As COVID-19 plunged airlines into an unprecedented crisis, some grounded aviation professionals decided to wait for recovery. But others took advantage of the opportunity for a career change.

One person who embraced the latter is Rochelle Sañano-Cabardo, 38, a former Emirates flight attendant who, after returning home to the Philippines, opened a soap refill business just months after she was made redundant.

Rochelle, who had worked for the Dubai-based carried for 12 years, had never imagined that she would become unexpectedly unemployed. However, due to a swift decline in air travel, she was soon made redundant. The news was not simply devastating, but it also changed things for her family.

When Rochelle joined the carrier, she was able to relocate her family to Dubai. But when the airline decided to make drastic cuts to their workforce, Rochelle lost her work visa, was unable to find immediate employment, and, as a result, was forced to return to her home country. Not only did Rochelle have to adjust to life on the ground, but she was also left to contend with finding a way to support her family in a country where she hadn’t resided for the past 12 years. 

Rochelle Sanano-Cabardo

She says: “I started my career 12 years ago, in July 2008, when I was 25 years old. I was trained for [working on] Boeing 777, Airbus A340, Airbus A330 as well as Airbus A380 jets. I was getting paid to see the world and interact with different kinds of people. Every day I used to meet a lot of different people, that is what I loved the most about my job.

Rochelle recalls that the pandemic led her employer to “take some dramatic measures” like cost-cutting and letting people go.  

“That's what happened to me. I was due to renew my contract in July 2020, but it wasn’t renewed. I felt so sad, it felt like a breakup for me. I was surprised about the news because the day before I had a flight and, after landing in [home base] in Dubai, I got an email saying that my contract won’t be renewed. I wasn’t expecting that. It was not just a job for me, it was a lifestyle"

“I got scared because I was not the only one who was affected. These changes also affected my family, who lived with me in Dubai. At first, I did not know what to do.”

Rochelle soon realized that her only option was to return to the Philippines as continuing to live in Dubai was too expensive. At first, it was difficult for Rochelle to adapt to life in her home country after more than a decade away.

“I had to take a break for a month because I got a culture shock after returning home. I was thinking about what I should do because I have a child. So, I enrolled in a freelancing course and finished my apprenticeship," the flight attendant admits.

Encouraged by her mother, Rochelle decided to open a soap refill business in Cabuyao City. But the path from conception to tangible product sales was challenging. New to running a business, Rochelle struggled with marketing the product among its competitors. But Rochelle, embracing her background in customer service at the airline, soon created a brand that caught the attention of regular customers and proceeded to deliver approximately 30 liters of soap per client a day.

Rochelle Sanano-Cabardo

“My soap refilling station encourages customers to re-use the containers and reduce the use of single-use plastic waste. My goal is to encourage customers to re-use their plastic bottles because it’s an environmentally friendly zero-waste business. All the products my family and I sell are handmade, [which includes] dishwashing liquid, fabric conditioner and body wash. All the ingredients are there in our shop and I manually extract the product," she explains

“Our products do not have an expiration date as food has. It will expire after two years, so the idea of selling soap is practical and now it is also a significant necessity. We have a few resellers, but, due to some restrictions in our country, we must limit the time customers spend refilling in the station, so we are focused on the delivery of our products.”

Rochelle Sanano-Cabardo

Despite the success of her business, Rochelle misses the skies and often ponders the idea of returning to aviation. However, she will most likely remain in her home country.

“If I could be given a chance, I would like to fly again because, for me, it’s not just a job, it’s my passion. You never know what will happen tomorrow, so you have to enjoy what you have right now. Be grateful for what you have at the moment and stay resilient," she adds.