Feature

Behind flight crews’
smiles, turbulence is real

Ahead: A pilot for Japan Airlines sits in the cockpit of a plane at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on March 31, 2010. Some local pilots say their jobs are stressful. Bloomberg/Haruyoshi Yamaguchi
Ahead: A pilot for Japan Airlines sits in the cockpit of a plane at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on March 31, 2010. Some local pilots say their jobs are stressful. Bloomberg/Haruyoshi Yamaguchi

Traveling to exotic places and flying big jets sounds like a lot of fun. Children even dream of becoming flight attendants and pilots, probably influenced by how cool the professions seem.

But as thrilling as the work may sound, flight attendants and pilots face emotional turbulence up in the air.

“I like being a flight attendant because I get to see the world, and I have set my feet on five continents in just one-and-a-half years. Despite all that, the job can be stressful too,” said Shani Nurhadi, a flight attendant with Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific.

As a flight attendant, putting a smile on one’s face all the time is a must, no matter how stressful the situation. The 24-year-old said the main job of a flight attendant is to serve passengers, so she has to be ready to help anytime.

“But when I meet grumpy, irritating passengers of course I sometimes can get upset too, but I have to hide that behind a smile,” she said.

“Moreover, when I have to fly abroad, the time difference is a big deal and I have to stay fit and look fresh. And I tell you, pushing that food cart from one side to another is tiring, it’s heavy. Lots of flight attendants suffer from back pain and get varicose veins because of it,” Shani said.

The product design graduate from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) said she first became interested in becoming a flight attendant because the idea of routine work behind a desk for hours bored her.  

So when her mother, who had worked as a flight attendant, told her there was a vacancy, she applied.

Shani said the whole recruitment process was quite long; from the arm-reach test, group discussions and computer-based English exam to the psychology test and interview.

“At the end of a series of tests, I realized that most of the time the users wanted to see my gestures, how I would react when I’m under pressure. But I always had that smile all the time, and remained calm, so that’s maybe why I was hired,” Shani said.  

She underwent a one-and-a-half-month training that included learning the safety procedures of different type of aircraft (smoke drills, emergency evacuation) and service standards (serving passengers, communication training and dress) before flying to her first destination: Osaka, Japan.

Although exhausting, she always looks forward to long-haul flights as she can stay for a few days at her final destination.

“I usually get two to four days off when I fly to Europe or the United States. I usually start to roam around the place on the second day,” said Shani, who has visited Johannesburg, Milan, New York, Hyderabad and Amsterdam.

But with the world at her feet and the levels of stress she faces, she tries her best to avoid a lavish lifestyle and its trappings, like narcotics.

“That is a common image. But the truth is, not all flight crews are all about free sex and drugs — that can happen in all kinds of professions,” said Shani, who likes to dance to relieve stress.

Barbara Dea Natalia agrees.

The stewardess at Lion Air, who has been flying for six years, said such an image was common, adding that not all cabin crews used drugs to help ease high stress levels.

The news of the use of drugs among cabin crews and pilots at local airlines was highlighted in the country last year after the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) arrested a Lion Air pilot in Surabaya.

The authorities responded by saying they would conduct urine tests more often, especially at airports where drugs were frequently found. The highlighted airports were, among others, Batam, Riau Islands; Jakarta; Surabaya; Makassar, South Sulawesi; and Denpasar, Bali.

For Dea, she prefers to take quick culinary trips to ease the pressure amid her tight schedule.

“When I have the time I roam around to find local delicacies,” Dea said after landing in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, recently.

“Tomorrow I’ll stay in Makassar and I’m excited. That city is heaven for food lovers like me,” she said, laughing.

Her profession can take her to places she used to only see on TV and allows her to try various local meals, but Dea feels the job has taken her away from family and friends.

She added that she could not keep up a relationship due to her job.

“At first my boyfriend said he could understand my job, but after some time he could not stand it because of my schedule,” she said.

Some of her fellow flight attendants also shared the same feeling, and some even ended up having relationships with pilots, she added.

“I never had a relationship with a pilot. But I have flirted with passengers, but only that,” Dea said.

She said being a flight attendant had turned her into a brave and confident person.

“It makes me proud. I started earning my own money after graduating from high school. I have become more confident than before and now I’m trying to make my dream come true — opening a restaurant,” she said.

Wignu Mughni, a pilot with Garuda Indonesia, shares the same feeling when it comes to the social lives of flight crews.

Having to fly here and there, his unusual work schedule allows him to only spend a little time with the people he cares about.

Asking a girl to go out on a date is another issue for him, he said.  

“Those who say every girl wants to date a pilot are not completely correct, at least in my case. Most of the time, they find that dating a pilot is hard, some even have negative stereotypes about pilots — that they are closed to love affairs,” he said.

Wignu decided to become a pilot because he wanted to follow his father’s path.

“Many say that being a pilot is one of the most stressful jobs, but I feel the job is challenging. In addition, I want my father to know that his son is proud of him,” he said.

Despite the high stress levels, he finds joy in flying.

“Different day, different weather. But when I fly in bad weather, I feel terrified too. But pilots know the limitations of the planes they fly, and we also know the intensity of the turbulence. So at least we stay calm and think clearly,” he said.

Wignu said it cost a lot of money to go to flight school. When he enrolled in a flight school in 2009, it was around US$50,000.

“But [the profession] has a bright future with the increasing demand for pilots in the region.”

According to the 2012 Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook, the aviation industry forecasts a demand for 185,600 new commercial airline pilots and 243,500 new technicians in the Asia Pacific region through 2030. In Southeast Asia alone, the industry requires 51,500 pilots.

The junior flight officer who has flown for about 1,000 hours said despite the knowledge and experience he has, the sorrow he felt when his father died, a passenger in a plane crash, still lingered.

“My father died in the crash of Sukhoi last year on Mount Salak. I haven’t totally recovered yet, I sometimes feel afraid of experiencing such an incident, but life goes on,” Wignu said.

On May 9 last year, a Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100-passenger aircraft crashed into Mount Salak near Bogor, West Java, killing all 45 people onboard. The National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) blamed pilot error for
the crash.

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