Most airline pilots are men. Why aren’t there more women in the industry? (2023)

Captain Beth Powell of American Airlines enjoyed all subjects in school that had numbers.

“It was math, it was physics, it was accounting,” Powell said. “I remember the teacher (at the time) being so excited that I loved numbers.”

Her math and physics teacher told her she could “become.” He listed many careers, but the one that made her rush home excited was becoming a pilot.

It didn’t take long before a 15-year-old Powell was helping guard the controls of a Cessna 152 with an instructor, feeling every subtle shift and surge the airplane made. It was the moment she knew she wanted to be a pilot.

Most airline pilots are men. Why aren’t there more women in the industry? (1)

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It’s stories like her own that she shares with other young women to encourage them to pursue aviation.

Women make up less than 20% of the workforce in most aviation occupations, according to the Women in Aviation Advisory Board.

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At the end of 2022, Southwest Airlines had 413 female pilots, 4% of the total pilot workgroup. In 2021, 5% of American’s pilots were women, according to the carrier.

Over the next 20 years worldwide, the industry needs more than 602,000 new civilian pilots, said Rebecca Lutte, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s aviation institute. The industry urgently needs to recruit from underrepresented groups, she told a congressional committee in March.

Young women and girls aren’t exposed enough to aviation opportunities, she said, and their ambitions can be cut short by the cost of pursuing an aviation career or the challenges of balancing work and family.

Young girls need to see it to believe it

When Powell told her mom she wanted to be a pilot, her mother helped her research the field. Her father asked: “Are women allowed to fly?”

The owner of the Wings Jamaica Flight School assured young Powell and her parents there were pilots that were women.

“Seeing another female doing this was amazing,” Powell said. “It told me that this is a space for you.”

Powell thinks a lot about the question her father asked. If she thought to herself that there were no women pilots, she might not be where she is today.

“Many times people don’t see themselves in this career because they don’t see many that look like them,” Powell said. “They’re not able to paint themselves in the story.”

Women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce, according to the American Association of University Women. Women only make up 4.6% of air transport pilot jobs, according to a report from the Women in Aviation board.

Jennifer McIntyre, a first officer at Southwest Airlines, said she knew from a young age she wanted to be an astronaut. That energy and inspiration turned into wanting to be a pilot.

Most airline pilots are men. Why aren’t there more women in the industry? (2)

McIntyre navigated a tough job market, flying for charter jet companies and corporate aviation jobs. She rarely worked with women.

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Southwest has looked at maternity leave and other benefits to make aviation careers easier on mothers, said Christi Paget, managing director of onboarding and engagement for flight operations.

Southwest’s union contract with pilots treat maternity leave as medical leave, meaning it is not paid. But with a new contract under negotiation, there are plans to change that to give mothers six weeks of maternity leave and six more weeks of paid parental bonding, a benefit which will also be offered to birth fathers and adoptive parents.

“The schedule of a pilot can be kind of tricky to understand if you’re not in the day-to-day,” Paget said.

It requires one-on-one conversations with women and others interested in becoming a pilot to explain how the job can work with families as well, she said.

McIntyre will always welcome young girls into the cockpit. She’s an ambassador for Southwest’s Destination 225° pilot training program.

At American, all U.S.-based mainline team members are eligible for post-pregnancy 10 weeks of paid maternity short-term disability plan. American also offers benefits like mother’s rooms with milk storage, enhanced coverage for hands-free breast pump and a doula or midwife support through pregnancy, birth and postpartum period.

Most airline pilots are men. Why aren’t there more women in the industry? (3)

The price tag

At roughly $100,000 for an air transport pilot license, the cost of entering the aviation industry is a common barrier for both men and women, said Allison McKay, CEO of Women in Aviation International.

ATP Flight School estimates it costs $96,995 to become a pilot with no previous experience or $75,995 when starting with a private pilot certificate.

Powell’s parents took out a loan to help her get flight training and private and commercial pilot licenses. But after that loan was spent, she had to find the rest of the money on her own.

Her father looked at young Powell and told her, “Your attitude determines your altitude.”

That’s when Powell started working multiple jobs — tutoring math, working for an insurance company, and even promoting parties — to cover a flight instructor license, which allowed Powell to teach and build the hours to qualify for flying commercially.

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McIntyre used student loans.

“As sad as that is, I think that’s a lot of what holds people back from becoming a pilot is because it is so expensive,” McIntyre said. “The price tag is high and it is a long road to get here.”

Addressing the problem now

Both airlines and educational institutions have been trying to get more women into the pilot training pipeline because of both the low percentage of women in the field and the shortage of pilots across the globe that is hampering travel.

Texas Women’s University announced in December the development of an aviation program. The same goes for D-FW’s two major carriers.

In 2018, American launched its cadet academy, where cadets train with a flight school selected by the carrier and are mentored by an American Airlines pilot during their program.

Becoming a first officer at one of American’s regional carriers, Envoy, PSA, or Piedmont, works on an average three-year timeline with the ability to move to mainline within five to seven years.

The cadet academy includes 12 months of flight training at the carrier’s flight training school partners while building 16 to 20 months of experience as a paid flight instructor with the opportunity to join a wholly-owned cadet program.

Once 1,500 flight hours are reached, cadets can join a regional airline, with a contractual flow agreement with American which guarantees a first officer position.

Prospective pilots can earn more than $165,000 in bonuses if they stick with American through school, start with a regional carrier and then move up to the mainline carrier. That more than covers the cost of schooling.

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Last year, the American Airlines Cadet Academy and American Airlines Credit Union announced a partnership that includes a financing program and loans available in low fixed- and variable-rate options, designed to cover all expenses, including housing and stipend costs.

With Southwest Airlines’ Destination 225° program, the carrier is working to recruit potential pilots from the military, university, cadet programs and among employees. The program encourages people at any point in life to consider being a pilot.

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“It’s a faster path to becoming a first officer at Southwest Airlines,” Paget said. “We do have options because the cost is still a barrier and are working on some opportunities there.”

Southwest also has an agreement with the Southwest Credit Union that if cadets qualify, they can get low-interest loans through the credit union, Paget said.

Retaining women in the industry is another important issue, McKay said.

“I think that this industry needs to do a much better job of addressing family leave policies, family benefit policies, that keep women in the industry,” McKay said.

It’s a problem that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer, but carriers are working toward getting more women in hopes to inspire others, McKay said.

“If you don’t see yourself in the careers, it’s very hard to imagine yourself being able to do it,” McKay said.

Powell is American Airlines’ first Black female pilot manager. She also led American Airlines’ all Black female flight crew on Aug. 8, 2022, in honor of Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license.

Powell’s career has inspired her daughter to become a pilot.

She’s looking forward to the day she can share a seat in the cockpit next to her now 17-year-old daughter.

“We don’t even recognize we’re leading by example, in our own home,” Powell said.

Most airline pilots are men. Why aren’t there more women in the industry? (4)
American Airlines wants to diversify its pilot and executive ranks and is starting early


Why are there not many female pilots? ›

While there certainly are fewer women training to be pilots, women also face gender-unique social pressures, double standards and systemic barriers that deter their entrance into aviation. Women have been interested in aviation since Wilbur and Orville gave up bicycles for airplanes at the turn of the 20th century.

Are most airline pilots male or female? ›

Pilot Male to Female Ratio
Job TitleMaleFemale
Agricultural Aviation Pilot98%2%
Combat Control98%2%
Airline Transport Pilot98%2%
3 more rows
Sep 9, 2022

Do pilots get a lot of women? ›

The numbers vary, depending on who's counting and what their methodology is, but most figures show between around 3 and 7% of commercial pilots are women. That figure has been flat for the past 30 years. Doing the math, men make up between 93 and 97% of commercial airline pilots.

Why do women not want to be pilots? ›

Many say the cost of flight training—expensive for both men and women—is a hurdle to becoming a commercial pilot; indeed, an August 2010 survey of 157 female pilots by Dr. Penny Rafferty Hamilton notes that, “a lack of money for general aviation flight training” was the top barrier for females becoming pilots.

Do airlines have female pilots? ›

Women pilots were also formerly called "aviatrices" (singular "aviatrix"). Women have been flying powered aircraft since 1908; prior to 1970, however, most were restricted to working privately or in support roles in the aviation industry. Aviation also allowed women to "travel alone on unprecedented journeys".

Are there any female airline pilots? ›

Mowat, who is an airline captain, is part of the mere 3.6% of airline captains in the U.S. who are women. Hawaiian Airlines has the highest percentage of female pilots out of all U.S.-based carriers, with 9.5%, compared to an industry average of 8.5%, according to Hawaiian Airlines in April 2023.

What is a female pilot called? ›

Women pilots are called "aviatrices".

Do female pilots get paid less? ›

The study, which analyzed more than half a million Glassdoor salary reports for job titles, found the pay disparity between male and female pilots to be the highest among jobs listed on its site, with male pilots earning, on average, 26.6 percent more than their female counterparts.

Do female pilots get hired? ›

As time passed, more and more women have become professional pilots and joined the the growing number of women in aviation. Since 1907, women have been flying powered aircraft, but most of them were limited to working in private sector jobs before 1970.

Can women fly a plane as well as men? ›

Communication, team skills and other soft skills are a vital part of being a pilot too. Women can do the flying as well as men.

How rare are female pilots? ›

What percentage of FAA-certified pilots are women?
CATEGORYTOTAL (2022)Percentage
Airline Transport166,7384.92%
Pilot Total w/o Student Category476,3466.34%
Flight Instructor Certificates125,0758.04%
14 more rows
Apr 6, 2023

Is it rare for a woman to be a pilot? ›

Identifying the barriers that stop women from flying. Amelia Earhart's pilot's license (dated May 16, 1923), only the 16th issued by the FAA to a female pilot. There are 599,086 pilots in the United States (as of December 2013), but only 6.61 percent—or 39,621—are women. But the numbers are somewhat misleading.

Do female pilots have more accidents? ›

The study found that females employed by major airlines had significantly higher accident rates than their male counterparts overall.

Do female airline pilots wear skirts? ›

Many airlines have a female pilot uniform option for pants, culottes, or a skirt.

Why are pilots attractive to women? ›

Women like the idea of a powerful man. Being a pilot says, 'I'm fearless, daring and intelligent. ' It's the ultimate phallic symbol—a jet liner.” The pilot uniform may also play a role.

Do female pilots fly while on period? ›

Women fly planes while menstruating, so they can certainly sit in coach.

Do flight attendants marry pilots? ›

But truth be told, we're the exception to the rule. While there are many pilot and flight attendant couples, and many flight attendants married or committed to other flight attendants, and many pilots with the same connections with other pilots, several factors have made those connections less likely.

Are female pilots in demand? ›

Most airlines are projecting a pilot shortage over the next decade. More than 800,000 pilots will be needed, with more than 200,000 in the U.S., alone. There are only about 65,000 female pilots in the world, which accounts for 9% of the total. Out of the 13,000 pilots in the U.S., only 900 of them are women like Frye.

How many female pilots work for Virgin? ›

Breaking barriers
AirlineTotal pilotsFemale captains
Virgin Atlantic8427
Air New Zealand9639
19 more rows

Which airline has most female pilots? ›

Air India has around 200 female pilots, making up over 40% of their workforce and 15% of their cockpit crew. IX and I5, both subsidiaries of AI, have a combined total of 97 female pilots.

Can female fly fighter jets? ›

As the wheels of her aircraft lifted from the ground on May 5, 2015, Mau became the first female fighter pilot to fly an F-35.

How many female pilots are there virgin? ›

Breaking barriers
AirlineTotal pilotsFemale pilots
Virgin Atlantic84227
Air New Zealand96345
Delta Air Lines14,686692
19 more rows

Are female pilots in high demand? ›

As we see, there is a demand for females in the aviation sector and a demand for pilots in general. This industry needs more women to pursue their pilot career and take over the controls. Airlines have not been the only ones effected by the pilot shortage.

Which country has highest female pilots? ›

The country with the most female pilots is India - and not by a little. According to Statista, in 2021, 12.14% of pilots in the South Asian country were women.

Which U.S. airline has the most female pilots? ›

In absolute terms, the US Big Three airlines have the highest number of women pilots. United Airlines tops the list with 940, followed by Delta Air Lines with 692 and American with 626. Lufthansa, the leading non-US employer of women pilots, has 375, followed by IndiGo, which has 322.

Who has the highest female pilots? ›

There are some countries where the number of female commercial pilots is higher than others. India takes the top spot, with more than twice the global average of women pilots.
Industry Overview.
Country1) India
Major Airlines12.3
Low-cost Carriers10.9
Regional airlines13.9
Cargo airlines8.5
4 more columns
Mar 8, 2023

Can a male and a female pilot fly together? ›

Yes, the airlines know they have married couples in their cockpits and they're okay with it.

Can female pilots wear skirts? ›

Many airlines have a female pilot uniform option for pants, culottes, or a skirt.


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