Roundtable Discussion on Pilot Diversity

by L3Harris Commercial Aviation on 07/10/2019

In July, as part of the events to mark the official opening of the London Training Center, L3Harris hosted a roundtable discussion on how the industry can improve the diversity of commercial airline pilots. L3Harris invited spokespeople and experts with different perspectives and experiences to provide a broad range of insights and ideas on the important topic.

Panel members

  • Chair: Robin Glover-Faure, President L3Harris Commercial Training Solutions
  • David Morgan, Head of Operations (Interim) , easyJet
  • Jade Harford, Head of Aviation Skills and Gender Workforce, Department of Transport
  • Hannah Kirkham, First Officer Virgin Atlantic
  • Jo Hjalmas, Director of UK Airline Academy, L3Harris


Robin Glover-Faure, President L3Harris Commercial Training Solutions:

We know there is tremendous growth in air travel – about 5-6 per cent a year. We know that we need lots of pilots – around 30,000 pilots per year for the next five years if our airlines are going to be able to continue the growth. And we know that growth exists, because we can see those aircrafts being ordered from manufacturers.

So, when we talk about diversity in pilot training, it isn’t just because we believe it’s the right thing to do – which it is by the way – it’s because it is essential if we are going to maintain the talent levels and reach the numbers that we need to operate the aircraft of the future. We have to look beyond the current group and look to broader groups, a more diversified group of all backgrounds. We need to look where people have obstacles of finance, awareness or, dare I say it, discrimination. It’s still a fact that just 6 per cent of the pilot work force globally are women. As an industry we have got to address this.

Jo Hjalmas, Director of UK Airline Academy, L3Harris:

It’s a great pleasure to be invited to talk about this subject and when I did my pilot training, over a decade ago, I was one of a small minority of women who were training at that particular organisation. And it’s safe to say, that that male dominance in the career still exists today. It’s been a decade on and the industry is not much further forward than when I did my training.

In my organisation now, we’re striving to create a more balanced gender environment which welcomes women into this career. This include recently launching the new L3Harris Pilot Pathways scheme which aims to lower barriers such as awareness and financial constraints for aspiring pilots from all backgrounds. Conversations like this help us make great strides in improving and readdressing the gender balance. And so, for me, the key challenge is creating that environment for women and making sure people are aware that they can come into the career and readdressing the important balance.

Hannah Kirkham, First Officer Virgin Atlantic:

I was very fortunate to be part of the Virgin Atlantic cadet scheme. Firstly, I absolutely love my job, so it really is a job for women. Historically, I think people saw it as a man’s job which required physical strength and if you look at what’s really needed to be a pilot – good communication skills, leadership skills, multi-tasking – that kind of skillset really does suit women just as much as it does suit men. I think it’s a change in perceptions. And for me, perceptions can be pulled at such a young age. One of the challenges I see is tapping into that younger generation and trying to allow young girls and boys to see it as a normal job for everyone.

Jade Harford, Head of Aviation Skills and Gender Workforce, Department of Transport:

I think, overall, aviation is a thriving and competitive industry and from the government’s point of view, we definitely recognise the importance of the aviation industry and what it brings to the UK economy and what it also brings globally. We are keen to ensure that we are supporting the industry in its endeavours to grow sustainably.

The disparity between men and women pilots is not a new thing – we have known about this for years. I have looked at a lot of data spanning back about 5/10 years and it has always been the same. So, for me, part and parcel of this is really getting to know what it is that is preventing women from joining this sector. Is it recruitment? Is it perceptions around aviation? Is it work/life balance? There are so many things that it could potentially be, so we are really trying to home in on what that issue is.

We need to be attracting young women which I think is starting to be realised. We need to make sure we’ve got outreach programs - it’s about education and tackling those misconceptions that we have and there are things that trail off from that in terms of the cost of pilot training and the barriers that come with that. And then it’s about your retention package ensuring the industry is doing everything we can to keep our professionals.

David Morgan, Head of Operations, easyJet:

This is a subject we are passionate about at easyJet. Another interesting fact for you is that until recently you could fit all the female captains around the world in one Airbus A380. So, clearly as an industry there is an issue here. If we are not careful, we will simply run out of a selection pool. So, rather selfishly, we need to increase the number of female pilots so that we have a greater choice.

There is no difference in the skillset required between men and women. At easyJet back in 2015 we launched the Amy Johnson initiative, in recognition of the pilot who flew from the UK to Australia in the 1930s. The whole idea of that program was to show that aviation could be a career for more women. We put a lot of initiatives together with that, such as a lot of school visits and mentoring increase the intake into easyJet. In 2015 only 6 per cent of our new entrant pilots were women. We made bold targets by saying by 2020, it’s going to be 20 per cent. Last year we achieved 15 per cent, this year that will increase so we are on track to be on target. That has required a lot of effort but it is something we are passionate about.

Why does the industry have this huge imbalance? Gender stereotypes are still present in schools and even in homes, sadly. From our own research, we know that because many young people are still thinking that there are jobs for boys and jobs for girls, so we need to breakdown those stereotypes right at the early days so we can then move on and recognise that a pilot is a job for everyone.


What are airlines doing right to improve numbers and is there a model that others could follow?

David Morgan: One of the key things for us is trying to breakdown those stereotypes and we’ve done that through active participation – we’ve undertaken over 200 visits to schools and universities. A number of our female pilots are role models and they get out there making themselves known and talk to young women from all over the place. We’ve also done some advertising – such as the Catch Up If You Can recruitment campaign last summer. We’ve recently done a documentary with ITV, which importantly shows a good balance of women and men in the flight deck.

It’s about breaking down those stereotypes but we’ve very much had to align with our training partners in order to do this because unless we get the intake coming in, then we can’t achieve those sort of numbers because. we won’t be filling quotas for quotas sake. All candidates have to meet exactly the same standards through the rigorous selection and training process. So, in order to be able to do that, we need the volume coming in.


As well as gender diversity, there is also the difficulty of getting people from low economic backgrounds pursuing a career as a pilot. What do you think the industry can do to address this?

Hannah Kirkham: Well I’ve been at a lot of talks for International Women’s Day where I meet young girls who have the education and have the qualifications but don’t necessarily have the financial backing to get through piloting, because as we all know it is expensive. I didn’t actually know that I wanted to be a pilot so I went to study biology and veterinary until I was 25 and at that point obviously I had student loans. So, cadet schemes, and the Virgin scheme that I was a part of, was one path that I could actually do. If that hadn’t had been there, I wouldn’t financially have been able to afford to do it, so from my perspective cadet schemes are imperative. They can get no-hour or low-hour cadets into aviation that way which helps combat the financial situation especially because it is shared sponsorship or part sponsorship.

Jade Harford: The government currently has its Aviation 2020 Strategy. We launched those consultations in December and consultations just closed in June. Part of the consultation was around the issue of diversity and we recognise there is a huge challenge around the cost of pilot training. I think there is something around making sure that there are more supported routes into the sector. The Institute for Apprenticeships has been working with the industry to create apprenticeship standards and cadet schemes. But obviously we do recognise that there is more to be done, as there are very few careers where it costs that much to train for.

We are having very open conversations with the industry about some of the suggestions they have put to government, to stress test those and see how they could work in practice. I am working with the industry looking specifically at bonding initiatives and sponsorships. We have also agreed to consider the VAT as part of the Aviation Strategy Green Paper. So we are considering a lot of the options that industry has put to us.


Are you still seeing the overall desirability to be a pilot – are you seeing demand going up or down?

Hannah Kirkham: Volume wise I feel like the demand is there. I’m in the aviation industry now, surrounded by pilots. As far as the volume of people applying, I don’t think it is dropping, I just think the number of pilots needed does not correlate with the volume of applications that the industry demands. Thinking specifically about female pilots, I think more information should be available about what it is actually like being a female pilot in terms of rostering, flexibility, part time work, maternity leave. It’s very hard to get hold of that information about what is really involved in being a pilot. When I first considered the career, I thought ‘am I going to be away from home a lot?’ long-haul or short-haul - I’m quite a home bird so will I have that time at home? Can I be at home and have a long-time career? I think that volume of female applicants will increase if that information is more freely available about really what is flying about.

David Morgan: About a year ago, we did a survey of a couple of thousand families and what was interesting was that 52 per cent of children would consider a career in STEM but only around a quarter would consider a career as a pilot - so something is happening at a very early age which is putting them off being a pilot. Even if we look at stereotyping – another survey shows that 51 per cent of children think that there are jobs for boys and jobs for girls. And if you ask the parents the same question, the figure jumps to 66 per cent. So, there is not a huge improvement in a generation. This goes back to role models getting out there and demystifying the whole pilot stereotype. Having been a professional pilot myself for 35 years, I can categorically tell you there is no difference at all flying with a man or woman.

Do you think there could be a chance that we could start keeping pilots who are experienced on the line longer? Are the airlines putting any pressure on this?

David Morgan: We would always comply with the regulator’s position on that on that. We are completely controlled by the regulator on that.

We are putting a lot of energy into programs offering flexible working patterns, including part time rosters. Some people believe that the nature of the work could lead to pilots being away from home which could be putting off some considering the career. While at easyJet this isn’t the case, we still think it is important to offer flexible working and we’ve found it is hugely productive.


What are the chances that the VAT will be removed? Do you think that it will take planes being grounded and costing airlines to force them to really address the pilot shortage?

Jade Harford: Discussions about VAT have been going on for many years. One of the positive things to say is this is the first time in quite a while that the government has said that if the industry want to look at VAT we’ll take that away and look at VAT. I’m working very closely across government with my counterparts in education, in strategy and in treasury themselves so that we can look at all the recommendations the industry have put forward. We are really keen to examine all the options that will incentivise training and stimulate growth in the sector, as I am sure you can appreciate, whatever will fall out of the strategy will be evidence-based. There has been a warm reaction to what the industry has asked us to look at.

Should we develop and encourage a wider base of flight schools supporting modular training?

Jo Hjalmas: I think the industry should allow people to pursue different routes and avenues. Certainly, the modular route of training does allow for more people to become a pilot because obviously you can train at a slower pace and can train in a flexible way with your personal situation which opens the route to more pilots. From our perspective at L3Harris, at the moment our focus is on integrated training however we offer a number of modular options and have done modular training for airline partners. So yes, I do believe we should have a mix modular and integrated training.