Celebrating the spirit of Emirati Women in Aviation

For Alia Al Shamsi, the past few months have been relentless. Having been interested in aviation since she was 17, she was one of the first Emirati women to study aviation engineering and now works at Etihad, the UAE’s national airline, as a cargo quality officer.

In her role, she’s responsible for overseeing shipment loads to ensure they reach the right people, at the right destinations, at the right time. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, she has been incredibly busy.

In March, UAE authorities grounded passenger flights in and out of the country as a way to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Etihad used this time to focus on its cargo operations and getting supplies delivered where they needed to be around the world.

To facilitate this, Alia had to work longer hours and more night shifts while adapting to an entire new set of cargo guidelines.

“Today, I am so proud of what our cargo unit has achieved,” she says. “During the coronavirus pandemic, we have been sending food and pharmaceuticals to countries in need of critical supplies. As a team, in the last four months, we have flown more than 775,000 tons of medical aid to those who need it most.”

Alia says inner strength is something that she regularly sees among her Emirati peers. “A woman is so much more than just a human being. She has the power to create a life, to cope with so much pain and somehow always end up being the strongest one.”

It’s something she also saw from a young age in her mother, whom she credits as her inspiration in life. “My true role model is my mother. She taught me patience, determination and persistence by providing the most appropriate education for my siblings and I to achieve success in our careers. The amount of hard work and effort that she invested in us for years paid off, and it won’t stop there,” says the cargo officer.

For one of Alia’s colleagues who also counts her family as an important inspiration, the pandemic has meant time away from them. As Etihad’s country manager for France, Fatma Al Mehairi has been out of the UAE for months.

“It’s been difficult to be away for almost eight months, away from my home and family.” With travel restrictions now easing, she’s got an eye on the future with the hope of being able to visit her family again in October. Until then, she’s keeping her attention firmly on work.

“During the pandemic, Etihad operated many repatriation and cargo flights and I had to be available for clients and guests to ensure their numerous queries were being handled. My role had to quickly adapt to provide support and alternative solutions and proposals,” explains Fatma, who has also used this time overseas to reflect on her country from afar.

“It was a feeling of pride to see that the UAE was among the first countries to have taken strict measures, guidelines and a complete lockdown due to Covid-19. From school closures and distance learning, to remote working and curfews, the UAE was proactive in protecting residents and citizens, and providing the best healthcare,” says Fatma.

Speaking to young Emirati women who have an interest in joining her in the world of aviation, Fatma encourages girls not to get despondent because of the pandemic. “If you’re passionate about aviation, continue to pursue your dreams as you always would have,” she advises. “This pandemic shouldn’t be a hurdle to you, it’s just a passage and soon there will be light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light at the end of the tunnel is something that Etihad pilot Rasha Al Musallami is looking forward to. Having joined Etihad as a cadet pilot eight years ago, Rasha is now a Senior First Officer flying the airline’s Boeing 787s.

As the coronavirus has spread, she has been on the front lines of the UAE’s aviation response, operating repatriation flights, flying cargo services and volunteering at Etihad’s medical facility.

Now that flights are beginning to restart, she is back in the air more regularly, but is looking forward to the day when she can fly back to one of her favorite places in the world.

“I miss the Maldives the most and can’t wait to return, I would love to walk on the beach, enjoy the sea breeze and forget all the stress that we’ve have been through.”

As a pilot working during the pandemic, Rasha also had to spend long periods away from her family while getting to grips with new flying rules. “This pandemic resulted in huge changes to our normal procedures. We had to move into hotel accommodation for almost four months to quarantine away from our family and friends.”

She also had to adapt to flying wearing face masks, gloves and following strict new hygiene procedures on every flight. Rasha has also become more familiar than she ever thought possible with nasal swab tests. “We had to be tested for Covid-19 after every single flight and then quarantine until we received a confirmed negative result,” says the first officer.

When the UAE closed its borders, many flights were grounded. Those that did operate were largely turnaround services and during layovers Etihad pilots remained inside their hotel rooms. For Rasha, the whole experience has opened her eyes to the opportunities she’d previously been enjoying.

“I appreciate much more the freedom that I had when I used to have my breakfast in one country and my lunch or dinner somewhere else. Now, it’s very hard to even enjoy a cup of coffee outside my house,” she says.

On Emirati Women’s Day, having seen first-hand the efforts that the UAE has gone to in a bid to help control Covid-19, Rasha is filled with pride.

“I am so lucky and proud to be an Emirati woman, even more so now given the excellent role the UAE is playing in containing the spread of Covid-19. Not only here, but globally by helping transport medical supplies to different countries and conducting research to develop a vaccination.”

Today, the aviation industry is still suffering and Rasha says it is hard to see planes grounded and passenger flights that are empty. “I miss seeing airports crowded with passengers and being able to take them all over the world,” she says.

For now, as the UAE celebrates its women, Rasha is focusing on the fact her work is helping people around the world in other ways. “I am proud to know that I’ve helped bring families back to their loved ones after being separated when borders around the world closed. Making someone smile gives me the strength to continue through this pandemic.”