Several factors cited in low number of female commercial airline pilots

From left, Erika Armstrong captains a Northwest 727 jet in 2003 with flight engineer Laura Kivette and first officer Heidi Cala.
From left, Erika Armstrong captains a Northwest 727 jet in 2003 with flight engineer Laura Kivette and first officer Heidi Cala.

Kimberly Lowe, an American Airlines pilot since 1990, still likes to stand on the flight deck as passengers depart her plane so they'll see that the voice they heard from the cockpit truly was that of a female captain.

"It's frustrating sometimes, because a woman has taken command of the space shuttle, and there are still some people who say, 'I didn't know they had women pilots,'" said Lowe, who also mentors aspiring pilots for the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots.

According to the FAA, just 4.4% of all pilots licensed to fly a commercial U.S. jetliner in 2016 were women. And that number has barely budged since 2007, when women held 3.8% of such licenses.

Why the number has remained so low, even as women have increased their numbers in other traditionally male-dominated professions, remains, at least to some degree, a matter of conjecture.

In interviews, several female pilots and other industry professionals offered reasons ranging from continued gender assumptions that permeate society to the difficulty of raising a family while dealing with the travel demands of piloting.

Another factor, said the trade group Airlines for America (A4A), is that many commercial airline pilots still get their flight training in the military, which remains dominated by men.

Still, there is a general sense of optimism that the ranks of female airline pilots will grow in the coming years, in part simply because of a looming pilot shortage and also because of increased pay at the regional airlines, where most airline pilots get their start. That makes the profession a more attractive option to both men and women.

"We have to grow the whole population of pilots, period," said Rob DeLucia, vice president of labor and employment for A4A.

But he added that it is especially important to draw more women and minorities into the profession.

"We want a workplace that reflects a more diverse America," DeLucia said.

Women who work or have worked as airline pilots said that moving girls in their formative years beyond the perception that piloting is a male profession is the first step in getting more females into the cockpit over the long term.

Nina Anderson, a former pilot at the now-defunct regional carrier Command Airways in New York, said, "I think the stigma is still there, especially with young girls, that if you are going to go work in the airlines, you are going to be a flight attendant."

After the demise of Command Airways, Anderson went on to a long career as corporate pilot. In 2009, she wrote "Flying Above the Glass Ceiling" (Safe Goods Publishing), a book about trailblazing women in aviation.

Anderson said her father was a pilot, as was her first husband, and the thought never occurred to her that she couldn't be a pilot, too. 

American Airlines pilot Jennifer Helland captains an Airbus A319.
American Airlines pilot Jennifer Helland captains an Airbus A319.

But American Airlines Capt. Jennifer Helland, who also followed her father into the profession, said that when she was an 18-year-old at the Air Force Academy, lots of people questioned whether she would have the mettle to fly for a living.

"It was shocking to me," Helland said.

Such stereotypes continue to pervade society, women pilots said. To counter them, pilots such as Lowe and organizations such as the Ninety-Nines and Women in Aviation International do outreach at schools and with the Girl Scouts.

Lowe, for example, said she does career days in classrooms for children ages 5 to 9 on behalf of the Ninety-Nines. Showing up in the class in her American uniform, she said, helps the children to think beyond the stereotype of the male pilot. She also mentors aspiring female pilots on finding scholarships to help pay for the schooling and 1,500 flight hours required to pilot a commercial jetliner, a process that can cost $150,000 or more.

Among the efforts made by Women in Aviation is the annual daylong Girls in Aviation event held each September. This year, more than 5,000 girls between the ages of 8 and 16 attended events held at chapters around the world, said Women in Aviation president Peggy Chabrian. The organization also awarded 120 scholarships valued at a total of $648,000 this year to women seeking a career in aviation.

A fair work environment

One piece of good news for women is the fact that those who choose to become pilots will not face issues of unequal pay or slower advancement than their male counterparts. Airlines have pay scales set by union contracts, and advancement is a matter of seniority.

"Nothing really holds us back at all," Lowe said.

Other women pilots said that for the most part, the cockpit is no longer the bastion of male chauvinism it was 30 years ago, when male pilots were more unaccustomed to sharing the controls with women.

"I would say 98% of the men I flew with were respectful," said Erika Armstrong, who flew 727s in the business division of Northwest Airlines during the 2000s before being furloughed in 2008, then stepped out of the industry to raise a family. "I never had a problem with them, and the other 2% were going to be jerks no matter what."

Nina Anderson pilots a Cherokee Archer on a leisure run.
Nina Anderson pilots a Cherokee Archer on a leisure run.

Still, Armstrong and others said that the demands of the pilot's lifestyle are difficult on women who want to raise families.

"The furlough was kind of a godsend," said Armstrong, who is in the process of restarting her career at the regional carrier SkyWest, where she must go through training once again and will then earn $36 an hour flying 75 hours per month.

Airlines have varying benefits and rules related to maternity leave and breast pumping aboard the planes, and Women in Aviation's Chabrian said they have come a long way in the last 10 years. Still, some said more lax leave policies would help with recruitment of women.

"I think the industry and the airlines could look at their family leave options," said Chad Kendall, chief instructor at the Jacksonville University School of Aviation in Florida.

"If they look at the need for women to provide support for their children, if a woman wants to breast-feed or pump, it's hard to do when you are flying an airplane all the time. Those types of work rules or support, I think, would make it easier for women."

Of course, it's not just women who experience difficulty raising a family while traveling often. And to the extent that such a lifestyle is more difficult for many women than it is for men, that difficulty is shared by flight attendants, a profession dominated by females.

Anderson has a theory on that discrepancy. Becoming a pilot, she said, is a career path that takes planning, years of training and a big financial commitment. But people can become flight attendants as a result of a more general job search, and the training is free.

"A lot of times [women] think, 'I'll do this for a while until I get married, and then I'll quit,'" Anderson said of flight attendants.

Despite the roadblocks, there are strong reasons to believe that 10 years from now the percentage of female airline pilots will have taken a much larger leap than it did in the previous 10 years. For one thing, said A4A's DeLucia, airlines are simply hiring more pilots. In fact, A4A's members, which include the major U.S. airlines other than Delta, will hire 4,000 pilots this year due to market growth and retirements.

"Now we can go with credibility to younger people and say, 'This is a career you can go into,'" he said.

Also encouraging, Chabrian said, is that women make up 12% of flight-training students.

"If women are in the field longer, there is a more visible role," she said. "And some of this just takes time, too, in terms of going to school, getting the licenses and getting hired."


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