Monday, March 19, 2012

Sky-high sisterhood

From the Babgkok Post: Sky-high sisterhood
PG 924 from Suvarnabhumi airport to Phuket could have been just another flight if not for the pleasant but firm female voice emanating from the cockpit of the A319 jetliner.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. On behalf of Bangkok Airways and my crew, I would like to welcome you on board," it announced as the aircraft with 100 or so passengers, mostly foreign holidaymakers, prepared for take-off.

Meet Kanchala Campos-Tortosa, 49, one of a handful of female pilots working in Thailand's male-dominated airline industry.

If Thai female pilots flying commercial airliners are rare _ numbering between 30 and 40 _ it is rarer still for them to achieve the rank of full-fledged captain like Captain Kanchala (merely four).

Those numbers are tiny for a country celebrating its 101st anniversary in aviation this year and a nation with a thriving airline business and strategic position as the region's air hub.

Industry experts estimate that there are 4,000 Thai nationals working as cockpit staff for Thai and foreign airlines.

Clearly the cockpit is not the place most Thai women prefer in the aircraft cabin, judging from the tens of thousands already working for Thai and international carriers.

It has also been the case that airlines are always overwhelmed with applications whenever vacancies open for cabin attendants. It is common to see an airline flooded with thousands of applications when 40-60 positions are available.

For most young Thai women, being an air hostess, as they prefer to be called here, is a dream job with social status, relatively good pay and a chance to see the world.

Only two scheduled airlines in Thailand, Bangkok Airways and Thai AirAsia (TAA), have female pilots working, while Thai Airways International, the flag carrier and the country's largest airline, has been strictly a male club throughout its 51 years of existence.

The last count for women working at the no-frills TAA found 17 in the cockpit, all co-pilots _ a small minority of the 261 flying A320 jets there.

One of TAA's female co-pilots is Chananporn "Nod" Rosjan, who was crowned Miss Thailand Universe in 2005.

There are 14 at Bangkok Airways, with three of them bestowed the rank of captain, recognisable by the four golden stripes on their shoulders and their sitting in the left seat of the cockpit. Combined cockpit staff at the airline numbers 176.

It has been only in the past six or seven years that Thai airlines began to see more female entrants in the piloting ranks but still at a negligible rate _ not more than five a year, said Capt Kanchala, who was licensed as Thailand's first female co-pilot 22 years ago.

"There is a slow but insignificant trend of women moving into the cockpits," said Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth, the president of Bangkok Airways, the privately held airline that was the first to open the door to Thai female pilots more than two decades ago.

He said piloting aircraft is simply not a popular career among Thai women, who prefer the less stressful duties in the back of the aircraft.

"I don't see any handicaps that may restrict women from flying commercial airliners as long as they are trained and qualified," said Capt Puttipong.

Capt Kanchala, who became Thailand's second female pilot to earn the rank of captain after clocking 3,000 flight hours, said many Thai women tend to think the opportunity to become a pilot is not open to them.

"Thai women are capable of doing things, and we're seeing more and more of them becoming leaders and chief executives of organisations," she told the Bangkok Post.

"I believe many Thai women would love to fly like me and turn their dreams into reality," said Capt Kanchala, who is also a pilot instructor at Bangkok Airways.

Both Capt Kanchala and Capt Puttipong agree some other established Thai airlines unofficially prefer to hire only male pilots, as their organisational cultures were built that way.

Those airlines would argue that the supply of male pilots in the country remains plentiful, and men are easier to manage without subjecting them to feminine sensitivities.

Capt Kanchala disagrees, pointing to the gender discrimination that still exists in some airlines' management, particularly concerning maternity leave.

"A female pilot is entitled to 12 months of maternity leave, and that is seen as a drawback," said the mother of an 8-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy.

Bangkok Airways does not prohibit female cockpit staff getting married or pregnant. The airline's president recognises that certain senior male pilots, who control the pilot rosters at Thai airlines, are still uncomfortable having their men work under a female captain _ part of a Thai cultural complex that promotes masculine superiority.

Capt Kanchala says she gets different looks when wearing her uniform.

"Some look at me admirably, some enviably, but some with a doubtful look questioning the competency of a woman to be a full-fledged captain," she said.

She remembers vividly when she walked past some male captains of a major Thai airline who gave her ugly looks.

"I was not angry, but I was aware that it was the stereotype reaction from a society that put men in front of women," she said, although that is changing now.

Capt Kanchala has been obsessed with flying since graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In addition to the A319 jet, she can command the propeller-driven Dash 8 and ATR 72.

Aircraft were not designed exclusively for men, nor for females with "tomboy" traits, but for anyone trained and certified capable of handling them, she insisted, referring to a misconception that seems to persist worldwide.

Capt Puttipong said in addition to bestowing social status, working as a pilot for a Thai commercial airline can be financially rewarding, with a monthly salary of 160,000 to 200,000 baht.

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