SINGAPORE, Dec 28 — For one Singapore Airlines (SIA) crew member who has always loved the regular flying involved in her job, the thought of being cooped up within four walls for over a week away from home was too much to bear.

The woman in her early 30s, who asked that her name not be published, recounted a recent incident in which she was overcome with panic as she prepared to embark on a flight to a destination where she would be required to remain largely confined to a hotel room.

Family problems only added to her anxiety.

“It was stressful preparing for the flight and having (these problems) to deal with, but I always leave my problems at the door before going for a flight. I tried to do that this time, too, but as I was walking to the gate at the terminal, I panicked,” she told TODAY.

So much so that she had to excuse herself and went to the toilet in an attempt to calm herself down.

“I felt anxious because it dawned on me that I would be isolated in a room for many nights and that felt like an even worse situation than what was happening back home. I had to hold back tears because I have never dealt with this before,” she said.

She is among seven air crew members — including pilots and cabin crew from SIA and Scoot — interviewed by TODAY who are feeling the toll of movement restrictions imposed on them while they are overseas, even as borders are reopening and vaccinated travel lanes (VTL) have been established.

Singapore has VTLs with more than 20 destinations, including Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States, though ticket sales have been temporarily suspended.

Based on current rules set by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), all air crew can leave their hotel rooms and use the facilities at the accommodation only in Category 1 destinations, which are ​​Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China and Taiwan.

TODAY understands, however, that the authorities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Shanghai, China, do not allow SIA crew to leave the hotel.

At all other destinations, they must remain in their rooms at all times and may gather in rooms with other crew members only in groups of five, which is the prevailing safe-management measure announced by the Ministry of Health (MoH).

CAAS, SIA and Scoot told TODAY that the rules are designed to protect air crew from Covid-19. The rules have been relaxed from the original restrictions and they are working to find ways to relax them further.

Still, several of the air crew said that they are considering leaving the jobs they had once so loved because of the toll that complying with Covid-19 rules has taken on their mental health.

They told TODAY that they chose the career because of their love for travel, which for them, is still constrained.

“I don’t believe the people who made up these measures truly understand what happens while we’re isolated inside our rooms overseas as they have not had to do so,” said the SIA crew member.

“Our operating patterns can last for more than a week and the only interaction we have is either via video calls to family or when we are finally allowed to leave the room to board the flight to the next station.”

Even though the rules for these air crew members have been relaxed over the last few months, they feel that the restrictions are still tight.

One air crew member told TODAY that earlier in the pandemic, air crew had understood and agreed with the need for such measures to be in place.

“At the onset of the pandemic, the safety of our country, families and friends would have been at stake. It only made sense to quarantine abroad and isolate in Singapore,” an SIA pilot in his late 20s, who also asked not to be named, told TODAY.

“However, these regulations are long past their expiry date. With the world moving towards Covid being endemic and all of our crew being vaccinated, it doesn’t make any sense to continue these restrictive practices,” he said.

“They add undue and unfair mental and physical strain on the crew and their families,” he said.

While SIA has held sessions to share mental health tips with the crew, they are “too far and few between”, he said, adding that the topic of mental health is a taboo in the industry and raising any health concerns may result in an individual losing his or her licence to fly.

The SIA pilot said that he knew other pilots who say they are highly unmotivated and dread reporting to work.

While there are no direct safety considerations arising from this mindset, an unmotivated crew member would be less sharp and attentive, which is hardly ideal, especially in a profession requiring employees to be on top of their game at all times, he said.

Another SIA pilot, in his early 30s, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that the movement restrictions have also affected him mentally and he often feels “very claustrophobic” being stuck in a hotel room for long periods.

“Initially, it was very difficult for me, but I talk to my friends and family, and they keep me going. I also try to do some indoor stretches, which help me to stay calm and focused,” he said.

SIA crew members are also required to wear a tracking device while they are outside Singapore to track their movements.

While they are allowed to visit each other’s rooms, the pilot in his late 20s said that many crew members are afraid to do so for fear of the tracking device being triggered unintentionally, resulting in disciplinary action. This leads them to worry they may lose their jobs.

‘Dreadful and boring’

One 26-year-old SIA cabin crew member said that she has observed many of her colleagues reporting sick for flights these days.

“There’s this feeling that it’s not even worth going for a flight because there’s nothing to look forward to or reward ourselves with once we land overseas. Whether it’s grocery shopping, visiting a museum, discovering new cafes… All that has been taken away,” she said.

“Personally, while I’m trying to keep my records in this company clean, I’m always dreading my flights. (I) would rather be in Singapore with my family and people I love, because at least I’m free to go anywhere and everywhere,” she added.

She said that while most of the air crew are “undeniably thankful” that travel is slowly coming back, taking their freedom away leaves the air crew with “nothing to look forward to”.

“It makes work that much more dreadful and boring, and if this continues to prolong, I think we’ll definitely be seeing an upward trend of crew leaving the airline,” she said.

She felt that it was unfair that passengers on VTL flights could roam freely at the destinations while they could not.

One Scoot pilot in his 40s, who often flies to Australia where he has layovers for about two nights, said that while these restrictions do not affect him as much, “this cannot go on forever”.

“We are all professional adults and imposing such restrictions, like putting us on tracking devices and locking us up, only goes to show the amount of mistrust the authorities have in us, rather than protecting us,” said the pilot, who also asked not to be named.

‘Like an escape’

But one SIA cabin crew member feels that these restrictions are still necessary, adding that the safety of her family definitely “outweighs the freedom of roaming around overseas”.

“Every time I think about how bad it is for us to be confined within the four walls, I remind myself how I’m able to come home to my parents worry-free,” said the 29-year-old, who said that both her parents are suffering from chronic illnesses.

“Maybe if my circumstances are different, I would have a different view on this but, right now, my parents’ health is my priority and I am grateful my interactions with people are limited.”

The woman, who also asked not to be named, added that being the caregiver of her parents has taken a toll on her mental health and her “me-time” overseas is “like an escape”.

“I’d rather isolate myself overseas so I can be free with my loved ones in Singapore than have the freedom overseas and have to isolate myself while I’m home,” she said.

What the airlines and authorities say

Responding to TODAY’s queries on December 17, Alan Foo, CAAS senior director (safety regulation group), said that the safety and well-being of air crew are its priority.

He added that CAAS, in consultation with MoH and Singapore-based airlines, puts in place measures to protect air crew and minimise their risk of exposure to Covid-19 during their time on duty aboard aircraft and while overseas.

“Given the evolving nature of the Covid-19 pandemic, CAAS continually reviews and adjusts the measures, in consultation with MOH, to ensure the safety and well-being of air crew and to safeguard public health in Singapore.”

An SIA spokesperson told TODAY on December 17 that the airline is grateful to its pilots and cabin crew for their sacrifice and resilience, adding that their health, safety and well-being are always SIA’s priority.

The spokesperson added that SIA is guided by CAAS on the requirements for its operating crew and regularly engages CAAS, its staff and its staff unions on these measures.

Arrangements have been made with approved hotels to ensure minimal contact between the hotel staff and crew, the spokesperson said, adding that crew are subjected to local infection controls, as well as guidelines set by CAAS and MoH, during their layovers.

“Over time, working together with CAAS, several of the rules have been relaxed for the crew who are on overseas layovers. For example, crew who operate from the same flight may now gather in another crew’s assigned hotel room during layovers.

“We continue to work with the authorities and our unions to see how we can potentially relax these rules, while ensuring the safety and well-being of our crew, our customers and the community,” the SIA spokesperson said.

“Our cabin crew may contact their ward or ward management leaders at any time if they have any concerns, while pilots may contact their fleet management, peer supporters or the aviation psychologist,” the SIA spokesperson said.

A Scoot spokesperson said on December 24 that the airline “acknowledges and appreciates the commendable dedication and contributions of all our flight and cabin crew, who have taken it in their stride to adhere to multiple varying travel measures implemented across different destinations, which can undoubtedly be challenging”.

The spokesperson similarly added that the health and safety of its people, and those they serve, remain a priority.

“Scoot remains committed to working closely with the authorities to ensure that the latest and prevailing safety measures are adhered to in tandem with evolving regulations, so that we can support the well-being of our crew, without compromising on mandatory health and safety measures.”

Crew members are encouraged to voice their concerns to the leaders of their units “as we navigate the new normal”, the Scoot spokesperson added. ― TODAY