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Grounded Thai airline staff, hit by pay cuts, work side gigs

Grounded Thai airline staff, hit by pay cuts, work side gigs

By JERRY HARMER Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Restrictions on air travel imposed on airlines in Thailand have brought a lot of turbulence into the lives of flight and cabin crews, but they’ve been trained to cope with emergencies. More than 200 furloughed staff, facing reduced incomes from big pay cuts, have formed a car and motorbike delivery service, earning vital money and winning fame on the doorstep.

Just a month ago, Kritee Youngfuengmont was flying commercial jets. No longer hauling passengers, he now jockeys a Honda scooter around town to deliver food, documents and even hot cups of coffee.

In this April 22, 2020, photo, furloughed Thai commercial airline pilot Kritee Youngfuengmont waits for delivery orders from customers as side work to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailand. Restrictions on air travel imposed on airlines in Thailand have brought a lot of turbulence into the lives of flight and cabin crews, but they’ve been trained to cope with emergencies. More than 200 furloughed staff, facing reduced incomes from big pay cuts, have formed a car and motorbike delivery service, earning vital money and winning fame on the doorstep. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

It’s not glamorous, but for the 36-year-old pilot on half-pay who has debts to settle, the work is a financial lifeline. The roughly 1,500 baht ($46) he earns per day should keep him going until the pandemic passes.

“Life is unpredictable. The unexpected can happen anytime. You could be enjoying good times and all of a sudden, you’re falling apart,” he said. “When that happens, you have to figure out if you are going to give up, or fight and find something to hold on to while you figure a way out.”

Thailand’s airlines began slashing services and salaries in late March to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, surrendering to the reality that entry bans around the world make most passenger flights money-losers. Staff at the country’s flag carrier, Thai Airways International, took pay cuts and were put on leave until the end of May.

At least a couple of other Thai airlines plan to resume domestic flights on a limited basis this week, but at the same time are seeking a collective soft loan package from the government of at least 25 billion baht ($770 million).

In this April 22, 2020, photo, furloughed Thai commercial airline pilot Kritee Youngfuengmont delivers coffee as a side job to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Kritee and others saw the lean times coming and set up “Delivery by Pilots and Crew” as a social media group just before the shutdown hit. Since then, they’ve swapped their smart uniforms for the humdrum garb of delivery staff to shuttle food and goods around Bangkok.

Delivery services, especially food, are an important industry in Thailand. The biggest, Singapore-headquartered Grab, began as a Uber-style ride-hailing business, but has since taken the lead in food delivery, and is said to use 150,000 drivers nationwide.

The idea of dashing pilots forced into making an earthbound livelihood has brought them media attention, turning them into minor celebrities.

“I suppose people have the image of us with high-flying, glamorous careers,” says Thanun Khantatatbumroong, one of the group’s administrators. “But everyone forgets that we are just regular human beings with responsibilities and expenses, just like everyone else.”

Photo (Clockwise from top) In this April 22, 2020, photo, furloughed Thai commercial airline pilot Kritee Youngfuengmont delivers food to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

In this April 22, 2020, photo, furloughed Thai commercial airline pilot Kritee Youngfuengmont delivers coffee as a side job to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

In this 2019, photo released by Kritee Youngfuengmont, Thai commercial airline pilot Kritee Youngfuengmont gives a thumbs-up inside a flight simulator during a training in Japan. Kritee has currently been furloughed due lack of flights during the coronavirus pandemic and has taken on side work as a deliveryman to supplement his income. (Kritee Youngfuengmont via AP)

Other aviation industry employees are scrambling to raise a little cash though online marketplaces.

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Only airline staff are allowed to post sales listings on the biggest one, “Crew Online Market,” which has more than 16,000 members. Items on offer range from doughnuts and grilled shrimp to computers and kitchen appliances.

A three-man team cleaning air-conditioners at a house in suburban Bangkok last week had until the coronavirus crisis began been working as a ground crew maintaining the engines of Boeing 737s.

As soon as their jobs went into limbo, they decided to adapt their skills. They spent 10,000 baht ($308) on the tools — a high-pressure hose, an air blower, ladders and cleaning products — and say they’ve worked every day since. To attract customers, they charge below standard rates.

Chutiphong Sodvilai, a 32-year-old father of two who was put on 10% pay, says he gets satisfaction from knowing the crisis hasn’t beaten him.

“Everybody has to adjust themselves. We can’t change anything other than ourselves,” he said. “I have to find something to do, to take care of myself and my family so that we survive this crisis.”

Photo (Clockwise from top) In this April 24, 2020, photo, furloughed aircraft engineer Chutipong Sodvilai cleans air condition units to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

In this April 24, 2020, photo, furloughed aircraft engineer Nattapon Khonpoung takes on extra work cleaning air condition units to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailan.(AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

In this April 24, 2020, photo, furloughed aircraft engineer Thiupat Masantea cleans air condition units to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailand. Restrictions on air travel imposed on airlines in Thailand have brought a lot of turbulence into the lives of flight and cabin crews, but they’ve been trained to cope with emergencies. More than 200 furloughed staff, facing reduced incomes from big pay cuts, have formed a car and motorbike delivery service, earning vital money and winning fame on the doorstep. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

In this April 24, 2020, photo, furloughed aircraft engineer Chutipong Sodvilai cleans air conditioning units to supplement his income in Bangkok, Thailand. Restrictions on air travel imposed on airlines in Thailand have brought a lot of turbulence into the lives of flight and cabin crews, but they’ve been trained to cope with emergencies. More than 200 furloughed staff, facing reduced incomes from big pay cuts, have formed a car and motorbike delivery service, earning vital money and winning fame on the doorstep. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Associated Press video journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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