The sky’s the limit for females in today’s business world, right? After all, women seem to be breaking glass ceilings and changing stereotypes in just about every profession. Every one except aviation, that is.
If you look skyward, you won’t find too many females piloting commercial aircraft. Cockpits, it appears, remain the domain of males.
In fact, there are less than 7,500 female pilots currently employed by 34 major airlines, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. That represents less than 6 per cent of all pilots worldwide — and about 5,600 of those female pilots are employed by U.S. airlines.
That’s pretty disproportionate when compared to other professions — females make up 38.2 per cent of physicians and surgeons and 35.7 per cent of lawyers.
So that puts women like Jessalyn Teed, a First Officer with Sunwing Airlines, in an exclusive club. And the Boeing 737 pilot relishes that role and is passionate about encouraging other females to pursue a career in aviation.
“I love my job and I knew I wanted to be a pilot when I was just 8 years old,” says the graduate of Sunwing’s Cadet Program, which the charter airline established in co-operation with the University of Waterloo.
Above: First Officer Jessalyn Teed sits beside Captain Ron Henry in the Sunwing cockpit.
“My parents took me to an airport in Muskoka on a 'kids can fly' day and I was hooked,” says the charming young woman who had the honour of delivering Sunwing’s first-ever Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft recently from the manufacturers' Seattle headquarters.
Jessalyn was one of four female Waterloo graduates hired by Sunwing and the airline is hoping more will soon follow. And Sunwing is not alone.
Airlines like Air Canada and WestJet are also investing heavily in similar training programs because carriers are starving for new pilots to feed their expanding fleets.
With passenger travel growing at a record pace annually, Boeing estimates airlines will need 637,000 more pilots over the next 20 years.
So females are more than willing to step in and fill the void. And they’ve proven their more than capable of handling the stress of the cockpit.
In you have any doubt about that, meet Tammie Jo Shults. She’s the Southwest Airlines pilot who helped focus the spotlight on female flyers when she safely landed her crippled Boeing 737 aircraft after it had experienced a mid-air engine explosion in 2018. Her heroics that day saved 148 of the passengers and earned her front page headlines around the world.
“That was really something,” says Teed, who admits she gets some curious looks from some Sunwing passengers when they first enter the aircraft and see her standing at the cockpit door. “But then we exchange smiles and everything is okay.”
The Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace says our country should be producing 300 pilots a year to meet the growing demand and supplement an ageing workforce. We appear to be falling well short of that objective, though, and by 2036, the group predicts Canada will face a shortfall of 6,000 pilots.
That’s why co-operative programs like the one Sunwing has set up with schools like Waterloo and Seneca Collage are so important going forward.
As far as Teed is concerned, women should be introduced to the idea of becoming pilots at a much younger age — “maybe in high school,” she says.
One of the things Teed is most thankful for is that “I didn’t have to go to the far north to fly bush planes like so many pilots before me.”
Competition among airlines for qualified pilots is getting fierce, especially when you consider Chinese airlines are offering foreign captains annual salaries of $314,000 U.S. a year — tax free. That’s almost double what North American airlines offer their veteran pilots.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, United Airlines employees the most female pilots, about 930, according to Forbes magazine, but that represents just 7.4 per cent of the 12,651 pilots they employee overall. Seven per cent of Lufthansa’s pilots are female, while females represent just 5.9 per cent of British Airways’ pilots. As far as Air Canada goes, only 160 of its 3,100 pilots are female.
Not surprisingly, the carriers with the fewest female pilots are Middle East airlines — only 1.5 per cent of the UAE-based Emirates Airlines’ pilots are female.
So get use to the fact that in the future, when your pilot says “this is the captain speaking” it will be in a much higher pitch.
With more female pilots, the skies will be much friendlier. •
About the Author
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he's been there on numerous occasions.