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Dashed dreams for SIA cadet pilots, cabin crew trainees

After nearly two years of training, John (not his real name) and his fellow cadet pilots were looking forward to flying for the national carrier.

Instead, they will be without a job when their training ends in a few months.

With too many pilots and too few flights amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Singapore Airlines (SIA) said last month that it was letting go of about half of its cadet pilots and all cabin crew trainees.

The rest, including John, who is in his 30s, will also have to leave, but after their training is completed.

He told The Sunday Times: “My dream to take to the skies has to be postponed. In three months, we will be released by SIA but with a promise that we will be called back when air travel picks up again.”

Since he started his training, he has got by on a monthly allowance of less than $1,000.

SIA foots the entire cost of the training – about $250,000 per cadet.

But come next year, John could be working in an engineering firm or taking on corporate roles at a financial company.

So far, though, he has not managed to land a job, he said, and will take “anything that comes my way”.

The SIA group, which includes the flagship airline, SilkAir and Scoot, jointly employed about 3,200 pilots and almost 11,000 cabin crew at the start of the year.

Despite cost-cutting measures such as voluntary and compulsory no-pay leave, it began its retrenchment exercise last month, slashing about 20 per cent of its headcount.

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About 2,400 staff have been laid off. Another 1,900 roles will be eliminated through natural attrition, a recruitment freeze and voluntary departure schemes.

Pilots and cabin crew have had to make career switches. Not all of them have restricted their ambitions to jobs that tap their SIA-refined hospitality and charm.

Some have started their own online bakery shops. Others have returned to help out in family businesses. Still others have applied to be teachers at establishments such as EtonHouse, or go back to school themselves.

Said a 24-year-old who was an air stewardess with SIA until last month: “Because I am young, there is less inertia (and so it is easier) to move on to another job.”

She had been with SIA for nearly a year, including the three months for training, but resigned when planes stopped taking off.

She is now working in a food and beverage company where her job includes stock ordering and taking, as well as deliveries.

Before she quit, she was paid her basic pay of about $1,500 a month, unlike the more than 6,000 other staff in the SIA group who were on no-pay leave, as part of cost-cutting measures.

“I might not return to SIA after this. It’s just too uncertain, and I can’t imagine going through the training processes again,” she said.

A Malaysian cabin crew member in his 30s will receive his last pay cheque from SIA in December.

The transition is more onerous for him, with many companies focused on hiring Singaporeans and permanent residents.

This is despite his having worked in Singapore for 15 years, first as a manager of a company which reported annual earnings of $30 million, then at SIA.

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He joined the airline because he always “had a passion to fly and wanted to learn the work culture”, but may now have to return to Malaysia, where his elderly parents live, if he does not secure a job.

He said: “I am grateful for the opportunity and what the company has done. There is no ill will, but I want to stay in Singapore.”

Even with the retrenchments, closed borders and the lack of a domestic market mean SIA’s remaining employees are still far in excess of what is needed.

While Singapore is working with countries to progressively resume more flights and bring travellers back, normal service is unlikely to return until at least 2022, experts have said.

SIA told The Sunday Times that nearly 2,700 of the group’s existing staff who are not affected by the retrenchment exercise have had to take on other interim work.

The majority – about 2,100 – work in public-facing roles at public transport stations, social service offices and hospitals.

Another 600 have been linked up with temporary jobs in various companies. SIA declined to reveal what these are.

The figures include some pilots.

Those who are earning less than their basic pay in their temporary job roles will have the difference topped up by SIA.

Ren Ci Hospital, which provides medical, nursing and rehabilitative care for the elderly, recently trained 30 cabin crew to help with its operations, joining other entities such as Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and Ng Teng Fong General Hospital that have been a refuge for grounded airline staff.

One of the 30 new employees at Ren Ci is Scoot cabin crew member Noor Seha Sayemi, a mother of three.

She said the work was a lifeline. “Both of my parents are under my care financially too. Though I have a small-scale, home-based business selling desserts, it is not financially sustainable in the long term (without the Ren Ci job).”

In the past month or so since she began caring for the nursing home residents, the 30-year-old has learnt how to take their vital health statistics, as well as simple Hokkien and other Chinese expressions.

She said her professional instinct to be proactive and empathetic fits well with her new job scope, but nothing will beat the joy of flights resuming.

“I miss flying. I miss my fellow crew, I miss doing what I love,” she said.

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