The truth is it’s not easy to come by women who have a true passion for aviation. From around the age of four I have been drawn to the airline world. Even at that young age, I remember reaching the roads leading into Gatwick airport, my tummy fluttering with butterflies. All these years later, and I still get that feeling. When I stumbled across @SkywardsFreak on Instagram, I was intrigued. It soon became clear that I had connected with a kindred spirit. Welcome, Skywards Freak, actual name, Lays Laraya.
Hi, I’m Lays, also known as Skywards Freak..
I was born in Brazil and lived there for the first 21 years of my life. I studied hospitality management and left Brazil to work for Disney Cruise Line soon after graduation. After five years working onboard ships, I took a small career break to pursue my MBA degree in Switzerland. A job then came up in Dubai to work for the group owner of the hotel I spent my school years hearing (and dreaming) about: the Burj Al Arab. Before I knew it I was living in Dubai!
When and why did you develop a love of aviation?
My relationship with aviation is not a straightforward one. The seeds were sewn when I was a child but my true passion didn’t appear until adulthood. My grandfather was a professional pilot, and a founding TAM pilot (known today as LATAM). His two sons – one of which was my father – longed to follow in his footsteps and become pilots too. My grandfather had other plans for his boys and believed a career in medicine would be a better path. Both sons did indeed become doctors but vowed they would learn to fly, which they did.
As a child I would listen with excitement and wonder as I heard the stories of grandpa’s adventures. My Dad’s routine at the hospital meant that we could not spend much time together, and I clearly remember looking forward to Sundays when he was off work and we’d go to our local airport, where he practiced aeromodelling with a group of friends. At this point aviation was his passion, not mine. My lasting memory of those Sundays was the appreciation of quality time with my Dad.
A few years later, aviation became associated with trauma.
We set off on a family flying adventure in my Dad’s single engine light aircraft. Even the dog came along. Due to a combination of factors which included a badly maintained runway, weight and weather conditions, the plane stalled immediately after take-off, and we crashed. Another more fortunate set of factors on the other hand, prevented our lives from being taken that day.
Unsurprisingly I became very afraid of flying, yet having chosen an international career, this did not stop me from living my dreams. I would knock myself out with sleeping pills and take flights when I had to. At this point, flying was a necessary torture, not a passion.
Many years passed and in 2011 I took my first Emirates flight which was taking me to my new home – Dubai. I still live here today. At that point, it was the longest flight I’d ever taken. For the first time since experiencing the crash, I actually enjoyed the sensation of flight. As a hospitality professional, I was impressed by the service. I was even handed a warm hand towel upon boarding – in Economy!! There was something about this company that somehow made me feel like I was ‘home’, before I had even landed in my new home.
Finally, the day came when my true passion for aviation was unleashed. I took my first Emirates A380 flight to Moscow, and that was it… as Airbus themselves once said, “Love at first flight.” I can’t really explain it but that boy made me feel so safe during take off, turbulence and landing. Flying on the A380 was smooth and actually fun. The rest is history, and since then I have loved sharing my stories with anyone patient enough to listen to them through my instagram blog.
Who, if anyone, is your inspiration?
Many people inspire me, but my aviation inspiration comes from two men. The first is Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates. I remember flying with the airlines and listening to a podcast with Sir Tim on ICE (the in-flight entertainment system). He was being interviewed about his life and career and what he said about his passion for aviation immediately resonated with me. I recorded some parts of the podcast with my voice notes and would listen to it from time to time as an inspiration to pursue my passion for Emirates.
My other inspiration is HH Sheikh Ahmed, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, and CEO and chairman of the Emirates Group. His leadership style has been an inspiration since I moved here, almost ten years ago. I had the honour of meeting both Sir Tim Clark and HH Sheikh Ahmed last year and those are certainly some of my most valuable moments as “the skywardsfreak”.
You are better known on social media as ‘@Skywardsfreak’. How was she born and who is she?
Skywards Freak is a representation of one element of my personality – the part of me who now adores flying, Emirates and travel. Long before Instagram I used to hashtag my favourite travel (and relationship) memories with Emirates with #skywardsfreak. The decision to start an Instagram account in this name came when I moved to Dubai, and the workaholic in me could not sit still while I waited for my new visa… I created what I like to call “my brand” to keep me busy and entertained! I should also say that ‘Skywards’ is the name of Emirates’ frequent flyer programme.
What do you hope to bring people through your adventures as Skywards Freak?
I honestly believe that my followers bring more to me than I will ever bring to them. I call them #FriendsNotFollowers because that is truly what they are to me. The people I meet through Instagram are a big part of my life and I spend many of the hours in my day exchanging ideas, laughs and experiences via DM (direct message). They are my travel (and life) companions. But to answer your question in a more practical manner, I would say that I would like to bring:
- FUN! (I always pursue some very unconventional challenges which the #FriendsNotFollowers propose me to do at various destinations around the world).
- INSPIRATION (finding this passion has made my life so much more interesting that I would love to help other people discover their true passion and encourage them to purse these too!)
- COMMUNITY (the past couple of years has revealed to me the power of instagram to bring together people with things in common… which leads to friendships, partnerships, and community.
No matter what brings people to my profile, whether a hashtag, the algorithms of insta explorer or a recommendation of a friend, I’d like to believe this can eventually connect them to more people other than myself.
During non COVID times, you fly a lot! Is there an average amount of flights you take per month, and how do you fit in into life with a full-time job?
The flights keep increasing! Last year was my record with a total of 63 flights, averaging 5.25 flights per month. 2020 started with 10.5 flights per month (21 in January and February)! Some say I am addicted, but I am yet to see a negative impact.
I am frequently asked how I manage to get so much time off. I have the same amount of leave as any of my colleagues. The difference is that I take several short leaves (rarely more than four leave days) and do quite a few weekend and/or turnaround flights. Yes, I sometimes don’t even get off of the airport and return on the same plane which took me there. I find myself much more productive at work when I am on this intense rhythm than when I am spending my weekends in Dubai “resting”.
What was the most memorable flight you’ve ever taken with Emirates?
I honestly can’t name one. Each trip holds its own memories and they are all special in their own way. I certainly love doing inaugurals (the maiden flight to a new destination) and I went on four in 2019! There are also the celebratory ones on my Birthdays, Christmas, Emirates’ birthday, anniversaries of my first Emirates flight, anniversaries of the Instagram account… and so on. I keep finding reasons to celebrate on my flights and make them all fun!
You do Skywards Freak challenges which are great entertainment! Which did you find most scary and which was the most fun?
They are a great way to travel for sure! There are three criteria for a #freakchallenge: they must be relevant to the destination, they must be entertaining, and they must be unique (not something that everyone does when visiting that place). Last time I visited Orlando the challenge was to learn how to fly a plane! This was my very first time back into a small plane since my accident and hence the scariest one to date. I did however appreciate the opportunity to fight a fear and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my entire life.
The most fun was my challenge in Switzerland when I learnt how to milk a Swiss cow!! it was Winter and hence very hard to find cows out in the field. Luckily, I came across a taxi driver who was crazy enough to help me knock from farm to farm until we found a kind man, willing to trust one of his cows into my hands!
What is your favourite destination for a vacation?
Another very difficult question, c’mon Louise! To me, it is mostly about the flight, not the destination. I do have three favourite countries in the world – Israel, Egypt and Jordan – and that is because of what they mean to me as a Christian. For some reason I keep going back to New York and I must admit that Disney (Orlando) continues to have a special place in my heart.
During a difficult time for the airline industry, what words of positivity would you offer to airline staff and travellers?
While this is certainly a more severe moment for humanity as a whole, we all have experienced (and overcome) challenges in our lives before. We all have a fair amount of positive outcomes to bring to memory, while we navigate this period of uncertainty. As hard as they are, challenges have the power to shape our characters and make us stronger. This will be over and when that happens, travel will become so much more meaningful to all of us.
Lays, thank for giving an insight into what led to your passion for flight, and specifically Emirates. We share some rather quirky things in common, including a love of the Emirates boarding song! Maybe one of these days we will drive down the Sheik Zayed Road in Dubai listening to it together! If you are in need of some positivity during these tough times, you’ll find it @Skywardsfreak.