Pilots, cabin crew return to flying despite uncertainties

SIA flight stewardess Chloe Phang and pilot Eugene Tui took up a temporary role in June 2020 and returned to flying in January 2021. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Singapore Airlines pilot Eugene Tui and his family have had to make several sacrifices after his income plunged by over 50 per cent last year, when the Covid-19 pandemic led to the mass grounding of flights.

The 41-year-old's wife returned to work as a teacher. The couple also sold their family car to better support their three children.

With the bulk of SIA's planes grounded, Mr Tui took up a temporary role in June last year to help out in Covid-19 contact tracing operations. He did so well that he was promoted to lead a team after two months on the job.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the aviation sector, Mr Tui jumped at the chance to return to flying in January this year.

He is among many SIA Group pilots and cabin crew members who have done so after temporary roles in the public service.

SIA Group is made up of SIA and its budget carrier arm Scoot.

A spokesman said that since the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 flight crew have been deployed to external roles in the public service such as care ambassadors in hospitals and contact tracers.

About 300 SIA Group cabin crew and pilots remain deployed in such roles at the moment.

Meanwhile, budget carrier Jetstar Asia said about half of its pilots and cabin crew are back at work. Some of them remain on furlough, or unpaid leave, but have taken up temporary positions elsewhere.

On why he returned to aviation, Mr Tui said: "I would have loved to continue to play my part in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. The supplementary income from contact tracing was also good for my family.

"But I returned because flying has always been my first love, and I wanted to be current in (my) flying (skills) when the aviation sector recovers."

But the role of flight crew has changed significantly from before the pandemic.

For instance, Mr Tui said his flying hours now are 20 to 25 hours less than what it was before.

Flight stewardess Chloe Phang, 24, who worked as a care ambassador from last October to April at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital before returning to SIA, said her flight frequency is about 40 per cent lower than before.

She has taken up part-time jobs - as a dental assistant and a receptionist at a clinic - to help cushion the financial impact.

Such an arrangement was not allowed before the pandemic, but SIA and Scoot have waived the rule to help staff cope with reduced earnings.

Other than precautions such as the wearing of personal protective equipment, Ms Phang said another change was the introduction of frequent Covid-19 swab tests. She has to undergo about eight swab tests a month, depending on where she is flying to.

Mr Tui said: "I am not sure whether my nostrils have gotten bigger with all the swabbing, but we understand the need, it's for the larger good."

Scoot flight steward Jimmy Pung, 37, who returned to flying last December after working as a community service executive, said another change affected flights in which they have to stay overnight in the destination city.

Scoot flight steward Jimmy Pung said he is looking forward to more passengers returning to planes. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Prior to the pandemic, such flights come with the perk of being able to tour the city. But due to mandatory precautions now, flight crew have to stay in their hotel room throughout the layover period.

On how he copes with this, Mr Pung said: "We can always download a lot of Netflix movies... I also try to look for YouTube videos to do workouts in the hotel room."

Jetstar Asia flight stewardess Raudhah Rihat, 41, said she misses the days when she was able to be more hands-on in helping passengers, which is not possible now due to Covid-19 restrictions in place.

She added that as the flights are mostly for repatriations, the passengers keep to themselves more.

"But we do hope this will change as leisure travel opens, and we are able to serve and interact more closely with passengers."

Jetstar Asia customer service managers Roslinah Katon Wilson (left) and Raudhah Rihat. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Pilots and cabin crew who have yet to return to flying are now eagerly counting down the days till they can take off again.

Jetstar Asia flight stewardess Ms Roslinah Wilson, 48, who is working as a safe distancing ambassador for the Singapore Food Agency while on furlough, said: "Flying gives me the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, and I get to see and understand different cultures and practices.

"I cannot wait to return to flying again."

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