Tuesday, 19 Jan 2021

Jetstar Asia pilot takes on leading role in swab operations, aircrew start businesses

For about 20 years, Mr Jumo Tay flew as a pilot with the Republic of Singapore Air Force and in the past decade, with Jetstar Asia as a commercial pilot.

But the 51-year-old has been grounded since March 10, after demand for air travel plummeted amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since April, he has been keeping himself busy leading Jetstar Asia staff in setting up Covid-19 swab test sites in dormitories. He did so well, he was recently promoted by the Manpower Ministry to the role of ground commander of inter-agency swab operations.

He now oversees about 15 teams, each with five members from different professions.

Mr Tay is among more than 300 Jetstar Asia cabin crew and pilots who are temporarily employed by other organisations as they await the recovery of air travel.

The airline had in June announced cost-cutting measures, which included the trimming of around 180 jobs. The budget carrier currently has more than 400 cabin crew and pilots in total, with about 50 still flying.

Mr Tay’s job is to ensure that the swab operations are done safely and efficiently. “I have been able to adapt and use my skills such as planning and implementing large-scale operations,” he said.

When setting up testing sites, he takes into consideration wind direction. Queues are then organised in a way that reduces the risk of wind carrying droplets from those being tested to others waiting.

He works with various stakeholders such as health officials to implement the measures.

Mr Tay said: “When I am flying, I probably have a little bit more time to think and sometimes I get to enjoy the scenery.

“But I would say this job is very enriching and humbling… It is a role in the front line fighting against the spread of Covid-19.”

He declined to reveal the impact of the coronavirus on his pilot’s wages except to say his wife and three daughters – aged 13, 15 and 17 – were living “very comfortably” when he was flying full-time.

“When my children heard that my pay was to be cut, they cut down on their air-con usage… They knew that they needed to start saving and help their daddy reduce whatever costs they can,” he said.

Jetstar Asia said most of its staff remain on furlough leave, but are receiving sustenance pay.

Crew members who have found temporary jobs said while their income has been affected, they have been able to get by and also contribute in meaningful ways.

Air stewardess Payal Bhandari, 50, who has flown with different airlines in the past 30 years, has been working as a safe distancing ambassador with the National Parks Board since June.

She starts at 5.30am and takes a break at about 10am, before reporting for work again in the evening.

Ms Payal said: “It was difficult to adapt as we are used to being in an aircraft. Working outside, it can get hot, humid or rainy.

“But I started to enjoy it. I like being outdoors in nature, being able to contribute, and we also get to exercise while we are walking. Many people also come and thank us.”

Permanent resident Gaurani Sarah Grace Jaleco, 28, has been working as a Covid-19 swabber.

She and several of her aircrew colleagues have also taken advantage of the reduced flight time to start their own businesses.

Ms Sarah Grace has been making beeswax wraps to sell.

Her cabin crew colleagues – Mr Hosni Hanapi, 31, and Ms Ng Mui Kien, 45 – each started a food and beverage business.

All five Jetstar Asia staff said they are looking forward to flying again.

Ms Payal said: “I want to go back to flying; that is all I know. I love my passengers. I would love for the skies to open up, for travellers to come back again, and to close the doors for the plane to fly again.”

Toh Ting Wei

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