08 MAR 2017: When next you hear that first, "This is your captain speaking, " PA coming from the flight deck and it's a woman doing the speaking, take a quick glance around your fellow passengers and note their reactions.

The, "I've done this all too often and don't need to listen to any announcement" brigade won't even hear it but then there is the other group that will usually assume a wide-eyed, "You gotta be kidding me" expression. On a recent flight I took, the sound of a female pilot's voice drew an audible gasp from a 50-something woman on the other side of the aisle from me. She then turned to her husband and loudly asked, "Did you hear that? I hope she knows what she's doing."

Such surprised reactions are almost certainly precipitated by the simple fact that women pilots are still relatively rare - you're likely to run into a woman captain or first officer on only about one in 22 flights. According to the FAA, in 2016 just 4.4% of all pilots licensed to fly commercially in the US were women. And, for all the advances women have made in other traditionally male-dominated professions, that number has hardly budged since 2007 when women held 3.8% of all commercial pilot licenses.

In 1978 Judy Cameron made front-page news when she became Air Canada's first female pilot - she started out as a co-pilot on a DC-3 and when she retired after 37 years on the job, she was captaining a Boeing 777, the largest aircraft in the Air Canada fleet.

Talking of her early years in the cockpit, Judy, now an Oakville resident, loves to tell the story of how a male passenger once looked into the cockpit and loudly proclaimed, "Huh, a woman pilot eh? Well, at least it keeps them off the roads!" Judy's gracious reaction was, "Maybe I should have been offended, but I thought it was actually quite funny."

A couple of years ago on a Westjet flight from Calgary to Victoria however, one male passenger's reaction to the female pilot was not quite as amusing.

A note from a man identifying himself only as "David" (no, it was not your columnist) was scrawled on a napkin and left for the cleaning crew to find. They in turn passed it along to Captain Carey Smith Steacy, the "fair lady" in the left hand seat.

Media reports at the time said a man, thought to be the note's author, had asked flight attendants about how much experience the woman pilot, saying he was concerned about the flight's safety.

While admitting she was "shocked" by the note Captain Steacy - a mother of two who had worked as a pilot for 17 years - quickly took to Facebook to respond with her own note.

"To @David in seat 12E on my flight #463 today. It was my pleasure flying you safely to your destination. Thank you for the note you discreetly left me on your seat. You made sure to ask the flight attendants before we left if I had enough hours to be the Captain so safety is important to you, too. I have heard many comments from people throughout my 17-year career as a pilot, most of them positive. Your note is, without a doubt, the funniest. It was a joke, right? … I thought, not. You were more than welcome to deplane when you heard I was a 'fair lady.' You have that right. Funny, we all, us humans, have the same rights in this great free country of ours. Now, back to my most important role, being a mother."

WestJet, stood behind its pilot issuing a statement that said, "We are enormously proud of the professionalism, skills and expertise of our pilots, and we were disappointed to see the note."

So clearly a sense of humor is one prerequisite for women in the cockpit, but why is it a job where, on a global basis, men still outnumber women by 19 to one? One longstanding reason has always been the number of airline pilots that come to the job out of the military. This has always favored men for several reasons, not least that the Air Force has a minimum height for pilots of 5'4". This isn't too much of a problem for men - whose average height in North American is 5'10". For women however, who average exactly 5'4'', it doesn't work quite as well!

But the times they are a'changing and the looming pilot shortage the industry is facing is driving up pay scales at the regional carriers where most pilots get their starts. Chad Kendall, chief instructor at the Jacksonville University School of Aviation in Florida spoke to another problem area saying, "The airlines should look at their family leave options. If a woman wants to breast-feed or pump, it's hard to do when you are flying an airplane all the time."

Hmm. "We anticipate we'll be on the ground in at 1135 local time and I'll be back with an update as soon as I've finished breastfeeding."

Now that would be one PA guaranteed to get everyone's attention! 


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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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