Female Commercial Airline Pilots: a Slow Take-off

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin3 Comments

More than forty years after the first woman took the controls of a commercial aeroplane, passengers still react with surprise when they see a female sitting in the captain’s seat.

Sisters Cliodhna & Aoife Duggan, senior first officers British Airways Boeing 777 fleet Airbus A320 fleet. Photo: Nick Morrish/PR Company handout

Sisters Cliodhna & Aoife Duggan, senior first officers British Airways Boeing 777 fleet Airbus A320 fleet.
Photo: Nick Morrish/PR Company handout

Four decades after the first pilot started work for a commercial airlines, there are still relatively few women sitting in Captain Duggan’s seat.  

How much has changed since Yvonne Pope Sintes, now 83, became Britain’s first commercial airline captain in 1972?  When Sintes started her career, airlines actively barred women and it took her nearly two decades from joining the airline industry to making it as a commercial pilot.

Of the 3,500 pilots employed by British Airways, just 200 are women.  Globally, around 4,000 of the 130,000 airline pilots are women according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Fewer still are captains; worldwide there are 450.

Rosella Marie Bjornson is a retired Canadian airline captain who holds the distinction of being the first female pilot for a commercial airline in North America and the first woman member of the Canadian Airline Pilots Association.  In 2014, she was honoured with a commemorative postage stamp.

‘Woman are as good as men, but they seem to have more domestic responsibilities and not all of them want to devote themselves to a full-time job.’  

After publishing her book, Trailblazer in Flight, late last year, Sintes says she actually met someone who said he didn’t know that there were any women pilots. ‘I couldn’t believe it!’

Inspired by watching the planes while growing up, she tried to join the RAF after school but they wouldn’t take women.  She became a flight attendant and got her private pilot licence. She then qualified as an instructor and became an air traffic controller.  Sintes said her male colleagues did not like her at all.

Eventually, in 1965, she became a pilot with Morton Air Services, one of the early British airlines and then a captain with Dan-Air.  At Morton, she says, ‘Someone actually said they’d resign if a woman joined.  And then, it was the passengers who exhibited prejudice.’

 According to the Duggan sisters, pilots with British airways, reactions to their gender-either negative-or just simply surprise-are more likely to come from passengers rather than colleagues.

‘A couple of years ago, at my previous job for an airline in Asia,’ said Aoife, ‘one man took a look at me and my female co-pilot and got off the plane. I guess it’s because they’re not used to seeing women in positions of power. I think a lot of passengers, especially older ones, have the image of a pilot being a man in his 50s.  When they see a young woman, they seem surprised. Oh my god, you look so small, I can’t believe you just landed this giant plane.’

Angela Masson, 60, an American Airlines pilot for 30 years, said that passengers generally reacted warmly with a handshake when they realized their pilot was a woman.

And then there is Carey Smith Steacy, a WestJet pilot who had completed her flight from Calgary to Victoria and found a note from a passenger, identified only as ‘David’ from seat 12E, apparently outraged that his pilot was a woman.

Carey Smith Steacy’s answer to David in 12E on her flight from Calgary to Victoria: 

It was my pleasure flying you safely to your destination.  Thank you for the note you discreetly left me on your seat.  You made sure to ask the flight attendants before I left if I had enough hours to be a Captain so safety is important to you. I respectfully disagree with your opinion that the ‘cockpit’ (we now call it the flight deck as no cocks are required) is no place for a lady.  In fact, there are no places that are not for ladies anymore.  I have heard many comments from people throughout my 17-year career as a pilot.  Most of them positive.  Your note is, without a doubt, the funniest.  It was a joke, right?  I thought not.  You were more than welcome to deplane when you heard I was a ‘fair lady.’  You have that right. Funny, we all have those same rights in this great free country of ours.  Now, back to my most important role, being a mother.
Captain Carey Smith Steacy, WestJet pilot for 17 years, mother of two.

Captain Carey Smith Steacy, WestJet pilot for 17 years, mother of two.

A WestJet spokesperson’s response to that sexist napkin message:  ‘We have female captains and female first officers flying on all WestJet aircraft to all WestJet destinations.  We are enormously proud of the professionalism, skill, and expertise of our pilots.  

A female pilot recalls the day when a woman customer spotted her in the flight deck and said to a flight attendant, ‘I didn’t know the captain had a secretary.’