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Captain Tammie Jo Shults has received accolades and acclaim all week for her successful emergency landing of Southwest Flight 1380 – and rightfully so. The former Navy F/A-18 fighter jet pilot and instructor has piloted jets for Southwest since the 1990s, and safely brought down Monday’s 737-700 with one failed engine, a depressurized cabin, and a critical medical emergency on board.

“To get us down with … a blown engine and land us safely is nothing short of miraculous to me,” said retired nurse Peggy Phillips, who was a passenger on board Monday’s nightmare flight. “She’s a hero, for sure.”

On Wednesday, CNN National Security Analyst Juliette Kayyem posted an op-ed titled, “We shouldn’t be surprised that Southwest’s hero pilot is a woman.” In the post, Kayyem argued, “Shults is proof, again, that there is no “female” approach … There is no reason to exclude women [from high-risk jobs] if they can perform as well as men.”

Since the earliest days of aviation, women have had to go the extra mile to prove their performance-worthiness. Yet even today, they only comprise about 6% of all commercial pilots worldwide, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) statistics indicate that less than 5% of all US airline pilots are women.

Shults herself was barred from aviation career day at her high school because girls weren’t accepted into the program back then, and even the US Navy would not allow her to fly in combat missions. So the accomplished pilot flew naval training missions during Operation Desert Storm instead, working with other women to repeal the rule barring women from aviation combat.

Graphic courtesy of Statista.


Shults and many other advocates for gender equality successfully made history in 2015, when the United States opened up all military combat positions to women. Yet the battle is still being fought on more systemic fronts — both in military and commercial aviation sectors.

The International Society of Women Airline Pilots published a breakdown of the 7,409 female pilots operating commercial aircraft in 2018. United Airlines tops the ranks with women representing 7.4% of the carrier’s pilots. At the very bottom of the list is Norwegian Air, with women representing just a scant 1% of its pilots.

Earlier this April, The Telegraph exposed RyanAir as the airline with the most discrepancy in its pay between men and women, with the average male employee averaging a whopping 72% per hour more than their female counterparts. Yet the Irish carrier is hardly alone: Most of the other airlines evaluated by The Telegraph pay men heftier salaries, with the median industry gap sitting at 67%. In contrast, the overall United Kingdom wage gap average sat at just under 10%.

Source: the Telegraph
Source: the Telegraph

So why do airlines experience such discrepancy in pay across genders? The ratio of female to male pilots has a lot to do with it. “Like all airlines, our gender pay in the UK is materially affected by the relatively low numbers of female pilots in the aviation industry,” a Ryanair spokesperson told The Telegraph. “It is a feature of the aviation industry that more males than females choose to enter the pilot profession.”

Commercial airlines have begun to recognize importance of bolstering the rosters of women pilots on their payroll – even if only from a public relations standpoint.

British Airways stated that the airline “has been recruiting female pilots for more than 30 years, and the percentage of female flight crew at the airline is 6%, double the national average of around 3-4%. The airline recognises that there is a gender imbalance within its pilot community, and is working to address this in part through greater visibility of its female pilots to inspire the next generation.”

And in 2015, the same year women with Shults’s aspirations were allowed to fly combat missions across all branches of the US military, UK carrier easyJet launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative – an ambitious bid to double the airline’s number of new-hire female pilots from 6% to 12%. The initiative was a success, with the airline hiring 33 female pilots and attaining the 12% goal by the end of its first year. Since then, easyJet has now set a more ambitious target of recruiting women for at least 20% of its new-hire demographic by 2020.

Addressing the pay gap differential, easyJet told The Telegraph, “The overall gender pay gap figure at easyJet is over 50%, but this gives a false impression. This is driven not by unequal pay for women at easyJet, but by the massive gender imbalance in our and aviation’s pilot community. Like all airlines, pilots make up a large proportion of easyJet’s employees, they are paid more highly than our other communities and, most materially, 94% of them are male.”

Change comes from the top down: easyJet’s new CEO, Johan Lundgren, took a 5% pay cut in January 2018 in order to match the salary of his female predecessor, Carolyn McCall.

Commercial carriers are adapting their workforces to recognize and recruit female pilots, and looking for new ways to identify qualified candidates, including cultivating K-12 students to participate in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiatives that will give them the background necessary for pilot training. Southwest Airlines, for example, offered 11 scholarships for women pursuing careers in aviation at an event hosted by Women in Aviation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the encouragement and advancement of women in all aviation career fields and interests. The airline has even been known for looking even further into the future: Blair Smith, 6, has been passionate about a career as a pilot – specifically for Southwest – for “half her life,” according to her father.

“We’re focusing our efforts towards encouraging women to become pilots at an early age by visiting schools and through programs like Women in Aviation,” said Sunny Rodriguez, a spokesperson from American Airlines’ corporate communications department.

At the end of the day, Tammie Jo Shults is an American hero – period, with no disclaimers for her gender or military training. 

“I commend the [Flight 1380] crew for their professionalism and how well they worked together,” said Peggy Cannon, a flight attendant for Republic Airlines. “That’s what it’s all about: team effort by both pilots. Female pilots have the same training and capabilities, and should be respected the same as males. I am not at all surprised how well she handled herself. If [Shults] can fly a fighter plane, she can do anything.”

Featured photo by U.S. Navy/PH2 Thomas P. Milne/Getty Images.

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