Covid-19 tightens grip on airline industry

Flying an aircraft can generate a 5-digit monthly income, but now, it has become an uncertain profession

by AFIQ AZIZ/ graphic by MZUKRI

EMPLOYEES in the airline industry, especially the pilots and flight attendants, are currently facing financial crisis and emotional turmoil over the embattled Covid-19 pandemic.

Flying an aircraft can generate a five-digit monthly income, but now, it has become an uncertain profession for many.

Thousands of fleets are already grounded all around the world, while some are flying with half- full cabins due to major travel restrictions imposed by hundreds of nations.

This, industry observers said, would jeopardise some 65.5 million jobs that have supported the air transport sector worldwide.

National carrier — Malaysia Airlines Bhd (MAB) — offered a voluntary unpaid leave for all its 13,000 staff last month.

The package comprises three months of non-pay leave to its employees, directly cushioning the group’s reserves which heavily rely on the national sovereignty fund, Khazanah Nasional Bhd.

An MAB staff member, who only wants to be known as SK, said the situation is very bad and has impacted the crews financially and emotionally.

“For the past two months, I have had flights removed, some at the last minute, and that affected my flying allowances.

“I would say the percentage of our basic pay and allowance is 20/80,” said SK, who has six years of experience under her belt.

According to the National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia (Nufam), about 70% of the country’s stewards and stewardesses are relatively new to the job, with less than 10 years of experience.

Nufam president Ismail Nasaruddin said roughly, for them, the basic pay is only about RM1,200.

He said as the job heavily relies on flight allowance, this makes the group among the most affected when planes are not flying.

SK said so far, MAB has assured the staff that the company has not instructed any cut from their basic salaries.

She added that while some have opted to take the unpaid leave option, she could not do the same as she cannot sustain without income.

“At this rate, I can stretch up to two or three months. As for contingency plans, I have none,” she told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

The flight attendant was also pessimistic about starting a business during the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Purchasing power is not as it used to be, therefore, it’s not easy to find a niche market,” SK added.

Contrarily, another flight attendant told TMR that she chose the leave offer.

“It is less stressful that way. I will not worry about bringing the virus to my family, I’ll still be employed, and I can go back to work once the situation improves.

“It is a win-win option for the staff and management,” she said.

An aircraft pilot from a low-cost carrier said his employer has pledged that all staff will be given full-month salary up until April.

“However, there is no word yet whether we will get a full salary for May or not. We are grounded and on standby,” the pilot, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, told TMR.

Around 95% of the company’s fleets have been grounded since last month.

In general, he said pilots make half of their income through sector allowances — a pay to incentivise working longer days. It is a payment on top of the basic salary for each flight flown.

“Therefore, cancelling flights means we are losing 50% of our monthly earnings,” he added.

With his life commitment, being jobless is not an option. He hoped that the company would not lay off the staff amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“As a pilot, there is no Plan B except to go to other airlines, but they may be doing worse than us.

“Shifting carriers is not easy because we have been specifically trained for this job for years,” the pilot added.

An aircraft technician who wants to be known as Malcom said he had never seen so many grounded aircraft in his three years of working.

“We are also hit by the Movement Control Order which forces us to change our daily routine and adapt to a new lifestyle,” he said, adding that no pay cuts or unpaid leave is being offered to the staff for the time being.

“We are glad because we are working on the ground with a lesser pay scale. Even though aircraft are not flying, the fleet must always be maintained and kept airworthy.

Malcom has, however, prepared himself for the worst-case scenario, which includes the possibility of being jobless as early as this year.

Meanwhile, Nufam’s Ismail warned airlines to not exercise any “unethical” dismissal, including forcing the staff to sign “voluntary resignations” to keep the company afloat.