Women's dream of becoming airline pilots getting less elusive

by Mariko Yasumoto

Kyodo News

More Japanese women are fulfilling their dream in a field long dominated by men and have achieved what was once thought to be a pie in the sky for females — flying a commercial airplane.

“I had no idea why people used to say to me, ‘No you can’t be a pilot because you are a woman,’ ” said Kumiko Yamauchi, 31, who joined Air Nippon, an All Nippon Airways affiliate, in the 2004 business year and became its first female copilot in January 2007.

Nine female copilots fly for the ANA group, which promoted its first in June 2006. Ten more are in training.

Japan Airlines, ANA’s rival, is also undergoing a drastic change in gender structure in its flight operations.

This business year JAL accepted a woman in its training program for the first time and has taken another for next year, although it has already hired several female graduates of the government-linked Civil Aviation College since 1994.

The group now has a combined 12 female copilots and trainees, including two who have children.

Female pilots still account for less than 1 percent of all pilots at the major airlines, but their presence in a once entirely male realm is growing.

The increase in the number of female pilots reflects changes in the nation’s demographics as well as an upsurge in demand for pilots both at home and abroad amid the advent of new carriers and robust economic growth in emerging economies like China and India.

Last year, Skymark Airlines had to cancel scores of flights due to a lack of pilots, while another newcomer, Skynet Asia Airways falsified the medical records of some of its pilots to try to get around the shortage.

Like many other industries in Japan, the ongoing mass retirement of the baby boomer generation has pressured the airlines, boosting the need for new pilots.

“If the size of the nation’s labor force plummets, it will promote gender equality in the labor market in general,” said Machiko Osawa, a professor at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo who specializes in gender and labor economies.

More pilots will also be required after 2010 when Tokyo’s Haneda airport plans to open its fourth runway, which is expected to boost the number of yearly flights 1.4-fold from the current levels.

In a bid to cope with the increasing demand for pilots, several universities, including Hosei University in Tokyo, launched their own pilot training programs this academic year.

Osawa said professions like pilots are well suited to women, who may need to take time off to bear or raise children, because as long as your licenses are up to date you can always go back to work.

“To overcome the prejudice that being a pilot is a man’s job, we need role models and we already have quite a few,” she said.

More female college students are taking an optimistic view toward the prospect of becoming a commercial pilot, according to Masayuki Nomura, a pilot recruitment official at JAL.

“Female students come up to me and say things like ‘Your company hired a female trainee, so I would also like to try,’ ” Nomura said.

More importantly, however, Osawa said the advancement of women in a field long dominated by men “symbolizes a change in women’s attitudes toward work and a change in social perspectives on gender roles, and has resulted from more women going on to higher levels of education.”

Given that per-person pilot training costs could amount to ¥100 million or more, some industry observers say airlines have hesitated to make such a huge investment for women, who might leave the job because of marriage or childbearing.

But Osawa said society no longer thinks women should retire to undertake domestic work.

Just like their sisters in the business world, female commercial pilots have worked hard to break through the glass ceiling.

Madoka Tachikawa, a 31-year-old JAL copilot who flies in the Asia-Pacific region on a Boeing 767, first became a ground hostess after completing her education.

But Tachikawa could not give up her dream of flying — a dream inspired largely by movies like “Top Gun” — and after less than two years quit what was one of the most popular jobs among Japanese women. She then entered the Civil Aviation College, a common way of becoming a pilot in Japan.

She was the only woman among more than 70 students, and no one saw her as a rival at first. But the hardworking Tachikawa soon emerged as a tough competitor and landed a pilot’s job, while one in three of her classmates failed to make the grade.

Going to the aviation college was no option for Air Nippon’s Yamauchi, however. At 157 cm, she was too short to apply. The college requires an applicant to be 163 cm or taller, even though JAL or ANA have no such requirement.

But Yamauchi, who now flies a Boeing 737 to airports across Japan, did not give up. Instead, she obtained her licenses in an unusual way for Japanese — by going to flight schools in the United States.

There is a common belief that people suited to being pilots enjoy mechanical things, but many pilots do not have any science or engineering background, according to people in charge of pilot recruitment.

Neither Tachikawa nor Yamauchi has any such education — Tachikawa has a degree in English literature, while Yamauchi majored in international cultural studies.

A clear-sighted person with great leadership and management skills is real pilot material, the pilot recruitment officials say.