Ipoh when my family had a financial setback. I didn’t have money to continue my studies and needed a job. I thought it was a timely opportunity that I got a job as a cabin crew with MAS. That was my very first job,” she says.

Lee also believes that air crash or bombs on board are not the only challenge and risks faced by cabin crew.

“As we travel extensively as cabin crew, we also face many challenges and risks during our stopovers, like earthquakes, typhoons, mugging or simply any road or rail accident when we tour on our days off overseas.”

She is thankful that she has never experienced any serious plane emergencies.

Her worst experience on the job, she says, occurred on the ground. “I was caught unprepared in a minor street riot in Zurich. I was walking past some luxury brands boutiques in an affluent part of the city when I heard gunshots. Some people were then throwing stones at the glass doors of the boutiques.

“I ran into one shop where the sales people were rapidly locking the doors. I was fortunate he allowed me to hide inside while the ruckus was going on.”

Although Lee left the airline to start a family, she refutes the perception that children of air crew are “short-changed”.

“While many have to go on duty for a stretch of days every month, they also get long breaks to spend time with their children. They also get travel privileges, which means their kids can travel with them regularly at a cheap rate.

“Children of flying parents are very well-travelled and that’s very educational.”

As experienced flyers, she and her colleagues at MAS knew the risks and how to deal with them, she says.

“Or else many of us would not have lasted so long in the flying job. We were trained and annually re-trained to be able to react in any emergency situation.

“That’s why during the most crucial part of flight, the take-off and landing, when crew members are seated at their respective positions in the cabin, they look very serious.

“They are mentally going through the emergency steps and, for many of us, saying a silent prayer too.”

> Some names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ ­privacy.

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