Is there room for women pilots in the Middle East?

Story highlights

  • 450,000 new pilots will need to be trained by 2020
  • With so many spots up for grabs, some think the time is ripe for women to enter the cockpit
  • In the Middle East, there is about one female cadet for every 20 male
The Gulf's three major airlines have spent the week topping up their fleets with record-breaking plane orders. In doing so, they begged the question: who's going to fly all those new planes?
"We estimate that we'll need around 6,000 pilots by 2020, depending on new delivery timings and old aircraft retirement," says Nabil Al Boom, a captain and deputy national cadet pilot manager for Emirates Airlines.
In fitting with its recent order and general expansion plan, the airline plans to build a suitably large, dedicated flight training academy in the empty desert near the new Al Maktoum airport.
Al Boom says he expects it to take 400 cadets each year on a three-and-a-half-year program that is aimed at turning local Emiratis into some of the best pilots in the world.
"It is very rewarding to see someone who you've almost taken off the street in their dish-dash years later with their stripes on their shoulders," he says.
Emirates isn't the only airline on the lookout. The Professional Aviation Board of Certification estimates that 450,000 new pilots will need to be trained by 2020, with 184,000 in the Asia Pacific region alone.
With so many positions up for grabs, some believe the time is ripe for women to enter the cockpit. Though the region can sometimes take a traditionalist stance on women in the workplace, some female pilots have already started paving the way.
"When I told my parents I wanted to be a pilot, oh my, that was a complete 'no-no'," says 26-year-old Alia Twal, a first officer for Royal Jordanian Airlines.
It took a year for Twal to convince her father. Since then, she hasn't looked back. At the age of 21, she became a flight instructor, and now holds the position of governor of the Arabian chapter of The Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots, which, alas, only has 36 members.
Not surprisingly, women continue to be underrepresented in the industry, not just in the Middle East, but globally. Women only account for 5% of members of the Air Line Pilots Association -- the trade organization that represents pilots at U.S. and Canadian carriers. According to Twal, there are only 20 female pilots in all of Jordan (paltry, given the country's population boasts 6.3 million).
While Twal says attitudes in Jordan are changing for the better, she admits her gender can prove a barrier, especially when she's charged with training less experienced pilots who are both older, and male.
"They would not be happy, but then you have to find a way to give your message, make a joke for example, so they look at you as a human and not as a woman," she says.
Kristina Tervo is also helping women in the region to get their wings. As an instructor for Air Arabia, she estimates there is on average one female for every 20 cadets. She's hoping that will change one day. As vice president of the Middle East chapter of Women in Aviation, she's seen a great deal of potential during school visits and at talks.
With the Middle East carriers expanding, the time is ripe for women to enter the cockpit
"We're keen to get more women into the industry, and what we're seeing is very encouraging," she says.
"Ultimately it shouldn't matter who is flying the plane."
Twal agrees: "The plane does not know who is flying her. We are all equal. [The Ninety-Nines] are trying to give women a chance to create a change and have a voice; I believe every woman is a hero, whatever she does."