‘Don’t know if I’ll ever fly again’: Pilots, aircrew in Malaysia turn entrepreneurs to tide over COVID-19
KUALA LUMPUR: It has been months since Naeem Nassir was terminated from Oman Air in July, and the 30-year-old pilot still longs for the adrenaline rush and glamour of his previous work.
His job of two years was quite different from the traditional deskbound nine-to-five. The senior first officer counted frequent international travel, an above average income and an office above the clouds as some of its perks.
For now, taking to the skies is out of reach for Naeem and hundreds of his pilot and flight attendant colleagues in Malaysia who have been grounded or sacked as COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the air travel industry.
Over the last few months, two major airlines in Malaysia, Malindo Air and AirAsia, have confirmed that there have been layoffs while national carrier Malaysia Airlines has implemented cost-cutting measures such as unpaid leave and pay cuts.
Some of those impacted have turned to entrepreneurship to earn a living, kick-starting businesses in the hope that they yield returns.
FORMER PILOT’S BURGER VENTURE WHICH HAS TAKEN OFF
Naeem, for instance, has swapped out his aviator hat and smart uniform for dirty aprons and grimy gloves at his new venture, Smashed Burger.
The outlet, located in Bukit Jelutong, Selangor, sells Australian beef patty burgers with toppings such as caramelised onions and beef bacon, for the relatively cheap price of around RM10 (US$2.46).
While flipping burgers may sound less complicated than flying a commercial aircraft, Naeem acknowledged that the transition has been “very drastic”.
“I went from sitting down in an air-conditioned cockpit, managing switches and flying the plane, and being served food by cabin crew, to working this burger business.
“I found myself standing for hours beside a hot grill late into the night and engaging directly with customers with different expectations. It’s a drastic change,” he added.
Naeem opened Smashed Burger because he was inspired by the burgers he had tried when he flew to Muscat, Oman.
“There were two kinds of burgers in Oman which I crave for. The first is like those at Shake Shack, so I went to Google their recipes. The second type is 'burger bakar' or burger patties grilled on charcoal grill.”
Fortunately for him, Smashed Burger has been a huge hit among locals in Selangor. Ever since food blogs and local media have reported on the venture, Naeem’s burgers have been selling out almost daily this week, and he has been forced to apologise to his customers, urging them not to travel to his stall and end up disappointed.
“We are thankful… we never expected the business to go viral. The business was initially run just by me and my wife, but now my parents are helping out too,” he added.
FORMER PILOT OPENS HOME-BASED FOOD BUSINESS
Another pilot who has pivoted to a food business is Syed Meerah, a former Malindo Air employee who was sacked in October.
The 33-year-old captain said he was shocked at first, but after discussing with his partner, he decided to take the plunge into a home-based food business.
“After I was retrenched, my girlfriend suggested that I do something that I like – and I love to cook. So I decided to cook for my friends, ask them to review, and after I got good feedback, I decided to go all out,” said Syed.
Syed runs a food delivery service – dubbed Grounded Chef – that serves up mamak-style dishes that have a Peranakan twist such as devil curry chicken and chicken perattal. He works alongside his former colleague from Malindo Air, a flight attendant, who helps him with the deliveries.
“My cooking style was initially just Indian Muslim, mamak cooking. Then after I introduced Nyonya style, which is more sour-based with asam and belacan, that became my signature,” said Syed.
“I used to travel to India a lot for work and over there I learnt about spices, local delicacies and style and I try to implement these in my cooking,” he added.
He cited how he learnt to make a special omelette by adding more milk to make it fluffier, a tip he picked up in Amritsar, a city in north India.
FLIGHT ATTENDANT STARTS FISH BREEDING VENTURE
Besides food businesses, there are grounded Malaysians from the aviation industry who have opened other ventures. For instance, a flight attendant with AirAsia, who wanted to be known only as Don, told CNA that he has opened a business breeding fighting fish.
Don said that he is still employed by AirAsia, but as the number of flights have dried up, his opportunities for work have dwindled and so has his flight allowance. He flies once a month, if he is lucky.
“The last time I flew was around two months ago, and frankly, I don’t know if I’ll ever fly again,” said Don.
He recalled how earlier this year, he and his AirAsia colleagues had heard rumours of upcoming retrenchment exercises.
“Typically we hear that it would most likely happen within 24 hours, and those nights, we all had trouble sleeping.”
He then decided that he needed some financial security and invested his life savings of around RM17,000 to start a fish farm in his home to breed colourful betta fighting fish, which can be sold for up to RM1,000 each.
“I started out with just two fish, but now I’ve got thousands of them. I made mistakes, but learnt from watching YouTube videos and got suggestions from old-time breeders,” added Don.
To further supplement his income, Don also opened a roadside stall called Popiah World selling fried popiah. He said the stall’s unique selling point is the variety of fillings customers can choose to have in their popiah, including carbonara, spicy beef and chicken with special sauce.
However, he has learnt that running two businesses is “tiring”, especially the fish business, which has taken up a lot of his time and energy.
“Breeding fishes is not my specialty. I love animals, so I enjoy it but it’s exhausting to change the water in the containers every 3 days and I have no money to hire an assistant. It also takes five months to breed the fishes until they’re mature and ready to be sold. This requires patience before I would see any returns on my investment,” added Don.
“THE HIGHER YOU ARE, THE HARDER YOU FALL”
While Naeem, Syed and Don’s businesses have had varying degrees of success so far, all three are in agreement that the income they are grinding out pales in comparison with what they were earning while flying pre-COVID-19.
Naeem said that as a pilot with Oman Air, he was earning a “five-figure salary” and although his Smashed Burger venture has been popular, he still has been forced to tone down his lifestyle.
“I was blessed with a good salary. I bought a house. I now own two properties and my (loan) commitments are very, very high,” said Naeem. “It’s been a big change.”
Syed concurred, explaining how his spending power has diminished now that he is relying on his home-based business for income.
“As the saying goes – the higher you are, the harder you fall,” said Syed. “This whole episode has been a wake-up call for all of us,” he said. “At the moment, it’s about getting through the day.”
He was grateful that the government has extended the bank loan moratorium for Malaysians who have been retrenched as a result of COVID-19.
“It helps a lot but when the moratorium ends, the problem arises again. These current businesses opened by pilots and flight attendants won’t be able to sustain unless the moratorium is extended further,” said Syed.
“We have car and house loans which need to be serviced as well and we would appreciate more help from the government. Other than the moratorium, there has been no other forms of financial aid,” he added.
Meanwhile for Don, he still draws a basic salary as he is still employed with AirAsia, but it is a fraction of what he was earning in 2019 when he was flying more often.
“My wife’s income has been reduced by 30 per cent. The banks have approved our moratorium request for our home loan, but not for my car and motorbike,” said Don.
“So there’s nothing else I can do but try my best to cover the costs,” he added.
WAITING TO FLY AGAIN
While their businesses have been a refreshing change, all three told CNA they are keen to return to work with their airlines.
Syed said: “I’m waiting to get back in the air, that’s about it. This (business) is something to tide me over.”
However, he acknowledged if he were to return to flying full time, he would miss his “fun cooking business” and the conversations he has with his customers.
“The only (main difference) is the money, always the money,” said Syed. “I can’t earn whatever I earned flying from my business, and I have (financial) commitments.”
Naeem said that it has always been his ambition to both be a pilot and also own a food and beverage business, and he is hopeful that he can follow both dreams once the flying industry has returned to normal.
“Perhaps it has been a blessing in disguise that I got laid off, so that I can chase this dream,” said Naeem.
“If I were to start flying again, I would love to continue this business because I believe in sharing good quality food for everyone to enjoy. Hopefully this business can grow further again,” he added.
Don, the flight attendant, is hopeful that the air travel industry will soar again in the near future. He noted that there are plans to bring in the COVID-19 vaccine and he is optimistic it will inspire confidence in Malaysians to resume flying.
“I hope AirAsia will recover and passengers will no longer be afraid to travel. If I’m working, at least I’m assured of a salary,” said Don.
“I don’t mind flying even with the precautions in place. I wear the PPE (personal protective equipment) while flying and ensure I take a shower at the airport after every flight,” he added.