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A Huge Leap Forward for Malaysia Airlines: The First Female Pilots Join the Carrier But Much Can Still Be Improved

A Huge Leap Forward for Malaysia Airlines: The First Female Pilots Join the Carrier But Much Can Still Be Improved

Malaysia Airlines may just have become one of the last Asian airlines to hire female pilots. Captain Pearl Wendy Mak and two Second Officers, Wang Wen Chien and Foo Hooi Wen made history as they joined 17 male pilots and a largely female group of 111 cabin crew at a graduation ceremony in the Malaysia Airlines Berhad Academy late last week.

It has taken quite some time to get to this point.  After all, Amelia Earhart – one of the most famous, if not the most famous female aviator to have ever lived – is credited with becoming the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean all the way back in 1928.

Three female pilots made history as they became the first to be hired by Malaysia Airlines in the company's history. Photo Credit: Malaysia Airlines
Three female pilots made history as they became the first to be hired by Malaysia Airlines in the company’s history. Photo Credit: Malaysia Airlines

Then came Helen Richey who became the first female pilot to be hired by an American airline in 1934.  But while Richey was a pioneer, it took nearly four decades before more women followed in her footsteps – it was 1973 when Bonnie Tiburzi became the first female pilot to be hired by American Airlines, while in the same year, Emily Howell Warner became the first female Captain for a U.S. airline.

It took even longer for European airlines to start hiring female pilots – for Lufthansa, which currently has one of the highest shares of female pilots in the world, it wasn’t until 1988 that Nicola Lisy and Evi Hetzmannseder joined the German airline as co-pilots.  Lisy went on to become Lufthansa’s first female Captain.

Progress, however, has been painfully slow.  The flight deck is still seen as a largely male-dominated environment and women account for just a small percentage of the total number of pilots.  According to Statista, there are just over 7,400 female pilots worldwide – Which is around 5% of the total global number.

Nicola Lisy and Evi Hetzmannseder became the first female pilots at Lufthansa in 1988. Photo Credit: Lufthansa
Nicola Lisy and Evi Hetzmannseder became the first female pilots at Lufthansa in 1988. Photo Credit: Lufthansa

The latest figures suggest Chicago-based United Airlines achieves the greatest parity between men and women in the flight deck – but with female pilots making up just over 7% of United’s flight crew workforce, it’s clear there is still much to do.

United is closely followed by Lufthansa, while British Airways, Air Canada and charter airline, TUI make up the remainder of the top five.  In contrast, just 1% of pilots at Norweigan are said to be female and women account for only 1.5% of Emirate’s flight crew.

Still, even those figures seem good in comparison with Singapore Airlines – The Straits Times reports just 0.1% of pilots at the airline are women.  In 2015, Singapore did hire several female recruits but training can take at least three years to complete.  The airline says it will hire “whoever is the most qualified.”

Airlines, though, are at last on a mission to improve equality in the flight deck – no doubt, spurred on by a global pilot shortage.  Airlines need flight crew and many are wasting no time in breaking down the barriers that could dissuade women from pursuing a career in aviation.

Emirates may not currently have a huge share of female pilots but the airline has done a lot in recent years to attract more applications.  The low cost British airline, easyJet has also run a high profile recruitment campaign, along with a special training grant to bring more female pilots online.

For whatever reason, the aviation industry has long held on to outdated gender sterotypes – female’s work as flight attendants, men fly the plane.  At long last, carriers are starting to understand that the world has moved on.  There’s still so much to do but the progress made so far should be applauded.

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