For aspiring Thai flight attendants, the sky's the ticket to a good life
Chompoo, 24, has dreamed of working at an airline for years. With this goal in mind, the aspiring flight attendant majored in English and Mandarin at university to help give her an edge over other applicants.
But one year after graduation, the Thai woman's dream has yet to take flight. She failed an interview with a local airline in February, and with global aviation and tourism now battered by the coronavirus pandemic, there are no jobs to apply for.
Nevertheless, Chompoo is not lying idle. She is seizing the chance to improve her service skills and command of Mandarin, because she wants to work with regional airlines whose main customers are Thailand's largest group of foreign visitors: Chinese tourists.
To boost her skills, Chompoo has also enrolled in a flight attendant workshop - classes which have risen in popularity over the years as instructors meet the demand of training aspiring workers.
In Thailand, many young people dream of working as a flight attendant, seeing a career in the airline industry as a ticket to financial independence, an elevated social status and a more comfortable lifestyle.
The workshops include lessons on grooming, interview techniques and English skills. Given the coronavirus pandemic, some courses have now gone virtual, including those offered by Tanyalak Lobyam, a cabin crew worker who has been grounded since March.
Tanyalak is hoping to use this period to embark on a new career as a private flight attendant tutor, as the crisis has left her employer, a local airline, in dire straits.
"I like to teach. I want to bring out the best in everybody," said Tanyalak, who has worked as a flight stewardess for 10 years.
Tanyalak said she has taught some 50 students both online and in person. She sees the coronavirus downturn as a good time for people to upskill. "Everyone has to travel at some point in the future, and students need a short cut to get the job," she said.
Meanwhile at Perfect Angel's by Ajarn Aum, a flight attendant school in Bangkok, a dozen students in full make-up sit in a classroom with their backs straight and hair held tight, and clad in pencil skirts, stockings, black high heels. The lone male student wears a sharp black suit and tie.
"This is an intensive class. We want to simulate the actual flight attendant interview," said Monchaya Khuptawinthu, school's founder, tutor and a former flight attendant for a Middle Eastern airline.
"We want to train them to be themselves as much as possible, and not to sit uncomfortably, because they never dress like this when they meet recruiters."
Monchaya does a pre-screening before accepting students. The general expectation is that students come with a good attitude, meet a certain height and weight requirement, maintain even complexion and good teeth. No visible tattoos are permitted.
The course, which can last a few months or longer depending on the students' skills, will be about "fixing any shortcomings, be it language or personality", Monchaya said.
Monchaya said of the more than 4,000 students she has trained in the past decade, eight in 10 have made it to their dream job.
Among the rewards of the career are that "they can be financially independent faster", she said.
"Some purchase the first house and the first car in just a year, and take their parents for a trip abroad on top of that," Monchaya said.
Aspiring flight attendants from around Southeast Asia have similar aspirations, Monchaya said. They want to attain financial independence and the opportunity to broaden their world outlook through travelling.
"The starting salary for new graduates in each country is different, but airlines offer the same rate of starting salary regardless of nationality," she said.
Monchaya noted that the job was also competitive in South Korea and Japan, which have both seen a rising interest by young people to work for Middle Eastern airlines, attracted by the perks such as free accommodation and tax-free income.
A documentary by YouTube channel Asian Boss last year featured the demanding training regimes that South Korean students undergo to be employed as flight attendants at major airlines, which reject 110 applicants for every one person they hire.
"South Korean contestants are usually highly qualified, for example, holding a Master's degree or speaking several languages," Monchaya noted.
In Thailand too, Monchaya has tutored graduates of engineering or medicine, as well as actors, models or beauty queens. "They want a job where they can enjoy life at the same time, and with reasonable income," she said.
Aviation careers have been quite stable until the coronavirus pandemic hit this year. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global air travel fell 95 per cent below 2019 levels in April.
Even if borders open and demand rises in 2021, airlines will still be financially fragile, with revenue from passengers expected to drop by more than a third from 2019.
In Thailand, national carrier Thai Airways was stripped of its state enterprise status and filed for bankruptcy in May due to years of losses and mismanagement, coupled with the pandemic.
Budget airlines NokScoot, a joint venture between Singapore-based Scoot and Thailand's Nok Airlines, announced in late June its liquidation plan, leaving some 450 staff and crew members unemployed. It said it could not foresee recovery from the effects of the coronavirus crisis.
In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific secured a government bailout in June as part of a recapitalisation plan, while Singapore Airlines reported in May annual net loss for the first time in its 48-year history.
Dubai-based Emirates Airlines began a second wave of lay-offs last month, cutting 600 pilots and 6,500 cabin crew workers, while Qatar Airways plans to drop about 20 per cent of its workforce.
Air New Zealand has said at least 3,500 workers will lose their jobs, while Qantas last week said it would let go at least 6,000 employees.
Thitipong Geenupong, a flight attendant and founder of Thaicabincrew.com, a website that provides information about airline recruitment and applications, said his website traffic had not declined even though the last job posting was published in March.
This suggests that young Thais still hold the same level of interest in the job, Thitipong said.
"I'm surprised," he said. "They might think airlines will recover soon, though I don't think that's the case."
After 25 years as a flight attendant, Thitipong has a balanced view about the job. "It is not always fun, sometimes it is boring and stressful, but, as a job, it sustains you," he said.
Tanyalak, the flight attendant trainer, said as with everything, there are pros and cons to the job that young people may not fully comprehend.
"An image attached to the job is that cabin crew are good looking, rich and travel the globe. It is like they are somebody," she said.
She noted that the job was also often physically demanding and many have "cracked" mentally from the pressure of having to please people.
"But who wouldn't want to post on Instagram their dinner in South Korea, nightlife in Dubai, skiing in Switzerland or wakeboarding in Qatar? It's the 'Me Generation'," she said.