When Pushpalatha Subramaniam started working as a secretary at Malaysia Airlines some 30 years ago, little did she realise she would find her passion in aviation.
“I got into the industry ‘by chance’, but I had a keen interest to learn and grew with the company, ” said Pushpalatha.
Her father had passed away at that time so she had to come out to work.
However, she continued to pursue her studies part-time, eventually earning her degree in business administration (management).
She stayed on in the same company for 27 years, attached to different sections including reservations, airport operations, advertising and promotions, in-flight services, customer relations and product development.
“That gave me a deeper understanding of the different aspects of the aviation industry, ” said Pushpalatha, who is in her 50s.
Her last held position was senior vice president of consumer affairs. She attributes her career growth to her desire to learn, going beyond the scope of her duties, and having good mentors and leaders who were willing to guide her along the way.
Currently, Pushpalatha is serving her fourth year as director of consumer affairs with the Malaysian Aviation Commission (Mavcom), where she helps consumers resolve issues that they have with airlines or airports in an efficient and effective way.
"It's a balancing act between being an advocate for consumers, educating them about their travel rights, and helping them do something about it, while at the same time, ensuring the sustainability of the aviation industry," said the former board member of the Worldwide Airlines Customer Relations Association, which represents over 60 airlines worldwide.
Putting yourself in your customer's shoes is vital in consumer affairs, she explained.
"The customer is not always right, but they must always be treated with respect and their interests must be protected. It is however, important to be fair and reasonable, and get the facts from both sides – the consumer and the industry – before making a decision," she said.
Contrary to popular perception, not all roles in the aviation industry are male-dominated.
"Engineering and technical roles like pilots and ground handlers are, but there are also many areas which are predominantly female, such as cabin crew," she said.
Mavcom's workforce itself is 55% female. It was not intentional though, said the International Aviation Women's Association member.
"When we did the hiring process, gender was not on the table. It was competency and the perfect fit for each particular role," she explained.
Pushpalatha also believes that loyalty is not based on one's gender, nor that women rather than men tend to stay with a company long term.
"When you're comfortable with who you're working with and delivering your goals, that's where loyalty develops," she said,"regardless of whether you're male or female."
However, she does believe that women are innately more meticulous in making sure things are all right in their personal life and at work. They also naturally multi-task, especially if they have a family, and those are strengths.
The mother of two children, aged 20 and 17, credits her husband for helping her juggle a successful career and family life.
Sustaining a work-life balance is always a challenge, but with the right support, it is possible, she emphasised.
“Behind a successful man is a great woman, but the opposite is also true. If you have a good partner who believes in making sure you have your own identity, career and goals, that in itself is a success, ” she said.
Pushpalatha's husband, who runs his own business, took care of their children when they were younger whenever she travelled for work or was away at meetings.
There were occasions where she had to miss out on important milestones in her kids' lives as they were growing up.
"But I made up for it by allocating time for weekly family dinners and annual holidays, and spending quality time with them to catch up with their daily progress at school," she said.
Technology also plays a crucial role in helping her maintain a healthy work-life balance.
"In this digital age, you can work anywhere as long as you're connected to the Internet," she said.
"Success is also seeing my children achieve what they have."
Pushpalatha, whose son is pursuing his studies in aviation science, hopes to see more young people going into the aviation industry regardless of whether they are male or female.
Her advice to young people is to "know your passion, and be brave to pursue and excel in it, regardless of your gender".