Sunday, March 04, 2018

Sky no bar: Despite struggle, an impressive 12% of Indian pilots are women

Heard about Avani Chaturvedi —the first Indian woman fighter pilot?” is how Air India’s Captain Kshamata Bajpai begins her conversation, reflecting her passion for flying.
The 50-year-old has been flying commercial planes with Air India for two decades and is the first captain to command an aircraft with an all-woman crew on the longest direct flight from Delhi to San Francisco.

Bajpai discovered her passion for flying serendipitously when she enrolled herself into National Cadet Corps Air Wing while in college. It took her some time to convince her parents as commercial flying wasn’t the most obvious profession for women back in the day.

Nivedita Bhasin was the only woman in her batch of 20 at the Flying Club in Bihar in 1981. “I was treated like an outsider. Some took time to get used to the idea of a woman pilot, others took it as a challenge to ensure I don’t achieve what I set out to,” recalls the 52-year-old Allahabad-born and Delhi-based captain of Air India. A year after joining the airline (then Indian Airlines), she didn’t know how to broach the topic of her 4-month pregnancy with her male instructor because ther ..
Bhasin changed that and went on to become the youngest woman pilot in the world to fly a jet aircraft in 1990. Much has changed since Bajpai and Bhasin’s era of struggle. Today, 12% of India’s over 10,000 commercial pilots are women. It’s among the highest percentage in the world and significantly better than the global average of 5.4%.
The US has the maximum number of women with over 3,000 in its large pool of pilots but they still constitute only 5% of the overall count. A fifth of students enrolled to be pilots in India are women against 12% in the US. Gender wage gap for pilots is negligible in India when compared to Glassdoor’s global figure of 16%.
Even inside the cockpit, your gender does not affect your growth prospects because everything is driven by the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), says Captain Anushree Verma. The 32-year-old has been a commercial pilot with SpiceJet since 2010.
Flying since 2010 Delhi-based Verma wanted to become a pilot ever since she was a 4-year-old. She feels it’s not people in the aviation industry but the world outside that still can’t fathom how a woman can command an aircraft

She feels it’s not the people in aviation but the world outside that still can’t fathom how a woman can command an aircraft. “Be it a cab driver or a passenger who spots you at the airport or inside the plane - if you’re a woman in a uniform, they assume you’re a crew member or a co-pilot; you can’t possibly be the Pilot-in-Command (PIC),” she says.
Though some imagine flying an aircraft is a man’s job, plenty reserve special encouragement for the few women in the cockpit. Captain Jaswinder Kaur of Air Asia keeps their notes of appreciation in a small folder inside her bag. “I often announce to the passengers after landing that they were flown by an all-women crew; provided it was a turbulence-free flight,” says the 35-year-old from Punjab’s SAS Nagar district.
If there’s trouble, people are quick to blame the woman pilot or co-pilot. A splendid view of the sky across locations, seasons, time zones, and the sheer passion of flying overrides these minor hiccups, adds Kaur.
Finding a work-life balance still takes a toll. Many quit when they become mothers, says Captain Gayatri Palande of Indigo Airlines, the Kolkata-based 31-yearold who has just returned from her second maternity leave. A robust family support system helps them sustain a pilot’s lifestyle.

“Your kids learn to become independent. You build relationships with the neighbourhood grocer and your domestic help so that the house runs smoothly in your absence,” says Jet Airways’ Captain Priti Kohal. Until recently, the 48-year-old mother of two from Mumbai was a chief pilot trainer and examiner for a Boeing 737. She just moved to the much bigger Boeing 777 as captain.
04/02/18 Shephali Bhatt/Economic Times