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Equal opportunities at 38,000 feet

By Dan Rivers, CNN
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Equality at 38,000 feet
  • AirAsia is looking to increase its number of female pilots from 17
  • Part of wider drive by the low-cost carrier to find more pilots for growing airline
  • AirAsia's initiative is uncommon in Malaysia's conservative, patriarchal society

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (CNN) -- A worldwide shortage of airline pilots has given women in Malaysia a chance to break into a profession that is notoriously male dominated.

And it's the world's fastest growing airline that claims to be giving them the opportunities. AirAsia has 17 female pilots -- not that impressive when you realize that they have 700 male counterparts-- but still not a bad record in a country that is deeply conservative.

The International Society of Women Airline Pilots estimates there are about 4,000 female pilots worldwide, out of 80,000 pilots in total -- that's 5 percent, so AirAsia's 2.4 per cent of female pilots might not sound much to boast about.

The International Society of Women Airline Pilots also points out that most of those 4,000 female pilots are in the U.S.

There are no figures available for the number of female pilots across Asia, but in a country where Islam is the main religion and society is very traditional, Air Asia's achievement in Malaysia is suddenly seems more impressive.

For a female to come in and break into this industry is something new for everyone. It's something very exciting for me because they look up to us.
--First Officer Melissa Nathan , AirAsia

First Officer Melissa Nathan has been a pilot since 2007, having trained as an engineer working on flight simulators at the Air Asia Academy, near Kuala Lumpur's International Airport.

"For a female to come in and break into this industry is something new for everyone. Even today people come up or when I have passengers walking past they see it's a female pilot, it's something very exciting for me because they look up to us," Nathan told CNN.

First Officer Zephina Khanam came from an arts background and had very little exposure to the aviation industry. It was when her brother started to take private flying lessons that she became interested, and quickly decided that was the career for her.

"There were many times I wanted to give up but I have actually pushed myself to the limit and I have gained my confidence and that is something for me to be proud of," said Khama.

Captain Fareh Mazputra is Director Flight Operations at AirAsia and says anyone in the company is welcome to apply to become a pilot; skill not gender or race will determine who succeeds.

"It is a family environment in AirAsia and we do give opportunities to our people to be promoted to grow within the company, whatever position they want to be," Mazputra told CNN.

"As you know we have got ladies who are first officers and one of them is a captain on the Airbus 320 which is a first in Malaysia; without AirAsia this may not have happened."

We are constantly looking for more pilots all around the world. The problem is so is everyone.
--Captain Gill, Flight Operations, Air Asia
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Aboard an Airbus A320, one of approximately 200 the company hopes to be operating in the coming years, Captain Rajesh Gill, Flight Operations has no qualms about flying with female co-pilots. In fact, he's concerned the company can't keep up with demand.

"We are down by about 50 captains to fly all ninety airplanes throughout the three AirAsia airlines," said Gill. "We are constantly looking for more pilots all around the world. The problem is so is everyone. It's a very, very competitive market and I think it's only going to get worse."

Back at the AirAsia Academy the six simulators are operated 20 hours a day, from 4am until midnight, such is the pressure to churn out more pilots to keep up with the company's rapidly expanding list of destinations. They are planning on having a further 12 simulators here, each operated by a Canadian company CAE.

AirAsia's growth is staggering. It was bought by entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, who used to work as an accountant with Richard Branson's Virgin Group. The failing part state owned company that he bought for less than a dollar is today an aviation giant, having just marked the milestone of carrying 100 million passengers on 132 routes to 60 destinations.

Like other budget airlines, such as Ryanair, its secret in part lies in its ruthless waste cutting and super-fast turn around times. Most flights are only on the ground for 25 minutes before heading off again.

In an industry that still has a cache of glamour, it surprises many wannabe pilots to learn that at AirAsia the average starting salary for a pilot is a modest $34,000 -- and that's irrespective of whether they are a man or woman.

AirAsia's sales catch-line is "Now everyone can fly" -- a philosophy that applies in the cockpit as well as the cabin.