New Mothers in the Cockpit: Challenges for Female Pilots

The commercial aviation industry remains one of the toughest and least accommodating for new mothers. Annalyn Kurtz of the New York Times notes that “pilots are exempt from a provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to accommodate new mothers.” Perhaps because only 4 percent of the 159,000 certified commercial airline pilots are women, and only a portion of these are childbearing age, the issues of paid maternity leave and accommodation for breast-feeding are not priorities for union collective bargaining efforts. Many male pilots are also not supportive of fighting for these policy changes on behalf of their female colleagues because they do not see the policies as important. For these reasons, female pilots have begun to join forces to pressure their male colleagues and unions to support demands for paid maternity leave and alternative work assignments so that women can keep their jobs and support their families during pregnancy and while nursing newborns. Female pilots are in a unique situation in that providing accommodation, time, or privacy for breast pumping while on the job is no simple matter. Because female pilots are on the job in the cockpit of an airplane, they cannot easily gain privacy for pumping without leaving the cockpit, usually for about twenty minutes at a time, which can raise safety concerns. While a flight attendant can enter the cockpit while the female pilot is pumping in the bathroom to meet the requirement of having at least two people present at all times in the flight deck, not everyone feels this arrangement is acceptable for safety purposes. For this reason, female pilots are demanding paid maternity leave or temporary ground assignments while pregnant or nursing so that they can continue to support their families. Without paid leave, they must choose between earning a living or breast-feeding their babies. Some airlines also force pregnant pilots to stop flying between eight to fourteen weeks before birth, which means lost wages. While some airlines offer unpaid leave, this does not allow the female pilot to pay her bills. Paid leave and temporary ground assignments would be reasonable accommodations for female pilots. Female flight attendants face many of the same issues. It’s time for the aviation industry to change their antiquated policies and create a more inclusive workplace.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Poli.]]>

The Female Pilots of World War II: Forgotten and Betrayed

When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941 and the United States suddenly found itself at war, male pilots were in short supply. Sarah Byrn Rickman writes that initially, twenty-eight experienced civilian female pilots stepped in to become the first members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) “who flew wingtip to wingtip with their male counterparts and were just as vital in the war effort” as they flew everything from small aircraft to fighter planes. While they did not fly combat missions overseas, these WASPs flew almost every aircraft in the army’s arsenal for transport, training, testing, and other purposes. Rickman notes that “eventually 1,074 more women were trained to fly and relieve male pilots who were sent to combat.” Rickman states that by the end of the war, thirty-eight WASPs had died flying for their country. The military never officially recognized the WASPs’ service during the war and took no responsibility for the transport of their bodies or funeral costs when the WASPs lost their lives while flying. As soon as the war was over, when their champion, Army Air Force Commanding General Henry Arnold, sought to have the WASPs designated as members of the United States military, Congress refused because of complaints from disgruntled male pilots who feared that women would take their jobs. The WASPs were disbanded at the end of 1944 with no recognition. The impact of this shameful decision was that these women did not receive the following:

  • medical care or benefits
  • insurance benefits
  • symbols of recognition for the families of WASPs who died while serving their country
  • burial subsidies
  • flags on their coffins
  • access to burial in the national military cemeteries
The struggle for recognition continues:
  • In 1977, WASPs finally earned military status.
  • In 2002, the Army granted WASPs military funeral honors.
  • In March 2015, the military rescinded the right to military funeral honors, including the right to be buried in our national cemeteries.
Shame on the army and the US Congress for not recognizing the service and sacrifices of these brave women.   The image used in this post is in the public domain and can be found at Pilots_and_B-17_Flying_Fortress.jpg.  ]]>