Where are the women in aviation? Only 3% of pilots worldwide are women.

It looks like they’re on the come up thanks to the pilot shortage.

February 8, 2023

LONG BEACH, California – Women have been largely outnumbered in the aviation industry since the Wright Brothers figured out how to get a plane into the sky back in 1903. Over a hundred years later, women only make up about 3% of pilots in the world, but now, the push towards gender equality in the field is moving. And it’s moving fast.

Female pilots are a glaring rarity, and female pilots of color are even more so. Official legislation barred women from the field for years, but women and minorities alike are now being called forth by the aviation industry. 

There’s one big reason for this: the pilot shortage. 

19-year-old flight student, Nataly Gijon-Garcia, says this shortage is happening because the age-old industry is failing to fill the places it has left vacant.

“A lot of commercial pilots are retiring, so they need more people. When the pandemic hit, the airline industry just went down. A lot of airlines went bankrupt,” Gijon-Garcia explained. “But people are starting to fly again, and there aren’t proficient pilots.”

By international law, commercial pilots are required to retire at 65, and during the pandemic, severance packages were given to pilots close to retiring since there were, at the time, too many. Now that people are flying again, those empty spaces have dug the shortage deeper causing thousands of flight cancellations, delays and rising prices all over the nation. Experts believe this shortage is only going to get worse, but the fix lies at flight schools.

Candidates who will be able to revive the industry are flight students. Recently, new programs were created by the industry’s biggest powerhouses to help train women and minorities in aviation to diversify the industry as well as to help fix the pilot shortage. 

“Airlines are offering cadet programs where you give normal school tuition–like 50K–to get trained by the airlines and then you’re guaranteed a job after,” Gijon-Garcia explained.

“At American Airlines, Delta, United… They’re looking to hire at least fifty percent of their workforce to be women or minority groups,” said Amanda Villapudua, a student pilot. “United just opened up a school in Arizona. I think it’s called United Aviate, and it’s a school that will get you from zero to 250 hours. And then from there, you can work at the school, you can work operations for the airlines and then get an interview with United.”

Villapudua has been studying to become a pilot herself for seven years now and has been a flight attendant for just as long. She recently wrapped up her time as an attendant and pivoted her focus to taking the wheel. Because of her flight attendant background, she’s witnessed the gender inequality in piloting firsthand. 

“I can tell you right now, I’ve never seen a Black female pilot. I’ve seen a couple Asian pilots, and I don’t think I’ve seen any Latinos/Latinas at all as far as pilots go,” Villapudua said. “I’ve worked for seven years now as a flight attendant. I can remember every female pilot I’ve flown with, and that’s just how few I’ve seen.”

Some of the problem comes from history, but limited accessibility and misogynistic societal constructs have also played their parts. 

“Looking at the history of flight attending and piloting, predominantly attending was an all-female job and piloting was all males, and it was completely exclusive until not too long ago,” explained Villapudua. “They didn’t allow females. That was it. It was an all-male job.”

But women have made huge strides since then. Now, there are even programs like the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles to show children as young as 7 the possibilities of piloting. Marc Whistman, who is a part of the EAA, is a private pilot training to apply for commercial airlines. His daughter, Este, already has big dreams of becoming a pilot at the ripe age of 6.

“I took her flying… let her fly,” Whistman said. “I think she started when she was about 4.”

For now, Este is just a passenger, but she’ll be able to test for a student pilot license at 16 years old and spend her time training until then. But, apart from the aging force, it is this expensive training that makes piloting an unattainable and unsustainable future for a lot of people, according to Villapudua.

“It is so expensive to be a pilot,” said Villapudua. “One lesson will run you more than two hundred dollars. The average amount that I spend flying – and I’ll fly for 1.1 or 1.2 – I’ll spend about four hundred dollars.”

According to a 2010 survey of female pilots, the top barrier for women in the field is the lack of money for general training. As single lessons cost hundreds of dollars, the amount of lessons and flight time needed to check off just the first step of becoming a pilot will cost thousands – and there are a lot of steps after that for anyone hoping to apply to pilot commercial airlines. 

On top of the cost, flight school, in itself, is difficult, and for women, the challenge proves tenfold. Despite these challenges though, women like Gijon-Garcia, Villapudua and even Este seem to be on the path to refilling the gaps in aviation. It looks to be that they are the future of the industry as, it seems, the airlines want them to be. 

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