It’s obvious to anybody who travels that the vast majority of pilots, military or civilian, commercial or private, are men. However, by the mid-1990s about 3 percent of all cockpit crew members in the United States were women — a total of about 3,500, representing a 30-fold increase since 1960. Because most of these pilots were hired in a relatively short span during the pre-2001 boom years, they tended to fall into those unstable lower portions of airline seniority lists, and were most vulnerable to furlough. To wit, their total dropped sharply, to around 1 percent, following the airline apocalypse triggered by Sept. 11, 2001. Then, as regional carriers began hiring like crazy, it started climbing again. Now, with the industry in the throes of yet another downturn, with several regionals laying off staff, it is once again falling.
While it’s difficult to say exactly how many female pilots there are at the moment, one thing that is certainly known is how many Sikh female pilots there are: one.
Arpinder Kaur, of San Antonio, Texas, a new first officer for American Eagle, the regional subsidiary of American Airlines. As far as anybody knows, she is the only female Sikh airline pilot in North America, and possibly anywhere. Kaur lived in India until age 14, and later spent two years earning her initial FAA licenses and ratings at a flight school in Kansas City, Kan.
In recent years, certain airlines have been especially well known for their recruitment of women — outreach efforts that resulted, in part, from prior lawsuits and/or a reputation for discrimination. Before the previous industry meltdown, United had become home to about 500 women fliers, the highest number at any airline in the world.
As maybe you’d expect, affirmative-action-style hiring at some carriers has incited the same controversies and feelings of resentment in aviation as in other fields: Women are sometimes accepted with lesser qualifications than competing males, a policy that, while not unsafe (all new hires meet minimum requirements and endure the same training), raises the ire of more experienced candidates who’ve struggled to land a job and were passed over.
That being said, on-the-job harassment of female pilots is exceptionally rare. Airline seniority lists, meanwhile, regimented strictly by date of hire, ensure equal pay and promotion for every crew member, male or female.
Kaur says that co-workers have been mostly supportive, if a bit mystified. “They are quite curious. Most know little or nothing about my religion and its practices, so it’s a good opportunity for discussion.”
Kaur’s presence in the cockpit, and the sense of welcome she is apparently receiving from colleagues and the traveling public, are perhaps a sign that not all is still crazy in America.