Andrea Halagueña, AirAsia
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be in a fun and challenging profession. For me, that involves traveling, meeting new people and being in different situations all the time. Being an airline pilot does all that and more.
Coming from an ‘aviation family’ fueled my interest in flying. My Dad is a retired airline pilot who has logged tens of thousands of hours flying various commercial aircraft. On my Dad’s retirement flight, I flew with him in the flight deck as a first officer.
I grew up with stories of my grandfather flying as a reconnaissance pilot during the second world war. He flew with war heroes like Jesus Villamor. In flight, they located the positions of Japanese soldiers. I was told that my grandfather was the first pilot to retire with the Philippine Airlines. His last flight was from Honolulu to Manila. All these stories are just part and parcel of why I decided to make flying a career.
Every pilot vividly remembers their first solo flight. I remember mine more than a decade ago. It was so nerve-wracking because it was the first time I flew a Cessna 152 alone. Inside our light aircraft, I recall my flight instructor telling me that I was ready to fly solo. I remember my legs being so wobbly. My instructor got off the aircraft and shut the door behind him. I taxied the aircraft towards the runway and completed a visual flight pattern, which consisted of one take off and landing.
After touchdown, I taxied the aircraft back to the ramp area where I was greeted with cheers from my peers, my instructors and my Dad. I knew that if I started doubting my abilities, I would basically put myself and others in danger. I strived hard to study for my flight simulator sessions and classes. One cannot take flight training lightly because the lives of people including mine depend on it.
10 years on, I now get to fly hundreds of passengers in a day. Because I’ve been with Air Asia for almost nine years, I now consider a lot of my airline colleagues like family. The idea of joining the airlines when I was starting out was daunting but I didn’t let my fears consume me.
It’s great to see global airlines welcome more female pilots in the flight deck. When I was a first officer, I flew most of the time with male captains. There are some challenging days at work – not because I’m a woman, but because the task at hand is in itself tough.
I don’t feel any different from my male pilot colleagues since we all perform the same duties and get the same busy schedules. We are all expected to have the right attitude and skills to fly the aircraft safely.
As pilot in command, we exercise final authority on the operation of the aircraft. All decisions rest with us. We captains are accountable for the safety of the passengers, crew, cargo and the aircraft. We’re already being groomed and trained to become captains the moment we sit on the right seat as first officers. Our instructors would put us in high pressure situations in the simulator to see how well we can perform in stressful situations.
Airline life pre-quarantine has been very enjoyable and rewarding for me. I would fly domestic routes in the Philippines and regionally around Asia several times a week. I could be in several cities in a week like Bali, Seoul, Bangkok and Singapore, so that makes things quite interesting for me. No two flights are the same, and we get to fly with different crew members all the time.
When I’m not flying, I’m usually busy trying to keep fit by doing yoga and pilates. If my work schedule permits, I would plan and do dive trips with my friends.
We were still flying to China in January when the lockdown happened. Committee members from the World Health Organization thought it was too early to declare it an international health emergency. Colleagues faced 14-day mandatory quarantine in February after flying to destinations in China like Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou. Although there was an unspoken fear of getting infected, we knew we had to get the job done.
By early February, it became mandatory for us crew members to list down our body temperature after reporting for duty. This was just one way for the airline to monitor crew members’ health. I continued to fly for a week before the lockdown was enforced, and after getting back from holiday in Hawaii. Around that time, some countries have started shutting their borders and airlines began cancelling some flights to high risk destinations.
Mactan’s international airport was so deserted that I can hear the chirping of the birds. My flight to Singapore and to some domestic routes around mid-March would be my last commercial flight for months.
The tragic and sobering reality is that a lot of us won’t be able to fly for a long time. One of the most hard hit businesses in this crisis is the aviation industry. It’s a surreal and humbling experience that no one saw coming. For most of us crew members, this is the longest period where we haven’t flown.
On a global scale, the number of experienced pilots and cabin crew whose jobs were declared redundant is phenomenal. Thousands have lost their jobs in the airline industry and for most of us airliners, facing financial hardships is just the beginning.
In the first 11 weeks of the lockdown, I was away from home. I was flying out of Cebu, which was my hub for a little over a year. I was living alone in a cozy apartment and I had friends living in the same building.
I was away from home, so I would also constantly reach out to my friends and family. During quarantine, I made it a point to disconnect online and limit what I read in the news each day. I also resorted to working out and cooking to cope with all the uncertainties. I have never cooked so much in my life. I realized that it became therapeutic.
I started learning more about emotional agility when I got back to Manila. I want to help myself and my friends, who need emotional support. In this period of physical distancing and high anxiety, we are so quick to run away from discomforting emotions. Instead of embracing and learning more about these emotions and why they are there, we instead fill our schedules with endless Zoom meetings and parties. We make personal goals like finishing 20 online courses or baking a hundred versions of ube cheese pan de sal.
For some, if those personal goals aren’t met, we beat ourselves up for not achieving our own definition of ‘successful’. Emotional agility teaches us to be kinder to ourselves no matter what the situation is and be more at ease when faced with an unsettling emotion. It helps us become more mindful of our thoughts and actions and be more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
Remember that it’s normal to be scared at this time. Take care of yourself mentally and emotionally. Stay curious about things and try not to beat yourself up for not being the most productive or most positive person. We have to pace ourselves and only do what you can reasonably do.
No one knows at this point how travel will evolve. I suspect that once a vaccine has been developed, the frequency of flights and the number of travellers will increase. Airlines work closely with regulators, local governments, health authorities like the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Armed with guidelines and recommendations, airlines put in place health protocols for crew members, passengers and ground staff. These protocols were made to minimize the risk of transmission as well as gain the trust of travellers. This includes mandatory monitoring of temperatures prior to check in, wearing of masks, implementing web/mobile check ins, regular disinfection of the aircraft, physical distancing in airports as well as in the aircraft, and so on. And hopefully once a virus is detected in the future, governments will be quicker to respond to it too because of this experience.
Safety has always been and will always be the foundation in flying. It’s one of the safest modes of transportation. Most modern airplanes have cabin filtration systems that are equipped with HEPA filters. Cabin air is fully renewed with fresh air every three minutes.
I am confident that we will get through this. Humans are highly adaptive, resourceful and resilient. The aviation industry will flourish again and pretty soon aviators will be back in the skies.
Flying is an incredibly fun and rewarding profession — regardless of gender. Don’t let others discourage you from flying simply because it’s a male-dominated industry. Women are just as capable of flying a multi-million dollar aircraft. There are a lot of challenges in flying so have lots of courage and patience stored in your pocket.
Post-quarantine would be the best time to support small businesses. I would consider traveling locally where I could go scuba diving or freediving. I would love to visit Dumaguete or Siargao again. Siargao is a place so dear to me. I recall visiting the island back in 2009 and at that time, there were only a few resorts and one bar. Siargao has evolved in so many ways since then but it has never lost its charm.
Note to readers: As this issue went to press, Andrea has left AirAsia. She is working on a project in the health and wellness industry.