KUALA LUMPURA: It has been months since Naeem Nassir was suspended from Oman Air in July, and the 30-year-old pilot is still longing for his previous job of adrenaline and glamor.
His two years of work differed from his traditional work of nine to five. The first senior officer considered frequent international travel, above-average income, and an office above the clouds to be some of the privileges.
Ascension is not yet available to Naeem and his hundreds of fellow pilots and flight attendants in Malaysia, who have been justified or dismissed because the COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the airline industry.
In recent months, the two largest Malaysian airlines, Malindo Air and AirAsia, have confirmed redundancies, while the national carrier Malaysia Airlines has implemented cost-cutting measures such as unpaid leave and pay cuts.
Some of those affected have turned to entrepreneurship to earn a living by starting a business in the hope that they will make a profit.
THE ACTIVITIES OF A FORMER PILOT BURGER TAKEN DOWN
For example, Naeems in his new company Smashed Burger has replaced his aviator hat and smart uniform with dirty aprons and dirty gloves.
The outlet, located in Bukit Jelutong, Selangor, sells Australian beef pie burgers with toppings such as caramelized onions and beef bacon for a relatively cheap price of around RM10 ($ 2.46).
Although hamburgers may sound less complicated than flying a commercial plane, Naeem said the transition was “very drastic.”
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“I started sitting in an air-conditioned cockpit, operating the controls and flying the plane, as well as cabin crew, until I worked in this burger business.
“I found that late at night I stood by the hot grill for hours and communicated 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 types of burgers in Oman that I crave. The first is the same as Shake Shack, so I went to Google their recipes. The second type is “burger bakar” or burger patties grilled on charcoal grills. “
Luckily for him, Smashed Burger has been a huge hit among the locals in Selangor. Since food blogs and local media reported on the business, Naeem burgers were sold almost daily this week, and he was forced to apologize to his customers, urging them not to drive to his kiosk and eventually disappointed.
“We are grateful … we never expected the business to become a virus. At first, the business was run only by me and my wife, but now my parents are helping too,” he added.
The former pilot opens a home-based food business
Another pilot focusing on the food business is Syed Meerah, a former Malindo Air employee who was fired in October.
The 33-year-old captain said he was shocked at first, but after talking to his partner, he decided to start a home food business.
“After I was taken over, my girlfriend suggested that I do something I like – and I like to cook. So I decided to cook my friends, ask them to review, and after receiving good feedback, I decided to go all out, ”said Syed.
Syed runs a food delivery service – called Grounded Chef – that serves mamak-style dishes with a Peranakan twist, such as devil’s curry chicken and chicken peratana. He works with his former colleague from Malindo Air, a flight attendant who helps him with deliveries.
“Initially, my cooking style was just Indian Muslim, mamak cooking. Then after I introduced the Nyonya style, which is based on more sour with a sharp and belacan, it became my signature, ”said Syed.
“I used to travel to India a lot for work, and there I learned about spices, local delicacies and style, and I try to incorporate them into my cooking,” he added.
He mentioned how he learned to make a special omelet by adding more milk to make it fluffier. He sought advice in Amritsar, a city in northern India.
FLIGHT DETECTOR STARTS FISH GROWTH
In addition to food companies, there are also legitimate Malaysians from the aviation industry who have opened up other activities. For example, a flight attendant from AirAsia, who wanted to know him only as Don, told the CNA that he had opened a battle fish farm.
Don said he is still employed by AirAsia, but as the number of flights has narrowed, his job opportunities have diminished, as has the flight allowance. He flies once a month if he is lucky.
“The last time I flew was about two months ago, and frankly, I don’t know if I’ll ever fly again,” Don said.
He remembered how he and his AirAsia colleagues had heard rumors earlier this year about upcoming redundancy training.
“Usually we hear it’s likely to happen in 24 hours, and we’ve all had trouble sleeping these nights.”
He then decided that he needed some financial security and invested his life savings of around RMB 17,000 to set up a fish farm in his home to grow colorful Betta fighting fish that could sell for up to RMB 1,000.
“I only started with two fish, but now I have thousands. I made mistakes, but I found out by watching YouTube videos and received suggestions from old-time growers, ”Don added.
To further supplement his income, Don also opened a roadside kiosk called Popiah World, which sold fried poppy. He said the counter’s unique selling point is a variety of fillings that customers can choose from in their pop, including carbonara, spicy beef and chicken with a special sauce.
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However, he has learned that running two companies is “tiring”, especially the fish business, which has taken up a lot of his time and energy.
“Fish farming is not my specialty. I love animals, so I like it, but it’s tiring to change the water in the containers every 3 days, and I don’t have the money to hire an assistant. Fish farming also takes five months to mature and ready for sale. It takes patience before I see a return on my investment, ”Don added.
“The higher you are, the harder you fall”
Although Naeem, Syed and Don have had mixed successes so far, all three agree that the revenue they grind is fading compared to what they earned flying before COVID-19.
Naeem said he earned a “five-figure salary” as an Oman Air pilot and that although his Smashed Burger business has been popular, he is still forced to reduce his lifestyle.
“I was blessed with a good salary. I bought a house. I now own two properties and my (loan) liabilities are very, very high, ”said Naeem. “It’s been a big change.”
Syed agreed and explained how his ability to spend has declined now that he is relying on his home business for income.
“As the saying goes, the higher you are, the harder you fall,” Syed said. “This whole episode is a wake-up call for all of us,” he said. “Right now it’s about going through the day.”
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He was grateful that the government has extended the moratorium on bank lending to Malaysians who have strengthened as a result of COVID-19.
“It really helps, but when the moratorium ends, the problem arises again. These current businesses, opened by pilots and flight attendants, will not be maintained without a further extension of the moratorium, ”said Syed.
“We have car and house loans, which also need to be serviced, and we would be grateful for more help from the government. Apart from the moratorium, there has been no other form of financial assistance, “he added.
Meanwhile, he still uses Don’s basic salary because he still works for AirAsia, but that’s part of what he earned in 2019 when he flew more often.
“My wife’s income has been reduced by 30 percent. Banks have approved our moratorium request for our home loan, but not for my car and motorcycle, ”said Don.
“So there is nothing I can do but try to cover the costs to the maximum,” he added.
WAITING TO FLY AGAIN
While their business has been a refreshing change, all three CNAs said they want to return to work with their airlines.
Sid said, “I’m waiting for me to return to the air, that’s all. This (business) is something that survives me. ”
However, he admitted that if he returned to the flight full time, he would lack his “fun culinary business” and conversation with customers.
“The only (main difference) is money, always money,” Sid said. “I can’t earn everything I’ve earned by flying from my business, and I have a (financial) commitment.”
Naeem said his goal has always been both a pilot and an owner in the food and beverage business, and he hopes to be able to follow both dreams as soon as the flying industry has returned to normal.
“Maybe it was a camouflage blessing that fired me so I could pursue that dream,” Naeem said.
“If I started flying again, I would be happy to continue this business, because I believe that we need to share good quality food so that everyone can enjoy them. Hopefully, this business can grow further again, ”he added.
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Stewart, Don hopes the airline industry will grow again in the near future. He noted that the introduction of COVID-19 vaccine was planned and was optimistic that it would give confidence in Malaysia to resume the flight.
“I hope AirAsia will recover and passengers will no longer be afraid to travel. If I work, at least I have a secure salary, ”said Don.
“I have no objection to flying, even with precautions. When I fly, I wear PPE (personal protective equipment) and make sure that I take a shower at the airport after each flight, ”he added.
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