A job in the sky has long been regarded as an exciting prospect. After Merdeka, many daughters of Malaya’s aristocratic elites sought jobs as glamorous stewardesses on Malayan Airways / Malaysia-Singapore Airways / Malaysian Airline System (whose abbreviation we lovingly continue to use despite its etymology lost to history), and as I was growing up in the eighties even my friends and I would always list becoming a pilot as a possible future career (before I realised I had an aversion to turbulence).
Over the years I have done my fair share of flying, having studied and worked abroad – though these days I travel far less than some of my contemporaries. Over 90% of flights in my lifetime have been on Malaysia Airlines, and on those journeys the overwhelming majority of my interactions with crew members have been pleasant, efficient and most importantly, instant reminders of home when I had been away for so long.
The first routine I had on MAS flights was to negotiate an extra pillow at the start of the long-haul economy class flight to London (in the early years still broken up with a stop in Dubai). I don’t think this was strictly allowed but I found that if I quietly asked (or “flirted with”, as my teenage self would fancy) a stewardess in the crew area, my wish would usually be granted, to the envy of other passengers who would ask and be told that there were no more left. The extra blue rectangle of artificial fluff was the key ingredient to getting any sleep.
Another time, the turbulence was so bad through a storm in the Indian Ocean (I even believed the justification “we regret that hot drinks cannot be served”) that a woman on my row started screaming, and that got other passengers rather worried too. The crew did a remarkable job of calming her down and then persuading everyone that it was a harmless gust of wind, and that the plane could easily handle a much greater battering, even though by this stage we weren’t allowed any beverages at all.
Eventually, the crew members’ faces became familiar to me, and I even tracked the career path of one stewardess – apparently a distant relative. I first met her on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to our native Kuala Terengganu, then later on a regional flight, and finally a flight to London. But beyond the individuals, the other great consistency was the palpable camaraderie that coursed through the crew members. Seeing a multiethnic Malaysian crew serving passengers from every country gave a similar rush as cheering on one of our athletes: a solid encapsulation of our national diversity and spirit criss-crossing the globe.
The pleasant surprises still have not stopped in recent times: last year, a steward on a KL-Melbourne flight asked if I would sign a copy of my book for him. Before that, on an Enrich-redeemed Frankfurt-KL flight, the inflight supervisor asked if I wanted my aide-de-camp to be upgraded, to which I could only chuckle since I have never had an ADC or personal assistant in my life!
Before being accused of exaggerated gushing, I will admit of course there were times when things were not always perfect, and behind the scenes the airline has experienced its own massive turbulences and shenanigans polluted by politics. Still, despite all that, I never felt any letting up in the efforts from the crew on the planes themselves. Whatever happened on MH370, I am certain that they would have done their utmost to calm, protect and ultimately save those under their watch. I pay tribute to their professionalism and courage, and I join in the prayers of millions of Malaysians of every background in the hope of finding the plane, its passengers and crew. In particular I feel for the friends and colleagues of the lost crew who will have had to continue working as normal throughout the fleet.
So much has already been said about the search operation: frustration and despair over the many false leads, and a catalogue of criticism and praise – from domestic and international sources – but much of it self-selecting for political purposes. As such, for now, I am loath to criticise any agency or individual. During such an unprecedented event as this in our aviation history, the priority must be to locate 9M-MRO rather than promote risible conspiracy theories or take potshots. There might be institutional weaknesses and communication errors; and yet there may be much more going on behind the scenes. Considered judgment is passed years after other major aircraft incidents, and we should afford ourselves the same privilege.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is the president of IDEAS