Smiling her way to success

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Shanghai Airlines flight attendant Wu Eryu has received thousands of letters complimenting her for exceptional service and frequently wins the company's monthly Favorite Flight Attendant Award.

Flight attendant Wu Eryu serves passengers on a Shanghai Airlines flight.[Photo/China Daily]

She also stands out from her fellow flight attendants in another way - she is 55 years old.

"My first name, Eryu, means' treating people warmly and making people happy' in Chinese, which happens to be my job's core role," she said. "The key to providing a memorable travel experience is to wear a bright smile and meet passengers' every need."

Wu recalled a time when she managed to calm a passenger who was angry about a two-hour delay to his flight from Shenzhen in Guangdong province to Shanghai.

"I smiled and patiently explained the reasons for the delay, and this gradually eased his anger," she said. "This is the magic of providing service with a smile."

Being a flight attendant was never part of her life plan. Raised in Shanghai, she first worked as an apprentice in a Shanghai textile factory after graduating from a technical school in the 1980s. She became a clerk in the factory's archive, where she looked after technical drawings. She would sort them into different categories, issue them to workers, and retrieve them after the products were manufactured.

"It was a decent job at that time. Most people preferred to work in State-owned companies because it provided a stable income," said Wu, who met her husband, Li Nengyan, while working at the factory.

It was also a good time to be in the textile industry as it was in the midst of a boom. There were 551,600 people - a record high - working for the Shanghai Textile Industry Bureau in 1988, according to a report from the Shanghai Archives.

But the job was not the "iron rice bowl" Wu thought it would be.

Starting in 1992, the traditionally labor-intensive industry faced serious overcapacity issues. This led to the retrenchment of thousands of textile workers, most of whom were middle-aged women. Wu was one of them.

In 1994, the officials of the All China Women's Federation and the Shanghai Women's Federation persuaded the leaders of Shanghai Airlines to recruit women ages 22 to 36 from the laid-off workers. It was a landmark decision, Wu said, because most flight attendants at the time were no older than 23.

Wu was among the 2,700 people who applied for the flight attendant positions. After passing many rounds of tests, she became one of the 18 women to join the airline. For the next six months, they took more than 13 courses, ranging from special passenger services to emergency response and service regulations.

Being selected to become a flight attendant also gave Wu the chance to witness the rapid development of civil aviation.

"Shanghai Airlines only had eight aircraft in the 1990s," she said. "Air tickets were very exclusive items meant only for those who had recommendation letters, identification papers and employment certificates provided by employers.

"But airplanes have become a common mode of transportation and not a symbol of luxury. Shanghai Airlines now flies 140 routes to 60 domestic and international destinations."

Wu passionately embraced her new profession, working out during her spare time to prevent airsickness, as well as learning English and improving her Mandarin to better communicate with her colleagues and passengers.

Her efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1997, she won the Shanghai Model Worker Award before bagging the National Model Worker Award in 2000.

"Wu's bright smile and excellent service garnered her thousands of admirers, which is an example for new employees," said Liu Shaoyong, chairman of China Eastern Airlines, Shanghai Airlines' parent company.

In another nod to her aptitude for customer service, Shanghai Airlines established the Wu Eryu Cabin Crew in 2000. Under Wu's leadership, the crew's more than 100 flight attendants have received accolades including the National Labor Medal and the National March 8 Red-Banner Pacesetters and Collectives award.

There is even a book based on their work experiences, Wu Eryu Service Rules.

True to her giving nature, Wu donated more than 7,000 yuan ($1,020) to help establish a fund to reward outstanding attendants. She recently made another notable contribution to the cause - by delaying retirement to continue working for the airline.

"I expect to train more flight attendants," she said. "Flight attendants are often seen as symbols of beauty and youth in China, but passengers expect world-class service, not just pretty faces."

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