Aviation industry pledges improvements in gender equality and carbon reduction

Iata embarks on a campaign to address the issue of shortage of women in top positions at global airlines


Salma al Baloushi, Etihad’s first woman pilot, talks to young female Etihad employees.

Etihad Aviation Group celebrated Emirati Women’s Day 2017 by organizing a panel under the title: “Emirati Women Partners In Giving – Between the Past and Present”, which featured several successful female Emirati Etihad staff who work across the spectrum of our operations, including engineering, legal, flight and airport operations.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

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The main trade association of global airlines ended 2019 with pledges to address two of the biggest issues facing the industry: the glaring shortage of women in leading positions and the growing "flight-shaming" movement.

The International Air Travel Association (Iata), which has around 290 member airlines, acknowledged it needs to communicate better with the general public on commitments it made years ago to reduce carbon emissions amid escalating concerns about global warming. The trade body also started a campaign to address the gender imbalance in civil aviation by increasing the number of women in senior leadership roles.

"There’s massive appetite to do this," Jane Hoskisson, Iata's director of learning and development, told reporters in Geneva in December. "We want to make sure we do [a] due diligence process with people as well. We can’t have people just say ‘I’m gonna sign up’ and then when you actually get to the detail, you realise targets are not going to be aligned or they’re not going to embrace the programme."

The male-dominated aviation industry has come under fire for female under-representation in top ranks. Only 3 per cent of global airlines have a female chief executive, while only 5.14 per cent of pilots are women. Iata's 32-member board of governors itself is a telling snapshot: the sole female boss of Air Europa, María José Hidalgo Gutiérrez, stands out from an otherwise all-male list of airline chiefs.

Ms Hoskisson said increasing the representation of women on Iata's board of governance will be "challenging" because of the limited number of female chief executives.

Following growing criticism of the aviation industry's boy's club, Iata introduced the '25by2025' campaign on September 26.

Participating airlines will voluntarily commit to increasing the number of women in senior positions by either 25 per cent against currently reported metrics or to a minimum representation of 25 per cent within the next five years.

Carriers who sign up to the programme will also aim to increase the number of women in under-represented jobs such as pilots or technical roles.

Iata will issue an annual report on the key diversity metrics at its annual general meeting, with the next gathering slated for June 2020 in Amsterdam, to boost accountability and share best practices.

Collectively, 59 carriers have so far committed to the '25by2025' campaign. The operators represent about 30 per cent of total passenger traffic and are a mix of low-cost and full-service airlines.

Middle East and African airlines including Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways, Bahrain's Gulf Air, Royal Jordanian, Air Botswana and Luanda-based TAAG have signed up to the programme.

Attracting and retaining more women in aerospace companies may help ease looming shortages of pilots, mechanics and top managers in the traditionally male-dominated sector.

Boeing projects that 804,000 new civil aviation pilots, 769,000 new maintenance technicians, and 914,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the world's fleet of aircraft over the next 20 years.

Beyond the obvious desire for social justice, gender balance in companies has economic advantages.

A 2017 sustainable investing study from Swiss bank UBS found that companies in the FTSE Developed World Index where women made up at least 20 per cent of the board and senior management had higher returns than their less gender-diverse peers.

Iata's campaign will also collect data on the increase of women in senior positions and under-represented jobs.

"I would really hope that in 2020 we’d start to see many more airlines joining,"  Ms Hoskisson said. "We’re at 30 per cent representation, I’d love to see that we can go higher than that."

The industry is also facing an escalating chorus of protests against the environmental impact of flying.

Iata chief Alexandre de Juniac said the Geneva-based organisation must better explain to the general public the commitments it made years ago to reduce its carbon footprint and to convince governments to develop biofuels as sustainable aviation fuel.

"We need to support this with effective communication so everyone is aware of what we’re doing," he said. "Perhaps we’ve been too shy, communicating in a circle of aviation, neglecting to talk outside to policymakers and influencers."

The good news is that the industry has a "good story" to tell, he said.

Iata has committed to cut emissions to half of the level in 2005 by 2050 and pledged carbon-neutral growth starting from 2020. Commercial flying accounts for about two per cent of global carbon emissions.

"The enemy is not flying, the enemy is carbon," he said.

The anti-flying movement was born in Sweden where activists such as teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg are leading the way and turning travellers off planes.