Grounded carriers and careers: flight attendants seek other jobs

By Nguyen Quy   September 11, 2021 | 05:00 pm PT
Grounded carriers and careers: flight attendants seek other jobs
A flight attendant gives bottles of water to passengers on a Vietnam Airlines flight in May 2020. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.
With neither work nor wages, many flight attendants in Vietnam have quit to look for other income sources while others struggle with side jobs to make ends meet.

Nguyen Thi Thu Phuong, a 28-year-old flight attendant for a Vietnamese carrier, vacated her rented room in HCMC’s Tan Binh District and returned to her hometown in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang after she quit her job in May.

"It was a difficult decision but I had no other choice," said Phuong, who served passengers on long-haul international flights before the pandemic.

After nearly two years and four Covid-19 waves, Phuong had nearly run out of all her savings and could not afford to pay rent and meet other expenses in HCMC.

Before the pandemic, she flew about 60 to 80 hours a month and enjoyed a monthly income of over VND20 million ($875.57). After Vietnam closed its borders and suspended international flights in March last year, Phuong took unpaid leave for nearly six months and switched to online sales to survive the pandemic time.

When domestic tourism recovered late last year, she returned to work on domestic flights, but her working hours were reduced significantly and she struggled to survive with online sales of cosmetic products.

The latest Covid-19 wave that started late April resulted in the suspension of most domestic flights and Phuong was out of a job again. This time, she decided to give up her job of more than five years and returned to her hometown.

"We have suffered a rough year of health risks, layoffs and with the current pandemic situation, it would be difficult for the aviation industry to return to normal soon and what I should do now is to find a new job and rebuild my career," Phuong said.

After the pandemic is brought under control, Phuong plans to return to the city and work as an English teacher.

Phuong is one of many grounded flight attendants in Vietnam who’ve had to find ways to weather the Covid storm for nearly two years now.

Tran Tu Anh, 30, quit as a flight attendant five months ago and sells life insurance products now.

Anh said that before the pandemic she flew about 90 hours a month and earned nearly VND25 million ($1,093), not to mention other benefits. However, her income fell by 70 percent last year as all international flights were suspended and the frequency of domestic flights was also cut drastically.

Last year, she took unpaid leave for nearly four months and then arranged to work on repatriation flights that required all cabin crew to undergo mandatory quarantine upon returning as per the Health Ministry’s protocol.

"2020 was really an extremely difficult year for aviation staff like me. In addition to working hour reductions and salary cuts, we got no Tet bonuses. With an uncertain future for the aviation industry, I decided to give up my job that I had dreamt of doing until I was 35," Anh said.

Anh said many of her colleagues were passionate about the profession but they have had to quit because their income was not enough to cover daily expenses and the risk of contracting the virus on flights was high.

"Though my current earnings from selling insurance products is not high as what I earned as a flight attendant, I had some work to do, at least," she said.

Without flights to work on, Nguyen Hoang Phuc, 25, vacated his rented room in HCMC and returned home to Binh Duong Province for more than three months.

Phuc started working as a flight attendant for a Vietnamese carrier in early 2019 and flew about 80 to 90 hours a month for an income of over VND20 million. When domestic tourism recovered temporarily, he flew around 60 hours a month. When the fourth coronavirus wave hit late April, he has been on unpaid leave since early May.

Unlike many colleagues who have chosen to quit their jobs and look for new careers, Phuc is hoping to survive the pandemic time with side jobs and wait the crisis out till he can fly gain.

Phuc has used his savings to start online food sales, but the business has not been easy, given the tough travel restrictions and police barricades in Binh Duong, the second biggest Covid hotspot in the country after HCMC.

"My parents have become a source of motivation for me amid the dark days of my career. What I wish now is that everyone stays safe and overcome this outbreak."

Grounded carriers

The flight attendants’ difficulties stem from the trouble that Vietnamese carriers are in, confronting major financial challenges as revenues plunge and debt soars. Since the advent of Covid-19 early last year, airlines’ revenues have plunged 80-90 percent, according to a recent report by the Vietnam Aviation Business Association (VABA).

The Ministry of Planning and Investment has said that national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines is on the verge of bankruptcy and needs government support. Last year, the national flag carrier cut a large number of staff and reduced the salaries of pilots and cabin crew to cut costs.

Doan Ngoc Linh, head of the Vietnam Airlines cabin crew division, has said the airline has around 3,173 flight attendants but only 10 percent were on the job as of May this year. The remaining have been laid off or taken unpaid leave, he said. Other domestic carriers have not released corresponding details.

Vietnam Airlines chairman Dang Ngoc Hoa said the airline would avoid making the mistakes as the world’s largest carrier, American Airlines, which was forced to cancel hundreds of flights because of staff shortage as the aviation market recovered.

He told Vietnam News Agency the airline has given monthly aid of VND1.8 million per person for employees going on unpaid leave, including flight attendants and maintained welfare regimes such as health insurance and voluntary retirement insurance.

With most tourist spots out of reach because of lockdowns and other closures, local carriers have suspended most domestic flights. Only a few routes have been allowed to remain open, but the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam on August 30 asked airlines to stop selling tickets for domestic flights until further notice.

Meanwhile, Phuc said all his colleagues have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine and he was hoping that the government would succeed in stopping the current Covid-19 wave so that commercial flights can resume and return to normal soon.

But his dream remains distant since Vietnam is currently grappling with its most challenging Covid outbreak so far, and no one knows when a semblance of normalcy will return.

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