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ATW Editor's Blog

The airline industry’s glass ceiling


Today is International Women’s Day. I’m not typically one to laud achievements purely based on the gender of those who achieved, but a vexing question remains: why are there still so few women running airlines?

Women are much further ahead today when it comes to piloting aircraft. While still not typical, it’s no longer that unusual to hear a woman’s voice welcoming you from the cockpit (even better, you no longer see worried looks across passenger faces when the captain’s voice is female). Ethiopian Airlines today operated its inaugural flight to Buenas Aires with a Boeing 787 and an all-woman crew to mark International Women's Day.

There’s also a very nice site here, created by Netflights.com, called Women with Altitude and which celebrates pioneering women pilots. Astonishingly, it wasn’t until 1973 that a woman became the world’s first commercial airline pilot. Emily Howell Warner was hired by Frontier Airlines and in 1976 also became the first woman to captain an airliner. She would go on to fly more than 21,000 hours and later become a flight school manager, instructor and examiner. Her uniform is displayed in the US Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

But the boardrooms of airlines in the US and worldwide are still woefully lacking in women, especially at the top. At the IATA AGM in June, where the CEOs of the world’s airlines gather, it will be a sea of grey and navy suits and ties. You see more women represented in the world’s militaries than in the C-suites of our airlines.

There is no rationale for that. Running an airline does not require any physical traits that make men more suitable. While in earlier years there were often airline CEOs that ascended from a pilot career—an historically male pipeline—that’s no longer true. Today’s airline CEOs typically hold Masters degrees in economics and business-related fields, where women are as capable. Arguably, in a customer service industry, women might bring better intuition on what’s a better sell (certainly to half the world’s population). Potentially, this industry might have been managed a little less crazily, from bust to boom to bust again, than it was until very recently.

Yet the airline CEO woman remains as rare in 2018 as an empty middle seat. Christina Foerster is about to take the helm at Brussels Airline, but Carolyn McCall has left easyJet. There’s Ngyuyen Thi Phuong Thao at VietJet. But where are the women who are going to run American, Delta, United, British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay …?

Women have and do run countries. They can run airlines.  

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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