Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More women earn their wings at Lufthansa and other airlines

From Deutche Welle: More women earn their wings at Lufthansa and other airlines
Female aviators have flown combat missions for the military, but it's taken them much longer to break the gender barrier at commercial airlines. The percentage of women pilots is still extremely low, but rising.

Back in the 1960s, the head of Lufthansa's pilot training school, Alfred Vermaaten, once quipped: "A woman has a better chance of becoming a world heavyweight boxing champion than an airline captain". It took decades to prove Vermaaten wrong. Lufthansa's first female pilot took to the skies in 1988, and went on to becoming the German flag carrier's first female captain in the year 2000.

Lufthansa currently employs nearly 300 female pilots, which means women account for little more than 5 percent of the airline's pilots an industry average based on a random sampling of major commercial airlines compiled by Deutsche Welle.

Today the odds of a woman being a commercial airline pilot are better than becoming a heavyweight boxing champion, but they're still a lot lower than the 12 percent on the supervisory boards of Germany's major DAX companies. Furthermore, 36 percent of judges in Germany are women and nearly 40 percent of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet is female.

No discrimination in the cockpit
In Vermaaten's time, it was unthinkable for a woman to be in the cockpit of any commercial airline, even though many female pilots had flown for the military during the previous half-century.

"We had a saying that 'if God meant women to fly, he would have painted the sky pink, not blue,'" said Captain Jörg Handwerg, a spokesman for the airline pilots' association Vereinigung Cockpit. However, gender discrimination is no longer an obstacle to a career in the cockpit, he added. Quite the contrary.

"When (women) apply for a job, airlines are happy. They want to get rid of the stigma they discriminate against women. They want to encourage women to become pilots, but with only an 8 percent application rate, you cannot have 50 percent women pilots," he said.

Although there are no quotas or numerical targets in its recruitment of female pilots, Lufthansa sponsors an annual program called Girls' Day, in which companies present vocational choices to teenage girls. "We try to promote the job of an airline pilot, flight engineer or mechanic to high school girls, to show them that these kinds of career paths are options for them," explained Lufthansa spokesman Michael Lamberty.

Lack of female role models
Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Women fly for the German military, but few other female role models exist
That so few women apply for the flight training programs airlines offer is puzzling, especially since the pay is good. The starting salary at a major commercial airline such as Lufthansa is about 60,000 euros ($82,000), which is more than that of a junior hospital doctor or lower level federal judge in Germany.

First officer Rieke Hurler, 25, earned her pilot's license in 2010 after completing an in-house flight training course that lasted nearly three years. Hurler, whose father is also a pilot, had already dreamed about flying as a child.

"I think if my father would not be a pilot, I would not have even thought about it," Hurler said, adding that the lack of female role models could be a reason why so few women consider a career in the cockpit. "In the movies and TV, it's always the male heroes who are flying the airplanes".

Too technical for women?
Perhaps flying jets, like fixing cars, is simply one of those 'male' tasks which doesn't appeal to most women?

"The female pilots we have are wonderful, but women in general just don't seem to be interested in this very technical job," said Handwerg. But Hurler believes many women are frightened off by the perception that flying is a purely technical career.

"You don't need to study maths or physics to be a pilot. Lots of women think it's only a technical job, but you need communication and team skills, soft skills too," said Hurler. "I think there's no difference whether you're a woman or man flying an airplane. There's nothing that a woman can't do in this job," she added.

For many younger women, the technical demands of the job and sexism are not the primary issue keeping them away from the runway. What matters is whether a company offers family friendly policies that make it easier for women to combine work with motherhood.

Combining flying with motherhood
"The job of a pilot is not Monday to Friday 9-5. It's not very regular, but it is planable," said Lufthansa spokesman Lamberty, who explained that pilots can choose from several part-time schemes that allow them to fly a fraction of their regular roster.

Furthermore, flight simulators allow pregnant pilots to keep honing their skills so they don't lose their seniority when they come back to work after maternity leave.

"Of course I'd like to have a family in the next few years and with my job it's not a problem. It's a question of organization," said Hurler, who is married, but childless.

What can be difficult is being thousands of miles away from home at a four or five day stretch - a schedule demanded not just of pilots, but of cabin crew as well. And then there are contingencies such as a volcanic ash cloud that can leave the entire flight crew stranded for days and wreck havoc with childcare arrangements back home.

"For every mother it is hard to leave small children," said Martina Stickler-Posner, who was once a flight attendant, but is now a labor lawyer representing pilots. "What I found hard for me and my colleagues is the standby regulation. You're reading a book to your child, suddenly the phone rings and mummy goes off."

Part-time pilots cost more
Stickler-Posner said that while airlines do officially offer part-time modules to accommodate the work-life needs of their pilots, such practices are sometimes not popular with airline managers because it costs more to train and maintain two part-time pilots than just one full-time pilot.

"There are airlines who say we can't afford to have more part-time workers, that pilot education is so expensive," she said. The cost of training one pilot at Lufthansa is roughly 180,000 euros, of which one third is usually paid back by the trainee in the form of a salary deduction during their first few years of work.

Ironically, when the industry is in a slump, employers are happy to reduce the workload of working mothers and some pilots might even be forced to reduce their hours involuntarily. But during an economic boom or peak travel times of the year, part-time work is discouraged, said Stickler-Posner.

The airline industry is always one of the first to feel the effect of global economic developments, from changes in the price of oil to political unrest. But one steady trend is emerging: In the past decade, the proportion of female pilots at Lufthansa has more than doubled and the number of pilot trainees has tripled to make up 15 percent of the training roster. While it's still rare for passengers to hear a female voice emanating from the cockpit, their absolute numbers are growing quickly.

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