When every day brings something new, job satisfaction stays constant
Author A. AVERYL RE
YOU COULD ALMOST say that Sally Grace Quek was born to be a flight attendant. She speaks three languages: English, Mandarin and Japanese. She has a reputation for being impeccably poised and gracious, whether interacting with passengers in the terminal or at 35,000 feet. In fact, in 2009 this Hong Kong–based flight attendant was chosen by colleagues as the person they’d most want to serve with on their “dream team”; they consider her a flight attendant’s flight attendant.
“I’ve always wanted to become a flight attendant, even when I was just 9 years old,” Quek says. “When my aunt came back from her honeymoon in the U.S., she brought me two beautiful dresses, and I told myself, ‘One day, I want to go there, too.’”
Quek got her chance in 1985 when Pan Am recruited flight attendants in Singapore. About a year later, she joined the United Airlines family when the carrier bought the Pacific routes from Pan Am. After subsequent stints with Cathay Pacific Airways and ANA, which allowed her to experience different airline cultures, Quek returned to United in 1992 as an interpreter for international flights. And when United opened the Hong Kong base in 1995 and eliminated the interpreter position, Quek came full circle, moving from Singapore to Hong Kong to don the United flight attendant’s uniform once again.
While Quek considers United her family, she also appreciates the perspective she gained from working at Cathay and ANA. “I grew up with United, so I feel very comfortable here, but I benefited a lot from the other airlines, actually, because they’re distinct from United. The culture and the flying experience are not the same; even the customers you meet are very unique to each airline.”
Experiencing variety — whether in destinations or in people — is one of the main benefits of being an international flight attendant, she says.
“We get to travel to different countries and experience diverse cultures and delicacies. I can be in Singapore one day, eating laksa noodles, and in Hong Kong the next day, eating dim sum. Or I can wake up in Hong Kong in the morning and go to sleep in San Francisco that night.
“I get to meet people from all walks of life,” Quek says, “people on business trips, honeymooners, people who are sick, happy, depressed or first-time fliers.” Those interactions can be both challenging and rewarding, she adds, recalling a passenger on one of her flights who’d just lost his wife.
“He was overwhelmed with grief, with tears streaming down his face. I decided to spend some time talking to him,” she says. By the time he stepped off the plane, his demeanor had brightened, if only a bit. “I felt very good that day that I was able to make a difference in his life. This is the good part of the job, that you can have a positive impact on someone.”
Making that kind of difference is as much a part of her job as knowing safety procedures or serving meals, Quek says, but it isn’t always easy. “When I don’t feel well or I’m troubled by something, I still have to pick myself up and provide service with a smile.”
Quek doesn’t believe there’s a magic formula to doing her job well. “I think you just make up your mind to do it,” she says. “I read once that when you think you are beautiful, you will be beautiful. It’s all in your mind. When you think you will be good, you are good.
“The minute I put on my uniform, psychologically, I know I have to put everything behind me and give the very best to my customers.
“That’s what it’s about for me,’’ she adds. “Being committed to my job. Having lots of patience. And serving with love. When you are good to somebody, they will be good to you. It always works both ways, I think.”