Why do so few women decide to become pilots? BILL READ FRAeS reports on a recent RAeS flight crew training conference which looked at this issue and how it could be resolved.

On 27-28 September, the RAeS held its annual International Flight Crew Training conference which, this year, debated the challenge facing airlines of future pilot shortages and how more pilots could be trained and recruited. The conference covered a wide variety of topics relating to pilot recruitment but one of the key issues discussed was the lack of diversity in the cockpit and how training organisations and airlines could attract more women to become pilots.

The problem - demand

It is predicted that there will be a need for 250,000 new pilots within the next ten years. (CAE)

In the future, the demand for pilots will be greater that the supply. Andy Bray, Global Head of Training at CAE Oxford Aviation Academy, showed a prediction that forecast a demand over the next ten years for over 250,000 new pilots - 85,000 for the Americas, 50,000 pilots for Europe, 30,000 in the Middle East and Africa and 85,000 in the Asia Pacific region. These figures included both new demand and replacements for pilots who had retired. “The future growth of airlines will be limited by a lack of pilots,” said Capt Dieter Harms FRAeS from Harms Aviation. “The longer we wait to react the bigger the problem.”

The problem - supply

While demand for pilots increases, the supply may be decreasing. Capt John Illson, FRAeS from SVP Certification Services explained that a report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) had identified a decline in interest in a career as a pilot from students as they become interested in other career opportunities “Only 38% of students enrolled in university aviation programmes now aspire to be airline pilots,” he explained. “The military used to account for 70% in 2001 compared to 30% today while applications to the USAF academy have also declined by 21%.”

Expanding the pool

Airlines are being asked to consider cabin crew as future pilots. (Ryanair)

Getting new pilots is not an easy task and takes time to achieve. “The bean counters think they can turn on a tap to get more pilots,” complained EasyJet’s Head of Crew Training, Eddie Sproul. “However, in reality, you need time to recruit and train them.” Many airlines recruit pilots who are already trained. “Our pilots come from other airlines, forces, corporate operators and commercial training schools,” said Capt Graham Stokes, Head of Flight Operations Training and Standards at Virgin Atlantic.

However, as the demand for new pilots increases, just recruiting existing pilots is not going to be enough and airlines will need to expand the pool of potential recruits. “The challenge is how many people do we reach out to?” asked Colin Rydon, Director of Flight Operations at Flybe. “Have we explored everyone who wants to be a pilot? We tend to focus on young people coming in very early to the aviation game and I wonder if we don’t miss a trick there. Maybe there’s also a very strong market around people who are around 30 who have had a first career and want to do something different. We’ve got quite a few of these pilots at Flybe and they’re the happiest and most content.”

Another potential source of pilots is from elsewhere from within the organisation. “We should look more and more at people from inside our own airlines,” said Capt Stokes. “They’re already working for us. We just need to find them.” Capt Kevin Hiatt, FRAeS, Director of Flight Safety at JetBlue explained how his airline had already done that: “We’ve had several candidates in JetBlue who have come up from being inflight crew and indeed technical operators.”

However, recruiting new pilots from elsewhere within an airline may not be as easy as it sounds. Another speaker was Stephen Pollard, a former cabin crew member with Aer Lingus now training as a pilot. “There is no natural progression between cabin and cockpit and no advantage in being cabin crew first,” he said. “You have to resign, take a step back and then apply again. Cabin crew have aptitude, ability and motivation but airlines don’t recognise that.”

New pilots can also come from without the aviation industry. The conference heard from Natalie Woods, a First Officer for Flybe, who had joined the university air squadron but had worked first as a nurse. “It was a very tough job,” she said. “But many of the skills were also applicable to flying and I decided I wanted to be a pilot. I now fly Dash 8s from Belfast four times per day.”

A lack of diversity

Figures from Virgin Atlantic showing the relative numbers of male and female pilots. (Virgin Atlantic)

However, there is one potential pool of pilot recruits that has up to now been neglected - namely that of women. Figures from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots claim that around 4,000 out of a total of 130,000 pilots globally are female, equivalent to 3%. Of these, 450 women are captains. Figures from the FAA Airman Database say that women currently account for around 5.44% of commercial airline pilots.

“The numbers are very low in Middle East airlines,” added Karen Bath, Head of Customer Experience and Communication, at training organisation CTC Aviation which currently has a 30% female work force and 17% female management. The female pilot percentages were higher in the two airlines represented at the conference, with around 7.5% of Flybe pilots being female while 12% of EasyJet’s pilots are women. “How can we complain about a pilot shortage when we’re missing a whole chunk of society?” asked Capt Stokes from Virgin Atlantic. “The industry is traditionally white, male, middle class dominated. Nor are pilots ethnically diverse. Cabin crew and engineers are more diverse but pilots aren’t. Technology has moved on but people haven’t. If roughly 50% of people in the UK are female, why have we got so few flying aeroplanes? This is not representative of society. We want our flight crews in Virgin to be more representative of society and of our other divisions.”

Other speakers agreed that something needed to be done to redress the balance. “We need to widen the demographics and get more people,” stated Rod Wren, Director of Bristol GS and CEO of Wings Alliance. “We’re looking at a pilot shortage and women are a pool of very qualified people to fill that need,” assented Capt Illson. “It is down to the airlines to drive change,” said Capt Stokes “We’ve got to recruit differently.”

Flying for love

In September 26-year old Kate McWilliams became easyJet 's youngest commercial pilot. (easyJet)

The speakers all agreed that being a pilot was not an easy job. “A pilot’s job has changed and is now a more demanding level of work.” Colin Rydon at Flybe concurred: “We do work pilots harder and expect more from them that we used to.” “It is a tough job - I only get to see my family every six months.” agreed Flybe pilot Natalie Woods.

But despite this, one of the most important factors influencing people who became pilots was because they love flying. “What motivates me to become a commercial airline pilot?” asked Stephen Pollard. “A love of flying.”

Obstacles to recruitment

Tanya Harter, Julie Westhrope and Natalie Woods at the RAeS flight crew training conference.

So - what are the factors which discourage women (and also men) from become pilots? One factor is cost. “It costs £100,000 to train as a pilot and who can afford it?” asked Capt Stokes. “If you can’t self-fund, then you’re stuck.” “There are a lot of aspiring pilots who cannot afford the training,” agreed Colin Rydon, to which Stephen Pollard added: “Costs are a significant burden which can deter some people. Many people have aptitude but can’t afford it.” “There are also a lot of extra costs, such as paying for uniforms or parking spaces,” said Capt Tanya Harter, Human Performance Committee Chairwoman, International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Association (IFALPA).

However, the main factor restricting more widespread pilot recruitment is not the finance but the long and unsocial working hours combined with living away from home. “It’s not the cost of training that is the problem,” asserted Julie Westhrope, chair, British Women Pilots Association. “Pilots often have no choice of the base they will be operating from and employers can change this base at any time,” said Capt Harter. “Pilots also have no influence over their days off - you only get the roster two days in advance.”
Other speakers agreed that inflexible working conditions did make it more difficult to recruit and retain pilots, particularly when airlines were competing with other industries which have a better work-life balance. “People also like to spend time with their family,” said Capt Paul Ryder, Resource Coordinator, ALPA US Airline Pilots Association. “People want a career not a job.” “We’ve found that scheduling and basing are more important factors than salary that influence why pilots move onto other jobs,” stated Capt Stokes. “Women don’t want to apply as training captains because airlines want these positions to be full time and they want part time,” said Eddie Sproul of EasyJet:

“The airline culture for pilots resembles the military in style,” commented David Learmount. “You wear uniforms and the ethos is very ordered and disciplined. The attitude is - if you don’t like the lifestyle then leave.”



Sadly, another reason for the lack of female pilots is discrimination. “It is a problem is that certain areas of society don’t consider women as suitable for pilots,” said Capt Harter. “There was discrimination. People talked to my boyfriend rather than me,” added Natalie Woods. Even in situations where is no obvious discrimination, some women pilots still feel conspicuous. “As a female you can’t hide in a group,” said Woods. When I was trained, I was one out of 24.” “If you are female, you are remembered more,” said Tanya Harter. “Any mistake you make is more conspicuous.”


The Aerozone at Stansted Airport.

So why is there a gender imbalances on the flight deck and what can be done to encourage more young women (and indeed more men) to become pilots? One problem to be overcome is the public perception of pilots and the lack of female pilot role models. “Few pupils think of being a pilot as a career,” said Julie Westhrope. “People need to be more exposed to flying.” “A pilot’s job is not as glamorous as it was,” admitted Gerda Pardatscher, Rulemaking Officer Flight Crew Licensing, EASA. “We need to reignite a passion for aviation.”

To address this problem, recruiters are looking at ways to raise awareness of aviation among young people. “There’s a lot more that airlines can do with schools in terms of reaching out,” said Colin Rydon. One organisation that is leading the way is the British Women Pilots Association (BWPA), a voluntary organisation formed in 1955 which has launched several initiatives to encourage women to become pilots, as well as providing a support network. One of the BWPA’s initiatives is the Aviatrix project which provides female pilots to talk to children in schools and raise awareness. “Our aim is to provide positive role models,” explained Julie Westhrope. The BWPA is also partnering with EasyJet in the Amy Johnson flying initiative which aims to increase the percentage of female pilots from 6% to 12%. Even airports are getting in on the act - the Aerozone at Stansted Airport provides learning experience for children into the jobs of all types of airport workers.

As far as the problem of financing the cost of training is concerned, there appears to be no immediate solution, as airlines are reluctant to pay when they can recruit already trained pilots or run the risk of their trained pilots going elsewhere. However, this attitude may have to change “Full airline funding is commonplace in the Far East and China (where the greatest increase in pilot demand is) but not in the west,” added Capt Andy Bray, from CAE. “If the market dries up then there’s only one way we can go and that’s sponsorships” said Colin Rydon. “However, financing not just an airline problem. We need help from training schools, universities and associations.”

As for the problem of working conditions, it was agreed that airlines may have to change the way they work to attract new pilots. “We need to make sure that we can offer more flexible working conditions for people that make the job interesting,” said Colin Rydon. “We need to fit work-life balance to individuals,” added Jacqui Suren, Chief Theoretical Knowledge Instructor, Ab Initio (EASA). “Women shouldn’t have to stop having families because it will affect their careers,” said Natalie Woods.

The gender debate

Trainees at Oxford Aviation Academy. (CAE)

Having stated that airlines needed to recruit more women, there was a lively debate over what should be the criteria for such a decision. Should there be ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of female over male pilots or should the selection be purely based on competency?

“There is still a mindset problem which thinks that we are lowering our standards by recruiting women pilots or giving them preferential treatment,” said Eddie Sproul of EasyJet. “But we select on ability and we select the best. What we need to do is to change the culture and get the lifestyle right so that women want to become pilots.” “We need people with an ability to do this job and a passion to do it.” said Capt Stokes. “It is about competency and not about positive discrimination,” agreed Capt Stokes from Virgin Atlantic. “We want the best - it doesn’t matter who they are. But we need to ask - why are women not applying? Why are we not retaining them?”

“I’ve experienced lot of negativity,” said Jacquie from CTC. “Forget prejudices and support ability. Women don’t want to be valued because they’re female or a certain religion but for their expertise. We urge airlines not to look at people for being different but to look at our skills.” There is still much to be done to change established views. “We need to change society’s view of women,” said Gerda Pardatscher from EASA. “Nothing would please me more than to close the BWPA because it wasn’t needed,” said Julia. “How can we increase the pool of candidates?” asked Capt Harter. “We need affordable training, decent working conditions, reasonable pay schemes and more part time/flexible working opportunities.”

“Flying is a career which needs need long term support,” concluded Jacqui Suren, Chief Theoretical Knowledge Instructor, Ab Initio (EASA). “More diversity is a strength. We want to encourage more people to apply, so we get more to choose from.”

Bill Read
8 November 2016