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Feature: How Qantas turns pink to support cancer research

written by Adam Thorn | October 1, 2020
Movember’s iconic moustache has been combined with the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s highly recognisable ribbon. (Qantas)

The aviation industry’s FlyPink campaign has officially launched for the month of October.

The campaign, first launched in 2015 by QantasLink to raise funds for the National Breast Cancer Foundation, aims to raise funds through hundreds of pilots wearing pins and pink epaulettes.

This year’s pin design includes the foundation’s pink ribbon upon the globe, signifying how the initiative has spread beyond Australia to raise more than $600,000. It is now embraced by 135 different airlines in 30 countries as well as corporate, GA and flying schools.

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In an interview with Australian Aviation in 2018, founder Susan McHaffie told Chris Frame the story behind how she first came up with the idea. To mark the launch of the new campaign, we are republishing it below:

Approximately 40 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every day. That’s 14,600 a year, a figure comparable with the population of Port Hedland (WA), more than Katherine (NT) and twice that of Lennox Head (NSW).

Diagnosis is generally followed by treatment that can include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. And even long after a successful recovery, the physical and emotional impact of treatments on patients can leave a lasting impact.

Captain Sue McHaffie grew up with personal experience of the impact of breast cancer, following her aunt’s diagnosis with the disease when McHaffie was 12 years old.

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“My aunty had breast cancer when I was a child. When she was first diagnosed they gave her a prognosis of six months,” McHaffie tells Australian Aviation.

“This has always stuck with me. She lived for another 18 years but it was always at the back of my mind.”

Funds raised by Qantas employees and customers will be equally shared between the Movember Foundation and the National Breast Cancer Foundation. (Qantas)

A career in aviation awaited the young McHaffie, who started flying at 16. But it was her arrival at QantasLink in 2015 that seeded the idea of FlyPink, thanks in part to an existing Qantas initiative that sparked her imagination.

“When I joined QantasLink in 2015 there was a Dash 8 painted in pink showing support for breast cancer research. This was a reassuring sign and made me think further about how we could get pilots involved in building awareness of breast cancer, and grow support for finding a cure.”

The thought stuck with the newly-recruited QantasLink pilot during her early months at the airline. Her goal was to create a meaningful way for pilots to show their support for breast cancer research.

After several months at the airline, McHaffie had identified something that would both stand out and offer a personal touch for pilots: epaulettes.

“Epaulettes are special for pilots. After all the training and work, it’s kind of like a badge of honour, something that displays the training and commitment that’s gone into flying for a career,” McHaffie explains. “I thought that if we made the epaulettes pink, it would be a really personal and significant way for pilots to show their support.”

Having little experience in developing a campaign of this nature, Captain McHaffie took her FlyPink idea to QantasLink’s chief pilot to get his feedback. He saw the value in it and the idea was quickly embraced by the Qantas Group.

“When we first introduced the idea, the reaction from the crew was phenomenal. It was an instantly positive response with a huge demand for the epaulettes,” McHaffie recalls. “Some bases ran out and had to ask other bases to share theirs. It became a community experience within the airline, which was wonderful to be a part of.”

Gaining support

Within days, support for FlyPink had spread across all of the Qantas Group airlines; including Qantas International, Qantas Domestic, Jetconnect and Jetstar. Such an embrace allowed the message to cross state and international borders, with pink epaulettes being worn by pilots operating the airline’s smallest Dash 8s to regional centres, to the largest A380s that travel as far afield as London or Dallas.

In return for their pink epaulettes, pilots make donations in support of breast cancer research. McHaffie’s initial goal was to raise $20,000, but since 2015 the FlyPink team has achieved 25 times that target.

As support surged within the Qantas Group, the variety of FlyPink merchandise available has grown. Items have been introduced to encourage ground staff, cabin crew and airport teams to get involved.

With so many Australians affected by cancer, it’s not surprising that passenger feedback has also been overwhelmingly positive. This has ranged from donations in support of friends and family affected by the disease, to feedback of a more personal nature.

Qantas Group employees have raised approximately $500,000 for the National Breast Cancer Foundation and other organisations. (Qantas)

McHaffie reflects on one story that has stuck with her, “I remember one email I received from a passenger. She had flown QantasLink to Sydney to receive breast cancer treatment. Seeing the pink epaulettes was so important to her because she felt like the crew was there supporting her. Stories like this make a huge difference to me and the whole team.”

In the years since FlyPink’s launch, pilots from other airlines have noticed the striking pink epaulettes worn by the Qantas Group crew. This has led to pilots from other airlines joining in the campaign in various forms.

“We’ve sent the epaulettes all over the world,” McHaffie explains. “We have sent epaulettes to pilots in over 30 countries who fly for over 135 different operators. Some airlines allow their pilots to wear them, others are more reserved, but those pilots attach them to their luggage and alike. It has a really broad appeal.”

Keeping it real

Having successfully established FlyPink, Captain Susan McHaffie had learnt a lot about cancer, as well as how it is detected and treated. Early identification can make a significant difference to treatment outcomes, a fact that led McHaffie to take a proactive step and get a breast cancer scan of her own.

 

“Even though I was younger than the recommended age, I went ahead and got the scan. The results came back and I was told I had breast cancer. It was a bit surreal. I went through the treatment and now have a first-hand experience of what breast cancer patients go through,” McHaffie recalls.

“Any type of cancer treatment comes with physical traumas, but there is also a mental trauma. Even after your treatment is completed and you get the all-clear, it’s always in the back of your mind.”

Her personal experience with breast cancer has made McHaffie even more committed to FlyPink. She has redoubled her efforts to expand awareness of breast cancer, as well as normalise conversations about all types of cancer, something that can make a significant impact on people’s understanding of the disease.

“If FlyPink can build awareness and can help people feel more comfortable talking about cancer, it will make a big change to the levels of support available to people, both going through treatment and afterwards,” McHaffie adds.

Growing a mo

FlyPink isn’t the only cancer awareness cause embraced by Qantas pilots. In fact, at around the time McHaffie established FlyPink, Qantas Captain Luke Hanrahan came up with the idea of changing the wings worn on pilots’ shirts to a moustache in support of Movember – a leading charity for prostate cancer, a disease which affects over 17,000 Australian men each year.

In 2018 McHaffie and Hanrahan have brought the two causes together, to achieve a common goal of greater awareness and support for finding a cure for cancer. Funds raised by Qantas employees and customers will be equally shared between the Movember Foundation and the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

To mark the partnership, FlyPink’s activity will run into November to coincide with Movember’s annual moustache campaign. Additionally, Movember’s iconic moustache has been combined with the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s highly recognisable ribbon; a move that McHaffie hopes will spread the message even further.

“This year we will see more awareness as people can show their support by wearing not just the epaulettes, wings and pink ribbons, but also the Movember moustache,” McHaffie comments.

“It broadens the ways in which people can get involved, and extends the message further into the community.”

Captain Susan McHaffie established FlyPink soon after joining QantasLink in 2015. (Qantas)

Looking ahead

In just four years, Captain Susan McHaffie’s idea of pilots wearing pink epaulettes in support of breast cancer research has grown into a phenomenon, touching people from all corners of the globe. A search for FlyPink on social media reveals thousands of photos of support from many different countries, representing an array of airlines.

Yet FlyPink’s roots remain firmly planted in Australia, with Qantas employees being the heart and soul of the campaign.

“The whole project has really been an employee-driven project. It’s a human collaboration between people from all parts of Australia and the world, all backgrounds and nationalities,” McHaffie reflects. “Cancer could touch each and every one of us and it’s been a privilege to see FlyPink bring people together the way it has.”

From idea to reality, McHaffie has successfully seen FlyPink raise awareness of not only breast cancer but all types of cancer. She feels confident in the future of FlyPink, with the initiative having gained a momentum of its own.

Yet despite this, McHaffie is still very much involved, and doesn’t plan to step back any time soon. “I’ve got epaulettes stacked up everywhere in preparation for this October,” she says with a smile. “It’s a lot of work but everyone comes together to help make FlyPink a success. Volunteers, pilots, cabin crew, ground staff and airport staff all put their hands up to help out.”

So, the next time you fly, take a moment to reflect on the underlying message of FlyPink.

It might just save your life.

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Feature: How Qantas turns pink to support cancer research Comment

  • The pilots and staff of Chartair are delighted to take part in this wonderful cause. Various fund raising activities will be happening throughout October at our main bases of Darwin and Alice Springs. Anyone wishing to donate can do so at https://give.nbcf.org.au/flypink/

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