Flight attendants laid off during pandemic find new career as high-flyers in Hong Kong’s booming insurance industry

Enoch Yiu
·4-min read

For many former Hong Kong flight attendants who were laid off as Covid-19 brought the airline industry to a standstill, the start of the Year of the Ox has been very different to what they are used to during the annual festive period.

Because Lunar New Year is typically the peak season for air travel in China, they would usually be busy serving passengers meals and drinks at about 40,000 feet. But as the Year of the Ox gets under way many former cabin crew now have their feet firmly on the ground, having reinvented themselves as high-flyers in a very different arena – insurance sales.

Their training and skills have proved a perfect match for the city’s insurance giants, who have been busily recruiting as the industry ploughs unscathed through the turbulence of the pandemic. Many have found themselves far better off financially too.

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Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, axed more than 5,000 jobs in the city and completely shut down its regional airline, Cathay Dragon, in October after the Covid-19 pandemic crippled the global aviation industry.

That contributed to a surge in Hong Kong’s unemployment rate to a 16-year high of 6.6 per cent, with 250,000 people out of work as the fourth wave of the coronavirus sent the city spiralling into its worst recession on record.

However, some were quick to find new jobs as several major insurers such as Prudential, Manulife and AIA began snapping up flight attendants and ground crew because of their hospitality training and experience in dealing face-to-face with customers.

Prudential had hired more than 60 people from the aviation industry, plus 130 from the hospitality industry – also ravaged by the coronavirus-related travel restrictions – as of December, company data showed.

Yuko Wong Yuk-sin, a 23-year old former Cathay Dragon flight attendant, joined Prudential as a salesperson in the middle of last year when the pandemic had led the airline to cut its flights substantially. She is now making three or four times more money than she was before.

“I joined the airline industry as I wanted to travel, but eventually I found there was not much time for me on the ground to do sightseeing,” Wong said.

“Now I can afford to travel with my family at my own cost. I also have a clearer career path at Prudential, which gives me a lot of training.”

Cathay Pacific Airways and Cathay Dragon aeroplanes at the Hong Kong International Airport, Chek Lap Kok. Photo: Sam Tsang
Cathay Pacific Airways and Cathay Dragon aeroplanes at the Hong Kong International Airport, Chek Lap Kok. Photo: Sam Tsang

Wong is one of many who has had to change career as the airline, hospitality and tourism sectors were battered by the pandemic ensuing economic crisis. Insurance companies have been able to absorb some of them as the industry has remained resilient.

The total revenue from all life insurance and pension business in Hong Kong rose 5.1 per cent year on year in the first three-quarters of 2020 to HK$412.7 billion (US$53.25 billion), according to data from the Insurance Authority.

Insurers have been dramatically upping their headcounts of sales agents to prepare for the opening up of the Greater Bay Area, confident it will generate new business in the long term.

Manulife has been aggressively recruiting former flight attendants. Cathy Lai worked as a flight attendant at Cathay Dragon for more than three years before joining Manulife as a financial planning manager last year.

“Since the pandemic outbreak, my work was significantly reduced to one or two flights per month. This prompted me to consider leaving the industry for one with more promising prospects,” she said.

“My previous experience as a flight attendant has helped me adapt to my new role as a professional insurance agent. Skills such as listening to customers’ needs, communications and teamwork apply very well in my current role.”

She has been with Manulife for more than six months now, and should be able to achieve her first Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) qualification this year. The MDRT is for agents who achieve over HK$1.6 million (US$206,000) in sales in a year.

AIA, the largest life insurer in the city, saw more than a five-fold increase in recruitment from the airline industry last year. In the fourth quarter of 2020, over 40 per cent of its new recruits were from the banking, hotel and tourism industry.

“Flight attendants are comfortable and experienced in interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and in meeting their needs efficiently,” said an AIA spokesman.

“Excellent communication and interpersonal skills, as well as a professional appearance, are also prerequisites for flight attendants.”

Chu Kin-lun, a former fight attendant who joined AIA in 2015, was promoted to the position of “agency leader” in 2019.

“The skill set I learned while working as a flight attendant, such as problem-solving, resilience and a positive attitude, has helped me a lot in the insurance industry and under the current pandemic situation,” he said.

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