Asia needs more pilots. Women to the front of the line
Asia’s big air traffic increases could open jobs for female pilots Limiting the “pool to mostly white males has strangled growth”
Sophia Kuo says she still hears the whispers as she walks through international airports in her EVA Airways pilot’s uniform: “Wow, we have female pilots.” “How does she fly an airplane?” “She must be really smart!”
More than 80 years after Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic, women such as Kuo, a 36-year-old co-pilot on the Taiwanese carrier’s Boeing 747s, remain the exception in the cockpit. Only 5 percent of pilots globally are female, says Liz Jennings Clark, chairwoman of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP).
Asia’s rapid escalation in air travel could force the industry to address that imbalance. The region is transporting 100 million new passengers every year, says Sherry Carbary, vice president for flight services for Boeing, which assists airlines in training pilots. To transport its new middle class, Asia will need 226,000 more pilots in the next two decades, according to Boeing. “There is such an enormous demand to meet the growth that the gender bias will have to be pushed aside,” Carbary says.
Vietnam Airlines, based in one of the world’s 10 fastest-growing aviation markets, is creating more flexible work schedules that take the demands of family life into account. And fastgrowing U.K.-based EasyJet has set up a scholarship with the British Women Pilots Association to underwrite the costs of training women pilots.
Recruitment ads for carriers such as British Airways increasingly feature female pilots, while EVA Air, which has about 50 women among its 1,200 pilots, has recruited from universities in Taiwan with ads showing Kuo. “Finding capable flight crews isn’t easy,” says Richard Yeh, who oversees pilot training at EVA Air, which is trying to hire 100 pilots a year to meet demand. “We have to try to find more pilots like Sophia.”
At flight training colleges in Asia, the number of female students remains low. Frequently less than 10 percent of the 200 cadets at Malaysian Flying Academy Sendirian Berhad’s twoyear program are female, says Stephen Terry, the principal. “Some carriers in Asia won’t even consider hiring women pilots,” Terry says, and others prohibit females to avoid mixed-gender crews sharing bunk compartments on longhaul flights.
To qualify for a license to captain a plane, you need to read, write, and speak English fluently; have thousands of hours of flight time; have no criminal record or history of alcohol abuse; and be free of a long list of medical
conditions such as color blindness.
“Pilot personality traits and aptitudes are rare within the human population regardless of gender or race,” says Mireille Goyer, founder of the Vancouver-based Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide, which advocates for more women in the cockpit. “Arbitrarily reducing the potential pool to mostly white males has strangled growth and led to today’s situation.”
Some women face an historical lack of support for those who want to fly planes and raise a family. “Flying time for female pilots may be limited due to maternity leave or the fact they need time to take care of their kids,” Luu Hoang Minh, a Vietnam Airlines flight crew deputy director, said in an e-mail. He said his carrier, which has 11 female pilots out of 1,058, takes these factors into account and tries to arrange flying schedules that help women balance family obligations.
In Asia, where traditional attitudes toward a woman’s role are strong, it’s especially hard for women to get into the cockpit, says Kit Darby, a former
United Airlines captain who works as a consultant. Being a commercial pilot is still viewed “as a single man’s game,” he says. Even women who break in will have to wait years to assume leadership roles. Most major carriers require flight captains to have at least 3,000 hours of commercial flying experience— not including flying time during flight school. So women recruited today on legacy carriers wouldn’t be ready to take charge of a plane for 12 to 15 years, says ISWAP Chairwoman Clark, a captain with Transavia Airlines, a subsidiary of Air France-KLM.
Still, some succeed. Vietnam Airlines Captain Huynh Ly Dong Phuong says her mother was initially reluctant about her career choice, and she’s still sometimes treated differently than male peers. “My difficulty,” she said via e-mail, “is making people accept the fact I am a pilot first and a female second, not the other way around.”
The bottom line Only 5 percent of airline pilots are female. Fast growth among Asia carriers could reduce that imbalance.
EVA Airways’ Kuo