The airline industry may be one of the final frontiers of gender equality — but that could change with training academies hoping to attract more women to fill the global shortage of commercial pilots.
Pathways towards an airline pilot career are opening up, despite some attitudes towards women behind the controls remaining firmly entrenched in the past.
In June, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who sits at the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), was embroiled in a sexism row after claiming a woman would be incapable of doing his 'very challenging' job.
Mr Al Baker later backtracked on his sexist comments to claim almost half of the airline’s workforce were women, a similar figure to Emirates Airline.
At Alpha Aviation Academy in Sharjah International Airport, every class of students has at least one female trainee pilot, with the academy aiming to ramp up numbers.
“The numbers are still very small, maybe less than five per cent per cent of trainees are women,” said John Coubrough, acting general manager at the academy.
“There are many reasons why we have so few female pilots. Historically the job is traditionally seen as male dominated and it’s taking time for that to change.
“In the ground school we have five women in four batches so there is now at least one or two women on every course we're running.”
Out of 130,000 pilots employed globally, just 4,000 women are employed as aviators — or 3 per cent of the workforce.
There is also a huge industry wage discrepancy.
According to a report by Irish airline Ryanair, a 67 per cent pay gap exists between male and female employees, mainly as a result of most of the airline’s pilots being men.
At AAA, an integrated training course will see students go from the classroom to the right hand seat of an A320 jet as an airline first officer/co-pilot in less than two years.
The academy has a partnership with Air Arabia offering graduates a direct route into a career in commercial aviation.
There are currently 22 women from 14 different nationalities out of 190 students training in Sharjah, the 11 per cent figure is more than double the industry representation average.
First officers require 4,500 flying hours to complete their training, but as study programmes at AAA begin at just 17 pilots can progress to become captains at a younger age.
They can earn more than Dh50,000 a month, although salaries are much less during training and in the early career stages. Courses cost Dh590,000 plus VAT.
“What we are doing with Air Arabia is providing a seamless process to get cadets trained and into careers with the airline where they can get their 1500 hours flying time,” said Mr Coubrough, who worked for six years training pilots at Qatar Airways before taking on a similar role in the UAE in 2009.
“Pilots can then work anywhere in the world with that license. Alpha has seen 14 trainees progress to become captains with Air Arabia, the youngest being just 25.”
At AAA's Sharjah training facility, women from 11 countries, including India, Korea, Germany, Canada and Egypt, are training as the next generation of commercial pilots.
Their enrolment is part of Alpha’s push to not only increase diversity in the skies, but also tackle the impending pilot shortage crisis — with 637,000 more commercial pilots needed by 2036.
These international women are determined to overcome gender stereotypes, fulfil their dreams and address industry demand.
The need for more pilots is growing by the day.
The academy runs the 2nd largest Multi-Crew Pilot Licence Programme in the world and the largest in the Middle East with more than 315 graduates and 190 students currently in training.
The MPL is a modern form of pilot training focused on simulator training rather than more traditional methods, and can allow training to be completed in as little as 18 months in some cases.
“For far too long, major airlines have not invested in training officers,” said Mr Coubrough.
“Pilot availability tends to go in peaks and troughs and is often driven by the economy, and fuel prices.
“We are seeing a lack of pilots which requires airlines to invest more in training.”