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Saturday, 18 September 2010

MAS cabin crew from 1972 onwards

For my other stories including Pontianak story click here

The first interviews in 1972 for flight crew saw hundreds of applicants. Some girls who were barely above the minimum height of 5ft 1in (155cm) resorted to wearing the highest heels and even hot pants beneath slashed maxi skirts, according to Airborne, the 45th anniversary commemorative book of MAS.
Lee, who was then director of customer services, recalls that he would mildly provoke his interviewees.
“ Sometimes I would tell the girls that `Your lipstick colour does not suit you.’ And then we would see how she responded. Some were clever and diplomatic. Others were offended and defensive.”
Alice Nazareth, 54, joined as a stewardess in 1973.
“When I was in Form Six, I saw this MAS van stopping at the traffic lights. Inside, were smiling stewardesses all dolled up in their vivid kebayas. I knew then what I wanted to be.”
The first uniforms, by local designer Andy Chiew, were a navy blue sarong kebaya for air hostesses and western style jackets and skirts (above the knee, ahem) for ground hostesses.
By the 1980s, the shorter skirts had gone maxi and Alice recalls how stewardesses had a choice of brown or green kebaya tops. In 1986, the full kebaya with stylised jasmine flowers and kelarai leaves (which continues till today) was introduced.
Another pioneer was Edmund Read, who joined MAS in 1972 (at a salary of RM250 a month) and worked his way up to Flight Services Manager in the 1990s.
In Airborne, he recalls the early days when barefoot passengers with spears and parangs would sometimes board the aircraft in Sarawak.
“Those were pre-hijacking days. They often brought all their worldly possessions along.”
Other passengers would board the aircraft with ringgit notes, sometimes in baskets, and dole them out to the in-flight crew.
“What else could we do but get ground services to issue them tickets on the spot,” he says.
Faridah Abdul Rahman, 50, who was a stewardess for 12 years (after joining in 1977), remembers that on some flights in Sabah, people would bring whole coops of live chickens on board.
“We were flying (48-seater) Fokkers then and the cargo would be at the back. Sometimes the coops would break and little chicks would be running among the seats.”
“It would be our duty to go and catch them!” chips in Mazlan Mokty, 48, who has been a steward since 1980.
Despite such misadventures, his daughter, Mazrynna Dyanna Mazlan, 26, has also signed up as air crew.
“In fact, about nine of our relatives, including Mazrynna’s brothers and sisters-in-law are flying,” says Mazlan. “There are also other people whose sons and daughters have joined as air crew.”
Nevertheless, there were times over the years when attractive terms of service had to be fought for. A major labour dispute began in December 1979 when staff boycotted overtime work. It grew worse until the Government directed the airline to suspend all flights in February 1980. Soon after, 18 union leaders were arrested under the ISA.
The strike ended in April when the Government raised its salary increment offer from 8.8% to 17.9% but not before the dispute gained international attention when International Transport Workers Federation members supported their Malaysian counterparts by refusing to service a MAS DC10 plane that landed in Sydney. It returned only after the Royal Australian Air Force refuelled it.
Alice recalls those times: “Initially, MAS was a small airline and could not afford so many benefits. But after a few years, we wanted to be on par with other airlines. I remember one of the biggest things we were fighting for was better meal allowances. Some destinations had a high cost of living and we had to pay just as much for food as crews from SIA or Cathay (Pacific).
“During the strike, we would spend time together at the airport and sing songs such as We Will Overcome (made popular by Martin Luther King while fighting for blacks in America during the 1960s),” says Alice. “After MAS gave us generous increments, it still reaped profits. To us, it was about looking after the staff as assets.”
The right stuff
And what assets they turned out to be. Selma Osman, who oversaw stewardesses in 1972, forecasted then that friendly in-flight service and winsome smiles would be the standout features of MAS.
“(It’s) not so much (about being) a sophisticated swinger but rather a sincere, pleasant girl,” she says in Airborne.
That vision has come to pass, what with MAS aircrew having won the prestigious Skytrax World’s Best Cabin Staff Award in 2002, 2004 and 2007.
“It’s not just about looking good and smiling,” explains Faridah, who became a crew trainer for 17 years after her flying days ended. “It’s also about the ability to care, to show compassion. Customers nowadays are more sophisticated and the ability to communicate and meet requests are important.”
In fact, as long as they are in uniform, crew members are expected to be on their best behaviour.
“When walking from the plane to the hotel, the stewardesses should walk in a brisk yet feminine and graceful manner. As for the stewards, they should walk tall, not slouch, with their noses pointed neither upwards nor downwards but straight-ahead,” says Faridah.
While the airline's aim of striving to provide friendly and professional service remains unchanged, times and attitudes, however, have changed.
“In the past, there were few aircraft and we were like a small family. Those were simpler times and we were always together. I remember how we all used to go to Chinese movies (when stopping over) in Taiwan even though some of us could hardly understand any dialogue,” recalls Alice.
“Now the airline has grown so big, and we don’t stick so closely together. There’s also the generation gap. The young are more sophisticated and independent minded.”
On the Tajudin Ramli era and the continuing freefall that MAS was caught in, none of the people interviewed would comment on it – which is telling in itself. Instead, they prefer to talk about the present and the future.
Mazlan, for example, says: “In the past two years, the morale has really gone up. We have a lot of faith in the new management.”
And Zuraidi sums it up nicely, “MAS has gone through ups and downs and we have weathered the storms. But we are here to stay.”

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