Today, the nation and the world continue to battle Covid-19. That being said, the Changi spirit is resolute — and most evident in the people who work tirelessly at the frontline to ensure that our world-renowned aviation hub remains safe and strong.
As an essential gateway that connects Singapore to the world, Changi Airport plays a crucial role in maintaining the lifeline of vital supplies and our global supply chain. In light of Changi Airport’s 40th anniversary, we speak to Aisha, a 41-year old dnata Cargo Agent who plays a critical role in facilitating the smooth distribution of temperature-sensitive essentials within Singapore amidst a pandemic — as well as her joys and pride of working in Changi.
Bubbly and high-spirited with a smile plastered across her face, Aisha was decked in dnata’s safety vest when we first met. Immediately, I was struck by her amiable demeanour. I soon learned that this is signature Aisha.
For 13 years, Aisha was a Passenger Service Agent with dnata, a role that saw her serving travellers arriving from all over the globe. Like many others within the aviation industry, her job was impacted by the onslaught of the pandemic. In response, Aisha’s company offered a redeployment opportunity for her consideration, one that entailed a mid career switch.
Despite her initial apprehension about the career pivot, Aisha was deeply driven by her love of working in Changi Airport and ultimately chose to embrace the new opportunity that came her way.
Even in the face of setbacks brought by the pandemic, she never lost a sense of possibility; that obstacles could lead to unexpected growth. Aisha could have easily let her self-doubt dictate her actions (or inaction), but self-belief won out in the end.
At the end of the day, “hope is all that we have,” she said.
Stepping into a whole new world
Aisha had never thought herself well-suited for a role as a Cargo Agent, let alone deployed in the cool chain department — the team responsible for handling temperature-sensitive perishables and pharmaceuticals delivered via air freight. After all, the role has traditionally been known to be more male-dominated and labour-intensive, although that has been changing over the years.
It took some adjusting on her end: the change meant having to switch high heels for safety boots; to move massive containers and forgo the cool air-conditioned indoors of the airport in exchange for the sweltering heat outdoors.
“Me? Driving a forklift? I can’t even ride a bicycle. To be honest, I was very nervous about the change. I even cried about it at the start,” Aisha confessed.
When asked to describe how a typical day looks like for a Cargo Agent, Aisha explains: “In the cool chain team, we facilitate the safe handling and storage of items — anything from flowers to medicines, e-commerce goods and food that arrive from all over the world via air cargo.”
The first thing Aisha does when stepping into work is to check for incoming flights. Thereafter, she takes note of the types of cargo shipments that are expected to arrive. The next course of action varies depending on the category of items at hand — perishables like fruits, fish and meat need different methods of storage. Pharmaceuticals such as vaccines and medicines also require specific, controlled temperatures and must be carefully handled before further transportation.
In short, Aisha’s team is responsible for keeping many of our essential goods safe and prompt. Needless to say, Cargo Agents play an important role in sustaining our economy, and more so in a pandemic. In just the first half of 2021, the airport handled over 900,000 tonnes of cargo shipments — with 60 airlines operating over 900 weekly cargo flights. Plus, Singapore was the first air hub in Asia to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires deep-freeze storage conditions as well as reliable transportation.
Think about the salmon on your plate, that eye drop vial stashed in a side drawer at home, or those imported fruits found in the supermarket. Also, the occasional human organ or tissue. They’re all likely to have passed through Changi Airport via air cargo. Pretty cool, right?
A silver lining behind every dark cloud
The initial transition was certainly not easy for Aisha. On top of witnessing some unfortunate departures of her beloved colleagues, she had to adapt and pick up new skills. What she had, however, was an epiphany: undergoing her company’s retraining efforts brought back the joy of learning again. Through it all, Aisha attended lessons and diligently combed through manuals to boost her knowledge in the field.
Today, Aisha radiates nothing but confidence. “Whether I am a Passenger Service Agent or a Cargo Agent, I learned that it boils down to delivering impeccable service in both roles. In that regard, they are more or less the same.”
Reflecting on the time when she underwent the career switch, Aisha is more than thankful for the support provided to her. “The encouragement I received from my colleagues really helped to boost my self-belief,” she adds, “My bosses also tried their very best to provide us with job security. And I’m very appreciative of that fact.”
“I’ve learnt so much since joining the Cargo team and it’s been an eye-opening experience — seeing this other side of Changi.”
Above all, Aisha’s motivation stemmed from the need to be a good role model for her five children; some of whom are currently teenagers.
As a working mother in an unconventional line of work, Aisha’s impact on her children is clear. Choosing to back off from such an opportunity wasn’t in her books at all. By taking on this new role, she enlarges the scope of career possibilities for her kids, whilst instilling in them the spirit of resilience.
“I wanted to prove that if I can do it, so can they. Now my boys are proud of me. I too, am very proud of myself.”
Clear as day: Love for the community runs deep
Aisha may have worked at the airport for years, but her love for the community hasn’t dwindled. Aviation is in her blood — a dream bubbling under the surface from a very young age. She readily explains: “My dad was a tour guide. Naturally, I became intrigued by the airport since I spent so much time there. I grew up in Changi.”
I soon discovered that one of Aisha’s favourite activities back then was to tag along with her father as he brought travellers into Changi. She was — and remains — a keen observer of people; of how they all speak in varied accents and languages.
Fast forward to today and Aisha has grown to be a figure that co-workers gladly look up to. Many of them view her as an older sister of sorts to turn to for guidance. Unsurprisingly, Aisha’s warm disposition has also been a catalyst in her befriending other Changi staff — from cleaners to security guards and vendors at food courts.
“I try to be kind to everyone every day. Ultimately, that’s how people remember you,” she said, as she noted little moments that make her day. Vendors remember her daily drink order, and people occasionally stop by her side to make conversation.
Once, while on a holiday with her husband in Barcelona, a local had even recognised Aisha as the Passenger Service Agent who dealt with her boarding pass. She remarks with a soft chuckle: “This line of work lets you meet people from all walks of life!” In her eyes, these are the things that make a career at Changi Airport special.
With a wide collection of fond memories to pick from, she struggled to pick just one. “Do you remember the wide-open carpark, where Jewel now is? I’ve been around since then! There’s also a Swensen’s at Terminal 1, right at the viewing gallery. These things show how much we have evolved.”
Even on her off days, Aisha admits to bringing her children to the airport for leisure. “There are just so many things to do here. I love the viewing malls and I let my kids play around on their own. No matter how many times it’s been, looking at planes still helps me destress.”
For Aisha, Changi Airport is more than just a workplace—it is her second home.
“We can’t be travelling abroad every day,” she notes.
“But when you’re working in such an iconic place like Changi Airport, it feels as though you are.”
As the nation reckons with the collective impact of the pandemic, it’s clear the people behind Changi Airport have borne the brunt of the storm. The ability to positively reframe an incredibly difficult situation is one that I admire in people who’ve faced significant obstacles this year — Aisha included.
Once you step into Changi, you can never get out of it. Because it’s that good.
After working at Changi Airport for more than 14 years, Aisha is still yearning to discover more throughout her career. Perhaps, her pride is rooted in knowing that what she does directly contributes to our economy.
“Who knows what else is in store? I still have time to find out. Until I retire, maybe?”
The significance of the airport isn’t lost on Singaporeans, of course. Changi Airport, after all, is a household name that forms part of our collective memories. Just as it is for Aisha, the airport is a place packed with memories of countless hours spent with precious co-workers. Beyond that, there exists an unspoken sense of pride that she holds from her contributions — and in being part of the airport community.
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