Tammie Jo Shults is commercial aviationâ€™s latest hero. So why arenâ€™t there more pilots like her?
The Southwest Airlines captain, praised for her cool handling of an April 24 depressurization and emergency landing in Philadelphia after the Boeing 737â€™s engine blew apart mid-flight, is still an anomaly in the airline industry.
While women make up roughly half of cabin crew, among pilots that ratio slides to just 5.2 percent, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Thereâ€™s a larger share of women in the Saudi workforce or Indian boardrooms than in the cockpits of U.S. commercial planes.
Whatâ€™s most remarkable about that statistic is how persistent itâ€™s been. Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Pancho Barnes and Jean Batten first took to the skies almost a century ago. Chief executive officers Carolyn McCall and Jayne Hrdlicka rose to the top of Easyjet and Qantas Airwaysâ€™ Jetstar carrier in, respectively, 2010 and 2012 - but women still make up just 5.8 percent of Easyjetâ€™s pilots and 5 percent at Qantas.
The reasons typically cited for this disparity donâ€™t come close to excusing it.
Now is as good an opportunity as thereâ€™s been in years for change. With air travel booming and 637,000 more pilots needed over the next two decades, airlines already have a massive recruitment task ahead. Adding quotas and funding to encourage more women to join flight schools - as Qantas is doing with a commitment to double intake over the coming decade - should be seen as part and parcel of that process.
This isnâ€™t just about altruism and fairness. The skill of flying a modern commercial plane is in large part a matter of good decision-making under stress. Multiple studies over the years have shown women tend to take fewer risks than men, a quality that we would all like to see in our pilots.
There are sound self-interested reasons for carriers to redress the imbalance in the cockpit.