*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the women pilots
"If I had a sister, I would never let her become a pilot. How will she manage the late nights and being away from home for a long time?"
On her first day as a First Officer for a leading airline in India, 35-year-old Nikita was ready to face some questions and ignore a few raised eyebrows. But she did not expect the above comment from the nearly 40-year-old captain of the flight.
"I felt my skin crawling," Nikita* tells The Quint, recalling how she remembers the feeling to date – five whole years after she began flying as a commercial pilot.
"A lot of them (male pilots) gossip about us – between flights, in the hotel rooms. I almost feel thankful when my co-pilot is a woman," another commercial pilot, Shabnam* tells The Quint.
According to data shared by the Civil Aviation Ministry in Parliament recently, 15 percent of commercial pilots in India are women. That makes India a leader, with three times more women pilots than the global average – faring even better than the US and the UK. Only 5 percent of pilots across the world are women, as per the non-profit organisation International Society of Women Airline Pilots.
But beyond the glowing data of women pilots in India are the stories and voices of how women pilots in India battle sexism and misogyny everyday and the ways they choose to fight it while emerging on top.
'Too Much Interest in Women's Personal Lives'
Sexism in the airline industry – in India, or otherwise – is not new. For instance, in the 1980s, Air India permitted male flight attendants to continue their service until they hit 58 years of age, but their women counterparts were to retire at 35. However, even as the everyday misogyny faced by flight attendants has been discussed time and again over the years, little is written or spoken about women pilots.
India had its first woman commercial pilot as early as 1959 when Durba Banerjee began her aviation career by flying an Air Survey India aircraft.
Thirty years later, in 1989, Nivedita Bhasin became the youngest commercial airline captain in the world. In multiple interviews since, she has spoken about her early years when crew members would "nudge her into the cockpit" so that passengers are not "uneasy" seeing a woman piloting their aircraft. This is no longer the case, and women pilots in India are far from a novelty. But the misogyny still exists.
Shabnam, who has been a pilot for three years, tells The Quint that most of her male co-pilots want to know her 'marital status.'
"I have flown with many male co-pilots who want to know my entire life history. 'As a Muslim woman, how have I been 'allowed' to become a pilot?' they ask. If I am married, and what does my husband think about my career – they want to know everything. Nine out of 10 times, you are meeting these men for the first time."
She goes on to add, "But when you fly with women, we share such stories and laugh about it. Now, there are a lot more women in the system as compared to 10 years ago."
Nikita, who has worked with two different airlines in her five-year stint, tells The Quint how she always keeps her guard up and conversations professional.
"There are chances that you would not fly with these people again. So there's no reason for women pilots to think about what they will think. If they make a sexist joke or ask a question that is not really needed, question them and take it up with your reporting manager. I tell these to all young women pilots joining today."Nikita
"Things have changed, more women are flying – don't stop them from flying high with your misogyny. That's all we ask for," she adds.
'Rostered on Certain Routes Due to Gender'
But things were more difficult when Nikita joined. She was only rostered on certain routes when she first started out and had a shorter fly time as compared to her male counterparts.
"Sometimes I think about how people like me are able to fly today, because some women pilots before us chose to fight the hard fight. When I joined around 2017, women pilots were barely a rarity. But I still had to prove myself when compared to my male counterparts. I was rostered on shorter routes and given lesser fly time. Two other pilots, who are men, joined with me. But this is not something they had to worry about. I have no qualms about proving to anyone what I am capable of, but why should someone even think that I cannot do what my male counterpart can?"Nikita
Shweta*, who has worked with three different airlines in her 10-year long career, claims that the "older the airline, the more the sexism."
"It starts right with rostering and assigning routes. There used to be this mindset in older airlines that women cannot be on duty for a longer time, because they would have families to return to. But what about the male captains? They have families too, but that is never raised. Such strict hierarchies make it difficult for women to even speak out."
She goes on to say,
"I was never ever considered for late night or early morning flights. Like, say, if there was a 2 am flight, not just me, but no woman pilot would be considered. This is demotivating and insulting. Over the last five years, this is beginning to change. But we have a long way to go."
'Pregnant Women Sometimes Discriminated'
Although the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017 – which increased the right to paid maternity leave for working women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks – has benefitted women pilots, there's a catch.
As a global policy and a regulatory requirement, women pilots are grounded the moment they intimate the airlines about their pregnancy. So, even as they are kept on the payroll and are given paid maternity leave, they do not get paid their full salary during the period. They lose out on the flying allowance which is based on the number of flights a pilot takes.
"We are given the option to work as ground staff or do any backend duty. But we are not paid our full salary during this period; we lose out on a lot of benefits because we are grounded during the period. But there is no conversation about this, or how to make it better for us," Shweta says.
The Quint reached out to all the leading Indian airlines on their maternity benefit policy.
In an emailed statement, IndiGo said, "IndiGo offers flexibility to women pilots and crew to continue working safely (excluding flying duties) during their pregnancy. IndiGo provides an office duty allowance which is separate from the standard salary, and this also enables women pilots to constructively stay engaged with the profession in spite of having to take a break from their flying duties."
Questions sent to other airlines did not elicit any response.
According to a Bloomberg report, Vistara offers pregnant pilots and cabin crew the option of taking up temporary jobs on the ground or administrative roles during their pregnancy, following which, the creche fees are reimbursed.
'Never Been Examined by Lady Captain-Designated'
So, how exactly do women pilots manage?
"We owe a lot to our families – the support we get from them to take care of our children is immense. It allows women like me to fly and pursue my career. Certain airlines also reimburse creche fees; that also helps. Indian women pilots are in a better place, but that doesn't mean we cannot ask for everything to be better, more inclusive, and less sexist," Shabnam tells The Quint.
"It's no secret we have the support of parents and it's a norm to hire staff," Zoya Agarwal, who flew Air India's first nonstop flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru with an all-women crew last year, told Bloomberg.
"Women like me can fly to San Francisco for five days and not think about what’s happening at home. You have that comfort." But this is also one of the reasons there are less older women pilots, they point out.
"I have been flying for many years; over all these years, it is mandatory for us to pass a flying test as an internal requirement every three months. But I have never been tested by a woman captain-designate," Nikita tells The Quint.
But what keeps them going?
"I took my first flight only at the age of 18. But ever since I was a child, I was fascinated with flying. I could not imagine doing anything else. It is tiring, it is a lot of hard work. But I wouldn't be doing anything else."Shweta to The Quint
Meanwhile, Shabnam says, "When I was growing up, for me to dream of becoming a pilot was a pipe dream. But for little girls today, it is a very much attainable dream to have. And it is upon women like me to make it better for them."