Closing The Gap

Top US airlines want to hire women pilots. So where are the applicants?

The world needs pilots: Where are the women?
The world needs pilots: Where are the women?

"See the world!" "Make good money in a career where gender has no impact on salary!" "Ladies, become a commercial airline pilot!"


Boeing estimates the global aviation industry will need 800,000 pilots over the next 20 years. A quarter of those new pilots will be needed for the U.S. market. Major airlines are hiring, and they've created special programs to recruit women in particular, showing marked progress.

Even so, at American Airlines, 4.8% of the pilot staff is female. At Delta, it's 5%. It's 7% at United. By comparison, at least 10% of pilots at the eight major airlines in India are female, according to a report by the BBC (12% in Australia and South Africa.) Where are the women?

"We talk about that all the time, and I think for the most part, women are just still not aware that this is a job opportunity," Beverley Bass, the first woman to become a captain at American Airlines, tells CNBC Make It. Bass joined American in 1976 at the age of 24. She started her career a few years earlier in Ft. Worth flying bodies for a mortician, making $5 an hour.

Beverley Bass, retired American Airlines Captain on opportunities for women in aviation
Retired American Airlines Captain on opportunities for women in aviation

"A lot of the guys didn't want the job," she says. "I thought it was a great job, because for the first time, somebody was actually paying me to fly an airplane."

Bass is perhaps best known for landing a flight from Paris to Dallas in Gander, Newfoundland, on 9/11, when all incoming U.S. flights were diverted. It's a saga made famous in the award-winning musical, "Come From Away." But when she joined American, a woman pilot was such a rarity that a female passenger seeing her one day sitting in the cockpit remarked, "I didn't know the captain had a secretary."

She co-founded the International Society of Women Airline Pilots 40 years ago, a group that has handed out $1.4 million in scholarships to help women finance flight school. But the overall number of female pilots remains small. "Those of us who have been around for 40 or more years are just so surprised at that, because we've been embedded in the business for decades now," she says.

One woman trying to close that gap is Jamie Patterson-Simes, owner of SkyTrek Alaska Flight Training in Anchorage, Alaska. She opened her flight school in 2014 after failing to convince a former boss that some students needed a different approach to learn successfully. Patterson-Simes earned her MBA and got a small business loan from the SBA. "I sold my car for $8,000" to start the school, she says, "and I had people knocking on my door from day one."

Patterson-Simes thinks flight training in Alaska helps boost a student's resume, because the weather is always changing. It's also fun — and wild. One time she flew through a storm with a very drunk passenger who put his hands on her. "I ended up punching him, and I'm not supposed to punch the passengers."

These days she owns three aircraft and has an eight-to-10 month waiting list for her flight school. Annual revenues are about $250,000. In 2015, Patterson-Simes was named a Gold Seal Flight Instructor by the FAA, and in 2017, SkyTrek was named the top flight school in the nation by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

She estimates about 70% of her students are men. One is Jesse Hefely, who currently works as an aircraft dispatcher. He heard about SkyTrek through "friend of a friend," and clicked with Jamie the minute they met. The fact that he has a female flight instructor is a non-issue. "My family is filled with strong women," he says. "I've been raised by strong women."

"It's like I'm the brain surgeon," says Patterson-Simes. "Do you want to be the person who is their first patient, or do you want the brain surgeon who has done 500 surgeries? It's the same thing. I've been a flight instructor since 1993, the experience level is what people are looking for."

She's a gold seal flight instructor flying high over Alaska
She's a gold seal flight instructor flying high over Alaska

She is seeing more women take lessons, including 19-year-old Madisen Minich. Minich is paying for the $10,000 training with a college fund her parents created. "I didn't want to work in an office job," she says. "I've always loved flying."

And the major airlines are working hard to attract women in particular. American Airlines has a full-tuition scholarship program to cover the cost of its Cadet Academy for one woman. Currently a third of cadets in the academy are women, including some current American flight attendants who have been granted special leave to learn to fly.

United holds an annual global Girls in Aviation Day, and the airline also provides scholarships for training through Women in Aviation. United's chief pilot is a woman. Delta has a program to help finance training, and every year it flies girls on a plane completely crewed by women to encourage them to seek STEM careers.

Even so, among the public, there may still be a bias against women pilots. A series of studies from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found passengers less willing to fly with a woman pilot (and especially two women pilots). The results were similar regardless of whether the passengers were men or women.

Is there a difference between the way men and women fly? Beverley Bass never considered it. "I have heard that women have a tendency to process an abnormal situation differently." She says women are used to multi-tasking. "I mean, I know that I could cook dinner, feed a baby and talk on the telephone all at the same time, and I know my husband could only do one of those at the same time," she jokes. "But I would never sit here and say that women are better pilots or they're not as good, because at the end of the day, we're all trained the same, and I think we have the same abilities."

Bass retired from American and now flies for a high net worth individual —a woman. The other pilot she works with is also a retired American captain. "Many times, after we take off and get up and cruise, and the weather is just beautiful, clear skies, we'll look at each other and say, 'Can you believe that we still get to do this?'"

And Madisen Minich, the 19-year-old training in Alaska, earned her pilot's license in May and is now working on her instrument rating. Then she's planning to apply to the airlines. Her favorite part of flying? "Probably when the wheels lift off. You first rotate the plane and you just kind of hover for a second," she says. "That is the coolest feeling ever."

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