Grounded Thai airline staff, hit by pay cuts, work side gigs

Faced with grounded flights and pay cuts, crews of Thailand's airlines have formed a car and motorbike delivery service, earning vital money and winning fame on the doorstep

It's not glamorous, but for the 36-year-old pilot on half-pay who has debts to settle, the work is a financial lifeline. The roughly 1,500 baht ($46) he earns per day should keep him going until the pandemic passes.

“Life is unpredictable. The unexpected can happen anytime. You could be enjoying good times and all of a sudden, you’re falling apart,” he said. “When that happens, you have to figure out if you are going to give up, or fight and find something to hold on to while you figure a way out.”

At least a couple of other Thai airlines plan to resume domestic flights on a limited basis this week, but at the same time are seeking a collective soft loan package from the government of at least 25 billion baht ($770 million).

Delivery services, especially food, are an important industry in Thailand. The biggest, Singapore-headquartered Grab, began as a Uber-style ride-hailing business, but has since taken the lead in food delivery, and is said to use 150,000 drivers nationwide.

The idea of dashing pilots forced into making an earthbound livelihood has brought them media attention, turning them into minor celebrities.

“I suppose people have the image of us with high-flying, glamorous careers,” says Thanun Khantatatbumroong, one of the group’s administrators. “But everyone forgets that we are just regular human beings with responsibilities and expenses, just like everyone else.”

Other aviation industry employees are scrambling to raise a little cash though online marketplaces.

Only airline staff are allowed to post sales listings on the biggest one, “Crew Online Market,” which has more than 16,000 members. Items on offer range from doughnuts and grilled shrimp to computers and kitchen appliances.

A three-man team cleaning air-conditioners at a house in suburban Bangkok last week had until the coronavirus crisis began been working as a ground crew maintaining the engines of Boeing 737s.

As soon as their jobs went into limbo, they decided to adapt their skills. They spent 10,000 baht ($308) on the tools — a high-pressure hose, an air blower, ladders and cleaning products — and say they’ve worked every day since. To attract customers, they charge below standard rates.

Chutiphong Sodvilai, a 32-year-old father of two who was put on 10% pay, says he gets satisfaction from knowing the crisis hasn’t beaten him.

“Everybody has to adjust themselves. We can’t change anything other than ourselves," he said. “I have to find something to do, to take care of myself and my family so that we survive this crisis.”

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Associated Press video journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.