Tuesday June 14, 2005

Mingling with stars a norm for Malaysia Airlines charter services chief


Legends from Real Madrid, an ex-president from the White House, it’s all in a day’s flight for Capt Nik Huzlan, CHOO JAWN HEE reports.

Remember the line from the old song: “Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars.”

Bill Clinton and MAS charter stewardesses
Geraldine Chin (left) and Sharifah Mazwin.

Captain Nik Huzlan Hussain, purveyor of charter services for Malaysia Airlines, can’t fly to the moon, but “play” among the stars he certainly can.

His stars have included Michael Jackson, Elton John, James Ingram, Guns ’n’ Roses, David Beckham, Ronaldo and, of course, Spain’s Real Madrid and Barcelona and England’s Manchester United football teams. They are some of the celebrities Capt Nik takes up in the skies.

And there are also heads of state, members of royalty and political dignitaries including former American president Bill Clinton.

However Sir Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones were a no-show. Capt Nik and his crew were scheduled to fly them from Bangkok to Singapore in December 2003, but the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that hit Asia resulted in cancellations.

Flights of fancy or mercy – Capt Nik’s the man to look for. He is on call round the clock to cater to the needs of the grotesquely wealthy.

He can still vividly recall one Saturday in 2002 during the World Cup football tournament.

“It was in the morning when a member of a royal family from the Middle East wanted to charter a plane to Hong Kong the next day. He was booked for a regular flight to Hong Kong but it clashed with the live telecast of the World Cup match between England and Brazil which was to be played during the four-hour trip,” recalls Capt Nik.

“It was a big rush. We had to verify his creditability and the mode of payment. Next, we had to acquire a plane. Then, transportation as he had to be in Hong Kong for a meeting at 9pm the next day.

“Everything worked out well. He watched the live telecast in Kuala Lumpur and after that we whizzed him to KLIA and flew him to Hong Kong for his appointment.

“The client wanted a limousine to take him from the hotel to the airport and a Rolls Royce on arrival in Hong Kong. We arranged everything. That’s part and parcel of the job,” says Capt Nik.

The cost, with everything factored in, was a whopping RM300,000 with first-class service on board for the client and his two bodyguards.

Time is important to Capt Nik, a 46-year-old father of three. Despite his hectic schedule, he spends quality time with his family like taking them for holidays overseas.

Ronaldo (left) and Roberto Carlos with MAS charter crew members. Capt Nik Huzlan in the cockpit of a 737, holding a football with the signatures of the Real Madrid legends.

Straight after completing his education at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur in 1980, he joined MAS.

In his 26 years with the national airline, the charismatic, chatty, cultured and witty Kelantanese, rose from pilot to chief pilot of regional operations in 1996 to his present position as Chief of the Haj and Charter Department. He is still on the flight list of the B777 fleet.

It was in 1995 that Capt Nik mooted the idea of starting a charter department and today it is bearing the fruits of his labour. 

His latest coup was the signing of a memorandum of understanding to confirm MAS as the official carrier for Manchester United’s Asia Tour of Hong Kong, China and Japan next month at a cost of US$1.5mil (RM5.7mil) for the two-week stint.

The legendary former Man United and England footballer Sir Bobby Charlton, a director of the club, gave the best endorsement to MAS’s safety record when he said: “We feel comfortable and in good hands when we step on board the plane. That’s why we chose the airline.” 

Capt Nik is not one to compromise when it comes to safety of the passengers and crew on his aircraft.

“My wife, a former chief purser, is always on these charter flights. I do not leave anything to chance,” says Capt Nik.

His wife is Geraldine Chin and they have three boys Nik Harris (16), Nik Zain (12) and Nik Zackry (three).

In fact, the crew on board charter flights are usually former stewards and stewardesses.

“We cannot assign crew from the regular flights for the charter flights as they have a strict schedule.

“The former staff really love the chance to earn some extra money and also get back into uniform, plus, of course, the opportunities to meet celebrities like Clinton.”

The former American president visited Aceh, which was devastated by the Dec 26 tsunami, in March this year.

During Clinton’s stopover in Singapore, the Sultan of Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah invited him for dinner. Clinton’s aides called Capt Nik and a plane was dispatched at 5pm to send him to Brunei.

“Being who he is, security was the major headache. We managed to fly him to Brunei under tight security, waited for him to finish his dinner and flew him back to Singapore,” says Capt Nik.

“One thing about Clinton is that he’s friendly and he has this aura of a great leader.”

It’s not all about glamour in Capt Nik’s occupation. There is also the humanitarian and morbid side.

Some planes were chartered to deliver medical and food supplies to tsunami-hit Aceh.

Capt Nik recalls: “We received a call one day in 2003 and the caller spoke in Bahasa ‘Mahu sewa kapal terbang’ (Want to hire a plane).

“A tycoon from East Malaysia had died in America and we had to bring the body and coffin back within 48 hours for the family to conduct the last rites. It was another rush job but we did it on time.” The cost – RM250,000.

Contrary to reports, footballers and stars like Michael Jackson and Elton John, and galacticos like Beckham and Ronaldo are actually very friendly and down-to-earth.

“But planning for their dietary needs and other aspects can be very taxing. Elton wanted certain types of flowers on board.

“The footballers are actually polite, disciplined and cultured. After all, they have their minders and PR people around to rein them in if they don’t toe the line.”

Confidentiality is of utmost importance.

“The crew have been instructed not to pester the stars for photographs and autographs unless the go-ahead is given by their agents. Photographs taken with Elton and Michael cannot be reproduced in print,” Capt Nik says.

Next on Capt Nik’s agenda as a negotiator is the Real Madrid football club’s world tour next year. MAS was the carrier for its Asia Tour in 2004. Early this year, the Spanish football giants Barcelona visited Asia on MAS aircraft.

Capt Nik reckons that getting Real’s world tour package would be a challenge.

“Real want to visit Australia, China, the United States, the Middle East and Europe within a certain time frame. I hope to close the deal,” says Capt Nik, who unwinds by biking to Genting Highlands on his BMW R1100GS on Sundays.

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