Can I tell you why there aren’t more women flying the friendly skies? It’s because all the women who want to be airline pilots are already here. In United Airline’s announcement last year, CEO Scott Kirby said, “Over the next decade, United will train 5,000 pilots who will be guaranteed a job with United…and our plan is for half of them to be women and people of color.” Who are they trying to kid? I’m here to tell you; it’s not going to happen. Pseudo solutions from STEM to scholarships aren’t likely to help. The open invitation has been extended to women pilots for decades now. A more accurate question might be; why don’t women want to become airline pilots? And to answer that, we need to dig deeper. Let’s ask those who are here on the job what all the fuss is about.
Some United Airlines background: In the late 1980s, it was recognized that United had failed to place women and minority pilots in the cockpits of their airliners following an earlier discrimination lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In that settlement, United Airlines agreed to attract and hire more women and minority pilots. After all this effort, United has the highest number of women pilots of any US major airline—approximately 7%. Since that time, a rise of approximately 2% is reported. It has been widely published that the percentage of women in the cockpit has hovered steadily between 3% and 7% for at least the last thirty years.
Allow me to add that, as a Designated Pilot Examiner (one authorized to evaluate and award private, instrument, and commercial pilot certificates to those who have received extensive flight instruction) I can tell you that I handed less than 10% of all certificates to women pilots. I suspect, as a female DPE, my number might even be higher than most. According to statistics, what was the percentage of those who became commercial pilots, not necessarily for an airline or as a professional? 6%. So this is not to say that women do not want to fly, they do. They are. They just don’t want to fly for the airlines.
Let’s face it; only a small percentage of women have a goal to spend fifty percent of their time away from home on the road eating bad food, and half the nights of every month in a hotel room, not their own bedroom. Promising to pick up our kids after school and take them to pizza on their birthday is barely part of our lexicon. Generally speaking, we appreciate a little structure built into our lives. Airline schedules don’t work that way. They are fluid, inconsistent, and full of unwanted surprises. It’s just that these professional expectations are not conducive to those desires. Did I say profession? I meant lifestyle.
If you truly want a transparent pay scale on par with your peers and entirely seniority-based, there are no glass ceilings here. If you want to wear a uniform with sensible shoes while lugging your bags up and down stairs through empty terminals and dark parking garages in the middle of the night, then this is your gig. If you believe absolute standardization, ongoing training, and physical evaluations every six months (whereupon if you fail there’s the possibility of losing your job), and building experience over a lifetime spent flying for the airlines supports a safe environment for the traveling public, become an airline pilot. This environment provides me with structure and purpose enough to enjoy a high level of achievement. Like any high-stress job, it’s all rainbows and unicorns until the shit hits the fan. That’s why we’re getting paid the big bucks.
Until for one physically-attributed reason or another, I am jolted back to reality; I sometimes lose a piece of my identity and think my peer group is made up of the men in their sixties with whom I spend the majority of my waking moments at work. Don’t get me wrong. I know plenty of women pilots who have raised children in picture-perfect suburban school districts. I don’t know how many female airline pilots have children, that is not an available statistic. It’s not that it can’t be done. It’s just that if you have visions of hosting Thanksgiving dinner every year a la Norman Rockwell, this career choice isn’t for you. If you are a proponent of Hallmark holidays or want weekends off to spend with the kids, well, you better run!
As for me, financial freedom, independence, and world travel were my heart’s desire. These were the rewards I reaped from my career. However, I did not know that being a post-9/11 pilot would include being officially dedicated the last line of defense between a terrorist and a tragedy. Nor did I know that during a pandemic I would continue to work three feet from my co-pilot, locked behind a cockpit door for up to eight hours a day, on the front lines for the past two years before anyone even knew how the virus was transmitted. Nevertheless, I’m proud of my contribution in the face of these events. And being true to myself has delivered personal success. My Norman Rockwell portrait depicts a happy husband, wife, and dog in front of a California bungalow.
While some commend puppets for pretending to open the imaginary back door to more women, the fact remains; qualified pilots who meet major airlines’ hiring standards will continue to be hired at much the same rate they have always been. And while we need to continue to celebrate the achievements and milestones of women pilots, their numbers are likely to increase only slightly. However, if the dreams and subsequent priorities of the next generation of women shift, so too will their lifestyle choices. The most important thing we who are on the job and those who are hiring can do is be honest about what our work/life balance entails. Until then, we do not need United Airlines or anyone else to hold the cockpit door open for us; we’re already on board.