High flyer soars from Etihad cabin crew to pilot

The Life: Suzanna Seng, a 29-year-old native of Singapore, started as cabin crew with Etihad Airways - but these days she is a pilot with the airline.

Always ready for a challenge, Suzanna Seng went from being a cabin crew member to a pilot within a decade at Etihad Airways. Courtesy Etihad
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Suzanna Seng has grown to welcome change. It is unsurprising to hear this from someone who has gone from being a cabin crew member to a pilot within a decade.

The Singaporean qualified to be a first officer with Etihad Airways last September. But when the 29-year-old first moved to Abu Dhabi in 2005 after studying geology in Melbourne for three years, she came to work as cabin crew for the airline.

"My mum said we paid so much for your university fees, so go out and get a job, and that's what I did," she says.

"Cabin crew has always been a profession that people think is glamorous and for pretty girls. I was more of a rugged tomboy, so it didn't occur to me that I could do it. But I got the job and I moved here."

So at the young age of 20, Ms Seng arrived in Abu Dhabi at a time when Etihad was expanding very fast. "There were approximately 800 members of staff back then. I was cabin crew number 455 - that's how small the airline was at the time."

After being a cabin crew member for just a year, Ms Seng was hungry for more. Opportunities for cabin managers came up and she decided to go for it.

"I have a very restless personality," she says. "It was just another position to go for as I continuously want to challenge myself. I'd rather be out of my comfort zone and accept a challenge than stand still."

Her positive outlook and can-do attitude won her the position, a job she describes as "a lot of fun".

"I learnt so many different skills that enabled me to develop a lot. You're not just responsible for service and safety these days - you're also a brand ambassador," she reflects. However, after just three years, the restless Ms Seng began to feel the sense of stagnation she dreads and started to look for other positions in middle management at the airline.

This is when the cadet pilot position came up. "It was never my ambition to become a pilot - it was one of those jobs that I thought was cool but never thought it could be for me," says Ms Seng.

"I didn't even consider what it would take to become a pilot or how far this career would go, but when the cadetship came up I thought it was a challenge just to get through the selection process."

Having made her way through to the final stages of the interview process, the panel interviewers asked why she wanted to be a pilot. She gave an answer that she immediately wished she could take back.

"I said I didn't actually want to be a pilot, but that it was a challenge and that when you give me a challenge I'll make sure that I do it well," she recalls.

"That was my personal motivation. After I said that they started scribbling in their notepads and I thought I should have said that I really wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid," she laughs. However, her candid answer did her no harm as she passed the assessment first time and started her training - a process that took three years to complete.

"Throughout training you imagine how it feels the first time you land a plane with passengers onboard. When it actually happens, though, your stress levels are so high that I just zoned out everything behind me.

"It's only afterwards when the captain patted me on the back and said 'well done' that it occurred to me I'd just landed a plane with 140 passengers on board," she explains.

For someone like Ms Seng, who is always hungry to learn more, being a pilot is the perfect career. As she says, there are many different avenues that she can take within this same role.

"I cannot see myself getting bored any time soon. There's so much studying. At the moment I'm happy doing what I am - it fulfils my restlessness," she adds.