Family affair: Meet AirAsia’s pilot sisters
They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Now, this proverb certainly rings true for sisters Safia Amira Abu Bakar, 29, and Safia Anisa Abu Bakar, 24, who followed in their father’s footsteps to become Senior First Officers with AirAsia, the largest low-cost airline in Malaysia by fleet size and destinations.
To make the story even more interesting, the family has even flown together, delighting both onboard passengers and flight crew. It’s safe to say that this family has certainly caught the flying bug.
So, when did the sisters realize that they wanted to be pilots?
“I got the bug way back, in kindergarten when I was young,” says Amira. “Our father used to fly us around, and he would bring us into the cockpit, and he would show us his view and his environment. He was always so excited about it and always so happy.”
Her father’s enthusiasm and passion for aviation sparked something in Amira and she decided that she wanted to experience that level of joy in her chosen profession.
“I want to work like him,” she says. “I want to be as happy as he is. It’s so joyful. It’s so nice to see.”
This passion seemed to trickle down to her younger sister, Anisa, who was now not only inspired by her father, but also her older sibling.
Anisa recalls, “My inspiration is my sister because I got to see everything that she saw. Because we weren’t that far [apart in age], I was, and am, very close to my sister. So, seeing her fly was really a ‘wow’ factor, especially the fact that she was a female pilot. That made me want to become a pilot.”
While Amira, as the older sibling, experienced challenges during her path to the flight deck, Anisa had an easier time when navigating the industry. Perhaps Amira’s persistence and tenacity helped pave the way for her younger sister.
Amira says: “I struggled a bit because, as a female pilot, I think my mom didn’t encourage me. But my dad encouraged us. I had to beg my mom to enroll me in a flight school and so, it was a bit hard for me. But it was easy for Anisa.”
Anisa agrees: “It was much easier for me than it was for Amira. My dad randomly asked me, ‘do you want to become a pilot?’, and I responded ‘yes!’. On that very same day, he took me to a flight school.”
So, do the sisters believe that things are getting easier for women in the aviation industry?
“Definitely,” says Amira. “Especially with this airline.”
Anisa says: “When I started it was the norm to see female pilots.”
Anisa adds: “It’s just the norm in AirAsia.”
A family affair
With Amira and Anisa both working as pilots, they’ve remained incredibly close and rely on each other for support and advice. Although, working for a sizeable carrier like AirAsia, it’s rare to fly with the same co-pilot. Occasionally, both sisters have operated flights alongside their father. Amira has worked with her father five times and Anisa just twice. What’s most interesting is that on both occasions, Anisa’s father-daughter flights were entirely coincidental.
“We were actually on a flight together once,” recalls Anisa. “I was with both my sister and my dad. They were operating the flight and I was paxing as flight crew from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur.
“It was amazing because never in my life did I think I would be in the cockpit as a flight crew member with my sister and my dad. Usually, those airline seats won’t accept ladies. So, seeing that happen in real-time was flattering and also very humbling.”
For Amira, being able to fly with her father and younger sister was her favorite moment from her career to date.
She says: “That day, we went to Kuching to pick up my sister and there was a celebration in Malaysia. Here, we celebrate with a lot of fireworks. So, we picked her up around 9pm and, on the final approach, there were so many fireworks. I was with my dad and the feeling of picking up my sister and with this view of amazing fireworks everywhere, that was the best night and memory.”
The buzz surrounding the flight and the fact that it was to be a family affair wasn’t limited to the family. The entire crew and a few of the passengers also knew about their unusual piloting team. Since then, they’ve developed a tradition where their father will announce that he is flying with one of his children during passenger announcements.
Anisa and Amira’s father has clearly played an important role in their journey to become pilots. Growing up without much social media, Anisa and Amira weren’t exposed to other women in aviation, so their father was their main source of inspiration.
While aviation is a male-dominated industry, there was a strong female presence at AirAsia. Not only do women hold pilot positions at the carrier, but they also occupy managerial roles.
Anisa says: “Seeing that women can do better in this industry was empowering.”
As a result, Amira and Anisa would like to encourage other women who aspire to become pilots and share their own story as an example that it is possible for women to succeed in the industry.
Amira adds: “We love to motivate people.”
Keeping positive and chasing your dreams
The COVID pandemic has unfortunately had detrimental effect on people’s lives. So, how has the virus impacted the sisters?
Anisa says: “We've definitely flown less. We used to average 80 hours in a month and now it’s much less. Our approach has been to stay positive while adapting to this new normal.”
Amira and Anisa’s father, a veteran in the aviation industry, has encouraged his daughters to remain optimistic during this uncertain time.
“He told us that we will definitely come back stronger,” says Anisa. “So, for now, it’s just important to keep positive.”
Despite spending extended periods of time grounded during the pandemic, both sisters have managed to find a silver lining.
Amira says: “I can actually sleep eight hours a day now – or more.”
Anisa adds: “We used to be super busy all the time and, for the past year, we've actually spent a lot more time with our family, which is kind of a blessing in disguise.”
Both sisters hope that, with the rollout of the vaccine, the pandemic will soon come under control and aviation can return to some form of normality.
The COVID pandemic has the potential to discourage aspiring pilots from entering the industry. Do the sisters have any advice for their young counterparts?
“I would say go for it,” says Amira, who encourages all aspiring pilots to be courageous and pursue their dreams. “Go for it,” she continues. “If it's your dream, chase your dream. Go for it and never give up. Be it girls or guys, it doesn't matter. It's all the same. So, if you have a dream, go and catch it.”
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