Female Airline Pilots Wish More Women Would Join Them
It's a career above the clouds, a sky full of opportunity.
So America's female airline pilots have one question: Why aren't there more of us?
"There have been women airline pilots for decades. But it is not a warm and fuzzy profession," says Karen Guadagni, 49, of St. Joseph, who is a captain for ExpressJet on flights for United and Delta airlines.
In her 14 years as a pilot, Guadagni estimates that she has been paired with another woman only about 20 times on the flight deck.
That's not surprising, experts say. Only 5.4% of U.S. airline pilots are women, the same tiny percentage as a decade ago.
Nearly every female pilot speaks at schools to encourage girls to follow in their footsteps. National programs like "Girls in Aviation Day" are meant to spark interest from scientifically minded young women. So why hasn't it worked? Pilots aren't sure, but it could be that many women lack the confidence to do what still is perceived as a man's job.
"When I was a flight attendant and told pilots I was learning to fly, I would be laughed out of the cockpit," Guadagni says. "Now, I'm flying with guys whose mothers worked. The early guys were ex-military. They believed they were a god. They couldn't believe that a woman could be a god as well."
Even today, when passengers see a female pilot on their flight, it's noticed. Normally, passengers smile or are delighted. Older passengers sometimes lean in and say, "Good for you!"
Still. When a handful of passengers see a female pilot on the flight deck "they might say to the flight attendant, 'I'm all for equality, but is she really qualified?’" says Lisa Mrozek of Saline. She is a Delta captain who flies all over the world on the Boeing 757 and 767; she has been a pilot for 30 years.
"So we do have a very small minority of people who still disagree with the fact that women are flying airplanes," she says. "Luckily, the majority are so supportive."
School of flight
In the late 1980s, when Annmarie Savitski of Ann Arbori studied aircraft mechanics and flight at University of Illinois, there were six women in her class out of about 60 students. By the end of her program, two women were left, including her.
Things haven't changed much.
Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti offers an aviation degree in which students study flying as part of the coursework. Of about 200 people in the program, fewer than 12 are women, says Philip Tartalone, associate professor of aviation management and flight. "The ratio is pretty skewed in favor of the guys," he says.
Another barrier is that completing the flight training and certificates to fly for an airline can cost $100,000 to $150,000, the same as an advanced degree in law or medicine.
A third barrier is that most new pilots start out at regional airlines that may pay only $25,000 a year to start.
"That's a big issue across the board for males and females," Tartalone says. "They struggle. It's almost worse than being a student. But after the third year, the pay goes up substantially.” A senior pilot for a major airline can make more than $200,000 a year.
And airlines are hiring. A forecast shortage of pilots in the next seven years as retirements increase and more flights are added worldwide means that pilots with the right qualifications can get jobs. Delta, Detroit's largest airline, has hired 1,600 pilots just in the last 18 months, Savitski says. About 3.5% to 4% of Delta's pilots are women.
Compared with most jobs in the world, an airline pilot carries a heavy burden. The safety and lives of hundreds of passengers is in their hands every day. Their precision, instincts and leadership are on the line every time they fly. So when female pilots talk about the challenges of the job they enjoy, it's slightly different from what, say, the average office worker would face.
"It's facing down thunderstorms and emergencies," says Guadagni. "You are not here making unicorns or rainbows."
"Landing is one of my most favorite parts; I always enjoy the challenge" to land perfectly, says Mrozek. "And I pretty much enjoy being my own boss."
Savitski is an operations manager at Detroit Metro Airport who works on behalf of the 1,800 Delta pilots based there. But she also is an Airbus A320 first officer (in layman's terms, a copilot) who flies throughout North America. Her favorite moments of flying?
"There's an adrenaline you get when you come in, and the winds are howling right at the max capacity for a crosswinds landing limitation, and you land the plane as if there is a no-wind situation," she says. "It's really in our blood as pilots."
The other thing she likes about flying? When you're home, you're home.
"The keys stay in the airplane," she says.
Being an airline pilot can take you away from home for four or more days at a time. The schedule is crazy, which can stand at odds with family life.
In 1973, Emily Warner became the first female airline pilot, hired by Frontier Airlines. Now 42 years later, one frustrating question women pilots still face from young women is how to balance family and career. Does being an airline pilot ruin the chance for a family life?
Female pilots who are also mothers say it can be done.
Mrozek has three teenagers, including an 18-year-old daughter who just flew solo as part of getting her pilot's license. Guadagni has two teen sons. She learned to fly when they were babies, and her ex-husband, also a pilot, worked opposite shifts so one of them could always be at home with the kids as they grew.
The work is so interesting that it makes the hassles worth it, they say.
"Today I flew from (Chicago) O'Hare to, 'Gosh, where was I today?" says Guadagni, who was on the phone from a layover in Houston. "I flew to Savannah, then Savannah to Houston, then from here I'm going to Aguascalientes, Mexico, then I'm there for two nights, then back through Houston, Birmingham and O'Hare, then I'm done."
All younger pilots, not just women, would like more family-friendly schedules, says Air Line Pilots Association national membership chairman Jolanda Witvliet, a Boeing 777 first officer for United Airlines who flies regularly from San Francisco to Australia. That may happen as more women and more young men join airlines as pilots, but it will never be a 9-to-5 job.
"When you fly for scheduled airlines, you're going to be gone. Some of our trips are 10-day trips," she says. "It's a daunting task to think about having child care for 10 days."
Out on the wing
Now, for the perks of flying.
A few years ago, Savitski's mother was on board a flight her daughter was copiloting from Minneapolis to Kansas City. Savitski came by to say hello. That day, the captain also was a woman. Afterward, her mother's seatmate couldn't stop talking.
"Did you see there are two women up there?" she asked.
And Savitski's mother said proudly, "the woman in the right seat is my daughter.” That made Savitski smile.
Pilots and their families also get discounted or free travel. Savitski just spent New Year's Eve with her husband and friends in Tokyo. They'll spend their 10th anniversary near Lake Como in Italy. Guadagni spends a lot of time exploring towns and cities where she has layovers, especially in Mexico. Her sons have already visited multiple countries.
Beyond that, there are perks to their job unavailable to mere mortals.
"Sometimes, you're skimming above the clouds and you think, 'I'm being paid for this,' " says Mrozek.
Says Guadagni: "Sometimes I think, 'Look at that sunset. How lucky are we? Or we see the Northern Lights. Or shooting stars. Or the whole night sky."
Contact Detroit Free Press Travel Writer Ellen Creager: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nontraditional occupations for women
Women make up 46.9% of the labor force in the U.S., but certain jobs they rarely do, including being airline pilots. What percent of these jobs are done by women?
0%: Cement masons, oil derrick drillers
Less than 1%: Crane operators, bus mechanics, roofers, stonemasons
Less than 2%: Heating and air-conditioning mechanics, tool and die makers, locomotive engineers, pipe-layers, carpenters.
Less than 5%: Carpet installers, drywall installers, boiler operators, electricians, aircraft mechanics, welders
Less than 8%: Airline pilots, truck drivers, firefighters, loggers
Source: 2014 data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.
How to become an airline pilot
It takes time, dedication and money to become a pilot for a major airline. Most airlines now require a four-year college degree plus more than 1,000 hours of flying time and advanced certificates.
Still, it's all in how you think of it. If you are a college graduate, becoming a pilot qualified to work at an airline "takes about the same amount of money and time as a master's degree, but it's fun," says Karen Guadagni. All the flight training can cost about $100,000. But there are ways to get help or start early.
* Give flying a try. Many flight schools offer a free or low-cost initial lesson. For a list of flight schools in Michigan, search www.michigan.gov/.
* Contact organizations like Women in Aviation (www.wai.org) and the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (www.iswap.org). Both have information on career paths and scholarships. Women in Aviation holds an annual conference and has named Sept. 26 as "Girls in Aviation Day".
* See the "Cleared to Dream" (www.clearedtodream.org) website run by the Air Line Pilots Association, which explains the steps to become a pilot for the airlines. Pilots in the U.S. must be between 23 and 65 years old.
* Students age 12-18 who are interested in combining military training with flying can join the Civil Air Patrol, an Air Force auxiliary. It often takes cadets up in small planes. (http://www.miwg.cap.gov/.)
* Western Michigan University offers a degree in Flight Science though its well-known School of Aviation; Eastern Michigan University offers a degree in Aviation Flight Technology through its Eagle Flight Centre. (http://wmich.edu/aviation/.) Northwestern Michigan College and Lansing Community College also have programs in Michigan. Top aviation schools in the U.S. for flying include Embry-Riddle in Florida, University of North Dakota and Purdue University in Indiana.
* ATP Flight School, a national chain, has a partnership with some airlines for partial tuition reimbursement programs. Its site has detailed information on career tracks and intensive training for pilots seeking to work for major airlines.(https://atpflightschool.com). Some combine flight training and studying for their college degree while working as flight instructors.
* Look at the military. Not as many pilots as in the past are trained in the military, but the Air Force and Naval academies or ROTC are still pathways for pilot training for those willing to make the armed services commitment. It also is the least expensive path. About half of pilots recently hired by Delta have military training, pilot Annmarie Savitski says, and some of them are women.
Published on June 29, 2015