When I board a plane and discover that there's a woman in the cockpit, I get a little jolt of joy. About 7 percent of the 66,000 members of the Air Line Pilots Association are women. Just seeing one at work reminds me that women who want careers in air travel can choose from a wide spectrum, from ticket agent to captain.
Until recently, most pilots in commercial aviation got their initial training and flight experience in the military, which partly explains why cockpits were virtual men's clubs for so long. Helen Richey, one of the first women to pilot a commercial scheduled passenger carrier, got a job flying with Central Airlines in 1934, but she had to give it up in 1935 because the all-male pilots union wouldn't let her join. Women started turning up in the cockpit in noticeable numbers about 20 years ago.
A pilot shortage in the '90s brought more women into the work force, says John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, based in Virginia. Still, some passengers haven't welcomed them. A decade ago, an Alaska Airlines jet had to return to the gate in Phoenix, Ariz., because a passenger refused to fly in a plane piloted by a woman. Christine Barlow of Los Angeles, a first officer with United for the past five years, says passengers often ask her to hang up their coats and fetch water when she doesn't wear her uniform hat.
For the women who make it to the cockpit, piloting a plane offers a strikingly level playing field for advancement, based almost entirely on seniority. (Captains and first officers take turns piloting the plane and operating the flight management system; the major distinction between the two positions is that the captain is responsible for all decisions.) Men and women must work their way up from first officer on smaller aircraft. Once they make captain, they have to start all over before they can reach the top of the heap, the front left seat of a mega-jet carrying hundreds of passengers. ALPA's Mazor says the promotion process can take three or four years when the industry is growing but as many as a dozen years in slow times. "It's not easy to become a pilot because the bar is high," Mazor says. "But if you clear it, the airlines don't care whether you're male or female."
Joy Walker, who in 1973 became Delta's first female pilot, agrees that promotion as a pilot has nothing to do with one's gender. "Men and women take the same tests and must reach the same levels of seniority," she says. Having cleared all the hurdles, Walker wears the four gold stripes of a captain and has an enviable schedule: She flies from Atlanta to Brussels, Belgium, every Saturday and returns on Monday, giving her the rest of the week off.
Although Walker experienced some resistance from male crews in the early days of her career, her ability was her ticket to equity. "When they found out I could do the job, there was a real turnaround," she says. "They were far more on my side than if I'd been a guy."
Betty Pfister of Aspen, Colo., who co-piloted nonscheduled flights between New York and Puerto Rico after World War II, says that even back then she was treated fairly as long as she did her job. She remembers that her male colleagues used to guard the door while she used the men's restroom because there were no women's crew facilities in some of the smaller airports.
Jennifer Muellner of Annapolis, Md., who is 26 and flies for US Airways, also thinks that capable female pilots get a fair shake. "Skill and ability transcend gender," she says. For her, the challenge of getting a job as a pilot for a major carrier had less to do with breaking down barriers than with chalking up enough flying hours to qualify for the required licenses. She had 3,400 hours of flying experience when she was hired as a co-pilot by US Airways two years ago, amassed by taking jobs with small freight and commuter airlines as far afield as Montana and Alaska. "I chased jobs that would get me to a major airline as fast as possible," Muellner says.
Many women pilots follow the same career path, learning to fly on their own and working for small carriers, eventually obtaining an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, which allows them to fly for major airlines.
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