Despite advances by women in the workplace, only 6% of licensed pilots are female. But airlines and training companies could benefit if more of them flew

The Western flight training industry is cyclical. But even in these boom times, no business would refuse an extra $15 million in revenue – the potential sum if an extra 500 self-funding women worldwide were to start training to join the airlines this year.

According to US Federal Aviation Admin­i­stration forecasts, around 2,700 pilots gain air transport pilot licences (ATPL) in the USA every year – 10% of them female. At around $30,000 for each self-funded student, women trainees inject $8.1 million into the US flight training industry alone. But 270 pilots works out at less than one female per flight training organisation (FTO), the average throughout the western world. So if every FTO were to attract just one extra female ATPL student, a figure of 500 would not be difficult to achieve.

Historically it has been difficult to attract women to aviation – global statistics suggest that only 6% of licensed pilots are female, with 3% flying professionally. Increasing this number would hold a business benefit for flight training organisations and airlines.

The reasons for the lack of women in aviation are complex, but appear to be a combination of social and educational factors and industry culture. However, traditional pools from which the airlines draw their pilots are drying up, with fewer ex-military pilots available, while the air transport industry is again expanding at a substantial rate. Airlines will run short of pilots, so investing in systems that attract and retain pilots from other sources will become an economic necessity.

In 1999 Swiss carrier Crossair commissioned Horizon Swiss Flight Training Academy to conduct a study into why young people were not coming into flying. Training costs aside, one of the conclusions it drew was that women were put off by the disruption to family life. Bruno Dobler, Horizon’s president, notes that one of the real issues was that young girls generally do not even consider aviation as a career, which is “partly a cultural and partly an educational issue”.

Jenny Beatty, careers chairman for US female pilot networking group the 99s and a first officer for American Airlines, agrees: “One factor an airline has no control over is peer education and societal norms. That said, I attend a Women in Aviation conference every year and only five years ago women were asking ‘are the airlines looking for multi-time, or do I need more jet time?’ Now they’re asking ‘which airline has the best maternity policy’? That is a real shift. They want to work for the company that’s going to be the best place to work and have a career that works for them over their entire working lives.”

Beatty and Dobler believe the training and airline industries could do more to recruit women. A glance through the lists of board members in the latest Flight International World Airline Directory offers some clues why airlines have been slow on the uptake – you can count on two hands the number of women in senior positions. This is reflected on the flight­deck: around the world only 0.6% of women pilots are captains. Beatty believes that more women in senior positions would create a more female-friendly culture. But this is hard to achieve when there are far fewer women in the workforce to choose from.

Vested interest

Charles Henry, chairman of Cabair, one of the UK’s largest FTOs, attributes this lack of choice to recruitment drives historically. However, he feels that the situation is changing, with more pilots coming from the civil community: “How do we address getting more women in as the opportunities become available? Airlines have a vested interest in the promotion of women in the same way as they have a vested interest in making a more fuel-efficient aircraft,” he says.

Beatty stresses that ability should always be the only criterion for promotion. It is important, however, to create an environment where talented women can develop their careers. She emphasises that the issues women raise would not occur to men. “There may be men behind their desks thinking ‘how can I get more women?’ And it doesn’t strike them to do such obviously female-friendly things as creating a nursing mothers’ room in the crew rest area, which happened when a female captain approached FedEx Express in Memphis with a desire for more privacy.”

Beatty believes that the onus is on both employees and management teams to create a culture that welcomes open discussion. “One of the hard parts is that when you are in such a tiny minority it is difficult to think that you can make these changes when you feel that the company has been doing it this way forever. Management teams need to make it really clear that they will welcome solutions and ideas for change that will ultimately benefit the whole workforce.”

Professional flying requires a higher level of commitment than most other careers. Training is expensive and employers fear that a woman will leave the industry once she starts a family. Both Dobler and Beatty are adamant that parenting is not only a female issue, with many fathers wanting to take a more active role in childcare. Dobler suggests a radical rethink in airline culture could work. “Even if an airline hired a woman pilot and she had a child, what if she continued to fly on a 60- 80% basis?’ Flying for an airline could be an ideal job share. I think airlines will be faced with this problem very soon. We are getting too few pilots coming through – within two years we will have a 10% shortfall. They have to really look at attracting women.”

Job sharing would be difficult for some pilots in the early stages of their careers when they are paying back loans, says Martin Robinson, chief executive of the UK Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and regional vice-president of the European branch of the International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (IAOPA). But he thinks that the responsibility lies with airlines and FTOs to let women know that a career in aviation does not have to be at the expense of everything else and suggests career breaks of five to six years as a potential way forward. “As a business decision, this could encourage employee retention and create a happier workforce. The airline industry needs to address the whole issue of pilot recruitment and training. It constantly goes through this whole boom-and-bust cycle – senior people talk about how they will carry more passengers and we say: where are the pilots coming from?”

Caroline Gough-Cooper, president of the Federation of European Women Pilots and careers officer for the British Women Pilots’ Association (BWPA) is an ex-airline captain who became disenchanted with the industry after flying for large and small carriers. The Helicopter Club of Great Britain’s current world ladies helicopter champion, Gough-Cooper is still “deeply involved with aviation” and believes the airline and training industries should look closely at attracting and retaining more women. “Women take a much harder look at the implications of an average pilot’s work pattern on the way they live and decide that the resulting degree of uncertainty and instability is not for them, especially when the very high cost of initial training is taken into account.”

FTOs have an economic interest in recruiting women. Cabair’s Henry believes pilots building hours need to be aware that they are part of a business and should develop customer relations skills, which will also benefit airlines once they hit the flightdeck. The company has “a great many” female instructors. Beatty adds: “Flight schools should realise that women are a big consumer group, and they would do well to be ‘female-friendly’. They should ask themselves: are the restrooms clean? Is the parking lot well lit? Should we hire that female flight instructor? What can we do to make women feel welcome here?”

Recruiting women

Robinson suggests FTOs market themselves more aggressively through campaigns in women’s media. Dobler points out that although he regularly produces articles for the press, “it’s no good writing them if the audience does not want to read them”, which highlights the need to educate the educators. Menwhile Beatty and Gough-Cooper actively promote aviation to women and their organisations offer bursaries and training for the initial stages of pilot career. Gough-Cooper is part of a BWPA campaign working with FTOs to offer free flying lessons to UK women.

The tiny but growing women’s market should be nurtured. Trends for women joining the industry are looking up, and there is potential to develop the sector further. Says Beatty: “Women pilots want to fly and are willing to shell out the money to do it.”


Source: Flight International