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Is the Aviation Industry Prepared for Motherhood?

Aviation has been mainly for men since the beginning of its history. We saw over the years female pilots such as Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Amy Johnson and Elinor Smith who fought to change the industry's thought. And nowadays we see more and more women pursuing careers as pilots worldwide. But of course, is still very difficult to compromise this job with motherhood and pregnancy needs.

The Civil Aviation Authority allows female pilots to fly for the first 26 weeks of their pregnancy, also for those airlines operating long-haul flights. The female pilots therefore allege that this policy amounts to indirect sex discrimination, pregnancy and maternity discrimination and detriment.

It is a very difficult subject as of course it is a job which could have risks for the mothers and the babies but at the same time the industry needs to support them to its best ability to avoid that discrimination that is still felt. When these pilots are grounded, including the period when they are breastfeeding, they are paid Maternity Ground Pay. It is alleged that this payment is substantially less than they would receive if they were flying, and they seek to challenge that this is also discriminatory.

As it has been proved to be a difficult workplace issue to solve; how to accommodate commercial airline pilots who are balancing new motherhood, unions are assisting women trying to find solutions to this matter to obtain a revised policy that all female pilots who are pregnant or on maternity leave going forward are able to choose whether to fly or not during this period. Some airlines as employers have answered by creating leave policies or lactation rooms. But the flight decks of aeroplanes are not typical workplaces. Pilots are exempt from a provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to accommodate new mothers. At 20,000 feet, the issue touches not only on pilot privacy, but also aircraft safety.

BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association) is calling for airlines to encourage women into the industry by improving maternity pay, as the current level of maternity pay across the aviation industry was an obstacle to women entering the profession. The association has launched its industry-wide "Baby on Board" campaign, to demand an end to statutory maternity pay and the implementation of an improved maternity leave. Its proposal is for women on maternity leave to receive full pay for the first 26 weeks of their maternity leave, and half pay for the remainder of their statutory leave. The level of pay should, it says, be calculated according to the pilot’s average pay over the 12 months before they declared themselves pregnant and removed themselves from flying duties.

BALPA General Secretary said that many of the difficulties associated with an 80-90% reduction in pay is obvious, particularly because most of the times, they are the highest earners within their families. Some are also single parent families. Increasingly, women pilots are also servicing debt from the costs of higher education and flight training, along with saving for the costs of buying a first house. For some it means delaying having children, taking shorter maternity leave or giving up on having a family all together.

This comes just days after British Airways has recently launched a recruitment drive to get more women in the cockpit for its centenary year. It currently employs 300 female pilots but any who become pregnant face an up to 90% pay cut. This obviously has been called into question after it emerged that the flag carrier offers just six weeks’ maternity pay to its staff.

Other similar news has emerged from other female pilots working for Delta, for example where a group of them have banded together through a private Facebook page and have approached their union with formal proposals for paid maternity leave because they say they would like to stay home to breast-feed their babies. Also, at one airline in the US, some female pilots are suing the airline for discrimination, seeking the option of temporary assignments on the ground while pregnant or nursing.

In US normally, women may use paid sick leave and paid disability benefits for pregnancy. Additionally, some airlines allow women to use earned or unused paid vacation during pregnancy. Just a few airlines have a paid maternity benefit, but it is important to note, most paid benefits terminate 6-8 weeks after delivery. Notably, many airlines place pilots into inactive status while on an extended leave of absence, including maternity.

It is a very challenging subject in this industry as ideally, new pilot mums stay home up to a year to breastfeed their new-borns. Unfortunately, many pilots cannot afford to stay home because of the loss of income and cost of continued benefits. They return to work as soon as able.

Many airlines will allow pilots to return to work as soon as they present a valid class-one medical. Training, if required, will be scheduled and then the new pilot mums are back on the line.

Hopefully, with time and support from unions, motherhood will be more affordable and a pleasant thought when a woman thinks to start her career as a pilot.


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