Thu, Nov 08, 2018 - Page 5 News List

PRC female pilots strain to hold up half the sky


Captain Han Siyuan poses next to a Spring Airlines Airbus A320 after landing at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, China, on Oct. 18.

Photo: Reuters

When Han Siyuan (韓思圓) first decided to apply for a job as a pilot cadet in 2008, she was up against 400 female classmates in China on tests measuring everything from their command of English to the length of their legs.

Eventually, she became the only woman from her university that Shanghai-based Spring Airlines picked for training that year.

She is now a captain for the Chinese budget carrier, but it has not become much easier for the women who have come after her.

Han is one of just 713 women in China who, at the end of last year, held a license to fly civilian aircraft, compared with 55,052 men.

Of Spring Airlines’ 800 pilots, only six are women.

“I’ve gotten used to living in a man’s world,” Han said.

China’s proportion of female pilots — at 1.3 percent — is one of the world’s lowest, which analysts and pilots attribute to social perceptions and male-centric hiring practices by Chinese airlines, but Chinese airlines are struggling with an acute pilot shortage amid surging travel demand and female pilots are drawing attention to the gender imbalance.

Chinese carriers need 128,000 new pilots over the next two decades, according to forecasts by plane maker Boeing Co, and the shortfall has so far prompted airlines to aggressively hire foreign captains and Chinese regulators to relax physical entry requirements for cadets.

“The mission is to start cutting down the thorns that cover this road, to make it easier for those who come after us,” said Chen Jingxian (陳靜嫻), a Shanghai-based lawyer who learned to fly in the US and is among those urging change.

Such issues are not confined to China; the proportion of female pilots in South Korea and Japan, where such jobs do not conform to widespread gender stereotypes, is also less than 3 percent.

However, it is a sharp contrast to the situation in India, which, like China, has a fast-growing aviation market, but thanks to aggressive recruiting and support such as day care, India has the world’s highest proportion of female commercial pilots, at 12 percent.

China’s airlines only hire cadets directly from universities or the military. They often limit recruitment drives to male applicants and very rarely take in female cohorts.

Li Haipeng (李海鵬), deputy director of the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China’s General Aviation Department, said many airlines were also dissuaded to hire women by generous maternity leave policies.

That has been further aggravated by Beijing’s move in 2015 to change the one-child policy, he added.

“Male pilots do not have the issue of not being able to fly for two years after giving birth and after the introduction of the second-child policy, airlines are not willing to recruit and train a pilot only to have her not being able to fly for about five years,” Li said.

The strongest calls for change are coming mostly from Chinese female pilots, thanks to a slew of returnees who learned how to fly while living abroad in nations such as the US.

In March, the China Airline Pilots Association established a female branch at an event attended by pilots from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and local airlines, according to media reports.

Chen, who also serves as a vice president of the association’s women’s branch, said she and others have been trying to spread the word by speaking about the issue at air shows in China.

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