One look at Begamakhira Akareem, who is now Head – Safety, Security, Quality & Health of the Cabin Crew department, it’s not hard to guess she was once a flying crew. Better known as Akhira, her cheerful disposition, caring nature, and wittiness are clear clues to her past life. Akhira was Chief Stewardess before she stepped down and became a full-time ground staff.
Upon graduation from junior college in the 1980s, Akhira went for interviews with several airlines to become a cabin crew. “I felt like I was thrown into a grown-up world all of a sudden,” she says, recalling the experience of taking part in the open-call interviews with many other hopefuls. The former cabin crew member did not know what to expect from the interview and her worries were heightened when she realised that the other candidates felt the same way. “However I decided to go into it with my guard down,” she recalls, and as a result, was surprised by how easy-going the interview turned out to be. “It’s really not what you would expect,” she says. “You expect questions that will be very formal but when you go in, you realise it’s much more of a chit-chat session,” she says.
Only 19 at the time, Akhira had also applied to work for two other airlines, and had gotten accepted. But ultimately, she decided to join her national carrier, Singapore Airlines, with the intention of leaving after five years to continue her studies. However, as she neared the end of her contract, Akhira realised that she could continue working for the Airline while pursuing a university degree, which was equally important to her.
When asked how her interview experience was like, Akhira notes how different it was back in the 1980s. “Back when I interviewed, the process was very long. It started with face-to-face interviews at Mandarin Hotel on Orchard Road, and continued back at the SIA Training Centre where a group interview would take place and each candidate was given three minutes to speak to assess their public speaking skills.” This was followed by a swimming test and finally a meeting with the management panel at Airline House. Successful candidates would be given the paperwork to sign on the spot.
Today the process is shorter, and the main interview process happens within a day at the SIA Training Centre. It consists of four rounds, starting with a group interview and they make their self-introduction, followed by a group debate session where candidates have a chance to showcase their speaking and reasoning skills. Next is a chat with the management and finally a grooming round where women get to try on the kebaya.
While the process has changed over time, Akhira says, “What we’re looking for hasn’t,” citing empathy as a key quality that cannot be taught during training. “The moment you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the battle is won,” she explains. “Knowing how to react and deal with someone in a difficult situation is a great skill to have.”
As an example, she recalls a time when, as Chief Stewardess, she had to massage the back of a five-month-pregnant passenger on a flight to Frankfurt. “She was clearly not feeling well throughout the flight, and this was the only way to alleviate her discomfort. Working on a plane is so much harder because you can’t just run out to a shop to get something.”
The key to doing the job well onboard as a crew is to be able to understand the passengers’ needs and fulfil them as much as possible. Compared to the past, passengers have higher expectations of crew and the service standard delivered. However, Akhira says once the service DNA has been inculcated in person, it will stay with them for life. Based on her own experiences, she says it’s the little things that make SIA crew different from the rest. “The culture is such that when onboard, we want to do our best and put a smile on passengers’ faces. When they are happy, we feel good ourselves.”
“As a crew member, it’s not just about service in the aircraft,” she elaborates. “It’s also about how you touch the lives of everybody around you. Once you’re wearing the kebaya, you have to live up to its image. I feel like, if I can help someone, even if it’s with a small request, it would really make their day – and that’s the essence of what we do.”
Having been at both ends of the interview, Akhira can relate to the apprehension and mixed emotions of the candidates. So when she’s there, she makes an effort to diffuse the tension by making the interview more casual, helping them feel more at ease. “This also helps us to assess the candidate without them being so nervous,” she explains. “We can tell more clearly if they are adaptable, empathetic and quick-witted – qualities we really look for in our cabin crew.”
SEE ALSO: Cabin crew: Sister act