Maria Pandolfi, 27, is a certified dentist. But despite a successful career in healthcare, Maria has been harboring a lifelong desire to establish a career in the skies.

Maria was born and raised in Vilnius, Lithuania but spent her younger years flying as an Unaccompanied Minor (UM) to and from Italy where her father lived. With such an extensive flying experience under her belt, it’s no wonder that Maria was captivated by aviation and eventually ended up working in the industry 22 years later.

From Unaccompanied Minor to flight attendant

As a young child, Maria experienced the sort of calamities that might ordinarily dissuade someone from flying ever again. One notable incident occurred when Maria was boarded on the wrong flight and ended up lost at a Belgium airport.

Remarkably, Maria simply smiles when remembering the event and, despite feeling a little shocked at the time, she remained enthralled by the thought of a career in the skies.

Eventually, in 2017, Maria took part in a recruitment day at a Riga-based air carrier.

“My aviation career started while I was doing a final course of dental studies at the university,” she says. “I had a false impression that a flight attendant must look tall and glamorous, so I initially thought that, due to my small height, I would never be selected. But it turned out that I had [every] chance to try out [for] the flight attendant role.”

She continues: “I had never given up on dentistry, and I’m still gaining experience in this area, but the flight attendant job was my childhood dream, which I must fulfill. And so, I did it.”

When a Riga-based air carrier offered Maria a job, she had to turn it down and focus on her dentistry studies. Nevertheless, Maria made a promise that she would try again once she had completed her degree. After graduation, Maria resumed a role as a dentist at the local clinic. But she was still preoccupied by the thought of becoming a flight attendant.

She says: “The responsibility level of a doctor of oral health is high. Creating and implementing treatment plans for patients usually takes a lot of patience and accuracy, and I still enjoy this job. But it’s more about focusing on face-to-face communication with a patient, while I always wanted to try myself in a profession which requires teamwork skills.

“So, once a friend of mine showed me a job advertisement of the Vilnius-based ACMI and charter company [I thought] it sounded promising. I decided to apply for a cabin crew position on Airbus A319 and A320 jets and received an invitation.”

Dentist to flight attendant…and back again

Initially, Maria held no expectations regarding her future in aviation. The airline she began working for had only offered her a temporary contract during the summer season.

She says: “To be able to fly, I quit my job at the dental clinic in 2019 and started living the adventurous lifestyle of a cabin crew member. My contract was temporary, but I felt confident about what I would continue to do for a living during the winter season when the contract should expire. I was expecting to return to dentistry and keep taking care of patients.”

However, she was incredibly taken with her new career choice, so when the airline offered to extend her contract, Maria jumped at the chance to continue working in the role.

The winter season is usually a quiet time for aviation, with a drop in flight frequency and less demand for air travel. Maria began to brainstorm a way to combine dentistry and aviation.

She says: “I was dreaming how it would be perfect to combine both activities.”

Despite her love for flying, and the adventurous lifestyle that accompanied working for the airline, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Maria to temporarily put her dreams on hold and “cut off all of [her] considerations”.

She continues: “When my grandmother, who is a physician, heard the news regarding a new unknown virus spreading in Asia, she told me that this infection [had the] possibility [to] strongly impact humanity. And she was right, as we can see from today’s perspective. It still affects all of us. However, I wasn’t expecting that it would take so long for scientists to fight this virus.”

Remaining resilient in the face of adversity

Understandably Maria felt “gloomy” when she realized that the aviation industry was feeling the strain of a global pandemic. But when she was let go from the airline in spring 2020, Maria was far more concerned about the airline’s future.

She says: “I doubted [that] the airline I flew [with] for only 10 months would overcome the financial turmoil. I was worried that the company, which gave me so many new experiences and happiness during these ten months, would cease its operations.”

At the time, the Lithuanian government introduced stringent quarantine restrictions and temporarily suspended all unscheduled medical services. Due to challenging circumstances in both aviation and healthcare, not only did Maria lose her position at the airline, but she was also unable to find another job in dentistry.

Despite the setback, Maria didn’t lose confidence. Instead, she opted to take a few month-long breaks. Then, in the middle of summer, she recommenced dentistry services. But she secretly harbored hope that she would once again return to the skies.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before Maria received a surprise call from the airline. Finally, a year after being grounded, Maria was offered the chance to once again board an Airbus Family jet and she immediately commenced training.

“Both professions are meaningful for me, so I couldn’t hide my joy when I was offered a return to aviation,” Maria reveals. “So far, the global industry undergoes significant changes that affect the employees as well.

“But I believe that we will overcome this crisis and I will be able to combine both dentistry and aviation [like I have been] dreaming [about] for so long.”