When the skies are out of reach

Amir Yusof

KUALA LUMPUR (CNA) – It has been months since Naeem Nassir was terminated from Oman Air in July, and the 30-year-old pilot still longs for the adrenaline rush and glamour of his previous work.

His job of two years was quite different from the traditional deskbound nine-to-five. The senior first officer counted frequent international travel, an above average income and an office above the clouds as some of its perks.

For now, taking to the skies is out of reach for Naeem and hundreds of his pilot and flight attendant colleagues in Malaysia who have been grounded or sacked as COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the air travel industry.

Over the last few months, two major airlines in Malaysia, Malindo Air and AirAsia, have confirmed that there have been layoffs while national carrier Malaysia Airlines has implemented cost-cutting measures such as unpaid leave and pay cuts.

Some of those impacted have turned to entrepreneurship to earn a living, kick-starting businesses in the hope that they yield returns.

Malaysia Airlines has implemented cost-cutting measures such as unpaid leave and pay cuts. PHOTO: NIKKEI
A fighting fish bred by Don, an AirAsia flight attendant. PHOTO: DON

Naeem, for instance, has swapped out his aviator hat and smart uniform for dirty aprons and grimy gloves at his new venture, Smashed Burger.

The outlet, located in Bukit Jelutong, Selangor, sells Australian beef patty burgers with toppings such as caramelised onions and beef bacon, for the relatively cheap price of around MYR10.

While flipping burgers may sound less complicated than flying a commercial aircraft, Naeem acknowledged that the transition has been “very drastic”.

“I went from sitting down in an air-conditioned cockpit, managing switches and flying the plane, and being served food by cabin crew, to working this burger business.

“I found myself standing for hours beside a hot grill late into the night and engaging 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 kinds of burgers in Oman which I crave for. The first is like those at Shake Shack, so I went to Google their recipes.

“The second type is burger bakar or burger patties grilled on charcoal grill.”

Fortunately for him, Smashed Burger has been a huge hit among locals in Selangor. Ever since food blogs and local media have reported on the venture, Naeem’s burgers have been selling out almost daily this week, and he has been forced to apologise to his customers, urging them not to travel to his stall and end up disappointed.

“We are thankful … we never expected the business to go viral. The business was initially run just by me and my wife, but now my parents are helping out too,” he added.

Another pilot who has pivoted to a food business is Syed Meerah, a former Malindo Air employee who was sacked in October.

The 33-year-old captain said he was shocked at first, but after discussing with his partner, he decided to take the plunge into a home-based food business.

“After I was retrenched, my girlfriend suggested that I do something that I like – and I love to cook. So I decided to cook for my friends, ask them to review, and after I got good feedback, I decided to go all out,” said Syed.

Syed runs a food delivery service – dubbed Grounded Chef – that serves up mamak-style dishes that have a Peranakan twist such as devil curry chicken and chicken perattal. He works alongside his former colleague from Malindo Air, a flight attendant, who helps him with the deliveries.

“My cooking style was initially just Indian Muslim, mamak cooking. Then after I introduced Nyonya style, which is more sour-based with asam and belacan, that became my signature,” said Syed.

“I used to travel to India a lot for work and over there I learnt about spices, local delicacies and style and I try to implement these in my cooking,” he added.

He cited how he learnt to make a special omelette by adding more milk to make it fluffier, a tip he picked up in Amritsar, a city in north India.

Besides food businesses, there are grounded Malaysians from the aviation industry who have opened other ventures. For instance, a flight attendant with AirAsia, who wanted to be known only as Don, told CNA that he has opened a business breeding fighting fish.

Don said that he is still employed by AirAsia, but as the number of flights have dried up, his opportunities for work have dwindled and so has his flight allowance. He flies once a month, if he is lucky.

“The last time I flew was around two months ago, and frankly, I don’t know if I’ll ever fly again,” said Don.