Fathimath Hazrath leads the Reservations and Ticketing team at SriLankan Airlines, Maldives. From time-limits to re-bookings and issuance of tickets to handling special cases, her efforts are focused 24/7 around the clock. During the last 27 years, her experience in the aviation industry has won the confidence of numerous clients - individuals and corporates, and also paved the airline’s future for an aspiring young team in the Maldives. In this exclusive interview, she shares her journey into the aviation industry and talks with us about the challenges and perception of women’s role in the airline industry.
1. Tell us about your journey into the airline industry and from where did you draw your inspiration?
Despite my parents insisting me to choose a different career, I discovered an enthusiastic and energetic character in me that eventually unfolded as a people’s person. And so, it gave me the thought to challenge myself in an environment that was completely customer-driven and lead me to choose the airline and aviation industry in 1993, where I began my profession as a Reservation & Ticketing Agent at Air Maldives.
Having gained my first-hand experience at Air Maldives – I learned my aviation basics from my great mentors, namely Ms. Maimoona Ahmed and Mr. Ismail Wafir. And then I had to take a short break in my career as I achieved the best accolade a female could get, which is motherhood. Having spent quality time with my little daughter I got my next opportunity and broke into international aviation arena to test my ability with an international airline by joining SriLankan Airlines (GSA) in 2003 as a Reservation & Ticketing Supervisor.
I consider this one of the challenging times in my career as I had to balance work life and had to play the role of a wife and a mother, while focusing on my job role. The product SriLankan Airlines offered then was global due to the airlines’ codeshare partnership with Emirates. My mind was well-suited to take up the challenge due to the fact that my initial thoughts on a career path is customer-oriented.
Most of my early inspiration was influenced by my mentor Ms. Maimoona Ahmed, subsequently working under different management teams with international experience that lead me to much greater heights from overseas trainings, familiarisation travels and meetings to gain much needed international aviation industry exposure that transformed me to who I am today. I have also learned and gained an abundance of insight knowledge from Mr. Roshan Maduwarala, Country Manager of Ace Aviation Services Maldives, General Sales Agent for SriLankan Airlines in the Maldives. I also thank Mr. Mohamed Firaq, Managing Director of Ace Aviation Services Maldives and Mr. Tikiri Ellepola, Chief Operating Officer of Aitken Spence Travels / Chairman of Ace Aviations for entrusting me in my role and duties.
2. What do you enjoy most about your current role?
It’s the bond that I have with my management team and my subordinates. I consider my office environment as a family unit and this is certainly my natural approach. Having such a mind-set makes my life a lot easier, as I have a family when I report to work and a family when I return back home.
I pretty much enjoy this emotional family role especially with the team I manage that consists all females both in Malé and Addu city office. Having such a bond creates an opportunity to have better results simply due to the fact that each one of us stands up for one another to ensure we, as a team, deliver our best to all our valued customers. The management, too, gives a huge backing to maintain this – thus, I consider this as the key reason SriLankan Airlines Maldives has produced vibrant teams over the years.
3. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman, in what many would view as a “man’s world", of aviation and the airline industry in general?
Yes, we were often told that previous generations had limitations on women embarking into corporate environments. The key reason could be cultural and religious factors.
The world today speaks about Woman Empowerment and Gender Equality. Our motherland too made necessary amendments to the constitution in 2008 to guarantee Gender Equality. In this context, it is the woman’s responsibility too to step up and show the world that “Nothing is impossible”. SriLankan Airlines’ first ever female pilot was with a Muslim family background which highlights that the cultural and religious environment is not a barrier anymore for a woman to break into the corporate work force. SriLankan Airlines currently has approximately 10 female pilots flying our biggest aircrafts Airbus A330.
I would say the only challenge I have faced is breaking the cultural barrier and mixing up with men in the corporate world during the initial stages. However, with the international exposure sitting at trainings and meetings have helped me break the ice, and today, I feel proud as a woman representing my organization at meetings and training teams consisting of males.
4. What is the impact of COVID-19 on business travel, particularly between Sri Lanka and Maldives, and/or the Indian Subcontinent?
In general, aviation is one of the worst hit industries due to the outbreak of COVID-19. During my career since 2003 with SriLankan Airlines, I have seen through many setbacks starting from Sri Lanka’s civil unrest, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, SARS/MERS Pandemic. But no one would have thought in their wildest dreams or ever expected such an impact from the globally disruptive Coronavirus pandemic on our businesses and private lives.
Our business/corporate traveller customer base often take Malé-Colombo, Malé-Bangkok, and various Chinese destinations. And certainly, this segment has come to a total standstill due to respective country border restrictions. Despite the fact that it is too early to assess the impact, the projection is for this segment to decline even after the borders are open. Most businesses are slowly but surely moving towards online platforms amidst such developments and cost concerns, and it is fair by airlines to project a serious decline on corporate and business traffic.
5. In a fiercely competitive market, how do you position your product offerings to remain at the forefront of the industry?
SriLankan Airlines is not only the flag carrier of Sri Lanka, but also the largest international airline serving the Maldives and Southern India. Our greatest strength is that we are the only international airline to cover two points in the Maldives and offer the best of connectivity to the rest of the world.
Pre-COVID-19, our schedule to Malé and Gan was carefully evaluated to cater customer requirements to connect key destinations such a Bangalore, Chennai, Kochi – for those who travel on medical purposes – and Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore primarily for those who wish to travel for leisure. We anticipate to offer the same to Maldivians until we resume our regular operations from the base station.
By becoming a member of world airline alliance “oneworld” in 2014, we further strengthened our presence in the market as SriLankan is the only airline to represent oneworld in this part of the globe.
With the COVID-19 developments, most airlines have been cutting corners on operations in order to bring the operational cost within the manageable levels to sustain the business. The situation is expected to eventually lead to the survival of airlines to fall under an alliance – by one airline carry a customer to a midpoint and another member carry the customer to the final destination. oneworld member airlines cover over 1,000 global destinations in 170 countries. Over 225 loyalty programme members will benefit again through our alliance offer once current COVID-19 comes to a controllable level.
6. Your airline has been operating a number of repatriation charters during this pandemic, what have been your key takeaways in executing these flights, particularly focusing on the Colombo – Malé route?
I hope I can put the records straight; we are proud to say that SriLankan is the only airline which has been operating to the Maldives uninterrupted, despite our base being closed for traffic movement. Maldives is considered as our second home base for SriLankan Airlines and it is important that we maintain our image in Maldives.
Pre-opening of Maldives’ border, SriLankan Airlines operated nearly 100 flights. With the efforts of our management team, we moved approximately 4,000 customers to different parts of the globe. This includes repatriation flights to Colombo, Manila, Dhaka, and Lahore while moving over 1,800 customers to Europe, the Americas, Japan, South Korea, Australia and South East Asia via our hub Colombo. Meanwhile helping over 700 Maldivians to head back home from Belarus (via London) and from Colombo.
We stepped up during the hour of need to help many people that were stranded on holiday in the Maldives to connect with their family, friends and loved ones. Despite our operational limitations during lockdown, the management headed by the Directors and Country Managers of Ace Aviation and SriLankan Airlines along with my team whom I call family, worked hand-in-hand through day and night to coordinate and execute plans. Our actions certainly earned us appreciations from various stakeholders, High Commissions and Embassies.
7. SriLankan Airlines and Maldives’ General Sales Agent, Ace Aviation Services Maldives have conducted various CSR projects across the Maldives. How have these projects helped and benefitted the local communities?
As a prime international airline, we do not limit our reach only to business. It is our duty to look at things from a different perspective – from a non-commercial view. To date, we are the only international airline that has viewed and focused Maldives in this unique perspective and embarked on many journeys filled with corporate social responsibilities.
Our objective was to reach out to the less privileged children in the far-flung islands to help with healthcare facilities. Our first CSR project was held in 2013 – we sponsored an education field trip for 36 students from inter-atoll island schools to explore Sri Lanka for 5 days. The trip covered economy airfare and accommodation. In 2015, we held a medical camp for patients from the Home for People with Special Needs in Guraidhoo island in conjunction with Sri Lankan Airlines. And in 2016, we held another medical camp for children at Kudakudhinge Hiya, Villingilli in conjunction with Sri Lankan Airlines. We were honoured that the event was held under the patronage of SriLankan Airline’s Group Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anomi Jayasinghe who flew down from Colombo with her team of medical experts to conduct the camp.
The last CSR project was held in Addu city from 28th November to 01st December 2019. And, during the CSR Health Camp project, we provided special assistance from “Kauvery Hospital”, one of the most popular hospitals in South India. SriLankan Airlines brought down five specialist doctors, and over 300 Maldivians attended the camp in Addu city.
Moving forward we are looking at various other areas such as beach clean-up projects and environmental sustainability initiatives. We certainly want to embark on this, soon as the current pandemic situation comes under a controllable level.
8. With air travel going through its worst crisis in history, what precautionary measures have SriLankan Airlines put to prevent the virus from spreading onboard, through its lounges and at the airport?
The friendliest airline in the skies is ready to take all our customers around the world. We consider health and safety of our customers as our number one priority. A range of COVID-19 preventive measures have been enforced at Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo and on-board all SriLankan aircrafts. Wearing face masks at the airport and on-board the flights has now been made mandatory. Before check-in, passenger belongings will be sanitized and temperatures will be checked where passengers will walk through thermal screening. We take special care to frequently disinfect surfaces and sanitize our lounge facility, plus, hand sanitizers are placed at prime locations at Colombo airport. To be extra cautious we encourage our customers to use the airline’s online check-in facility, self-check-in kiosks and baggage drop. We will be providing a complimentary hygiene kit before boarding every customer. Our aircrafts are sanitized and disinfected after every service by the dedicated team of professionals and this process is 24/7. While onboard HEPA filters remove 99.97% of all viruses, dust, germs and allergens inside the aircraft.
The way we travel has changed, but our commitment to our passengers' safety, comfort and peace-of-mind remains steadfast.
9. SriLankan Airlines had very fruitful expansion targets for this year - with plans to add Sydney, Incheon and Chengdu to its route network. How do you think the airline will maintain its focus on consolidating its position in key markets such as India, China, the UK and other major destinations?
As per the plans at present, we will maintain our current destinations upon opening of Sri Lanka borders as India, China, UK had been our main source markets. Pertaining to our expansion plans, it is too early to comment since the pandemic situation still prevails. However, currently we have deployed our service to Frankfurt, Paris and Milan which we operated until 2017 and terminated service. In terms of new destination plan, we have already commenced our schedule service to Sydney and is effective first week of October. Once a week services will commence to Incheon with immediate connectivity to Malé on both directions.
10. What is your advice for someone who wants a career path in your role?
As I mentioned early, “Nothing is impossible!” - dare to dream, dare to challenge yourself, maintain a good work life balance. Never stop learning because each day is a brand new opportunity to create a better version of yourself and no one knows what is on offer tomorrow – unless it is tried. Have plenty of faith in your team. Nobody is perfect. Mistakes will happen and should be taken as a lesson and should not be repeated. Most importantly, enjoy what you do. I personally believe that I have done my fair share of contributions to the aviation industry in Maldives. In other words, I have passed the baton, which I got from my mentors, to many who have trained under my guidance and supervision. Now it’s their turn to keep women’s pride high in Maldives. Stay safe and stay strong!
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