Women in Aviation

 - November 1, 2006, 7:13 AM

Aviation security, fiscal policy and career-building strategies were among high-priority items on the agenda at the Women in Aviation International (WAI) Conference, held from March 10 to 12 in Dallas. Though the occasion marked the 16th annual such conference devoted to recognizing and motivating women in aviation career fields, the 2,600 men and women who attended the conference celebrated the 10th anniversary of the organization.

To mark the decade milestone, the organization honored two of its members as “Volunteers of the Decade.” WAI convention coordinator Verne Wiese and exhibit hall manager Betty Huck received the award during the Saturday banquet that capped the convention festivities and featured Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the house aviation subcommittee, as keynote speaker.

Addressing Aviation Safety

The general theme woven throughout Mica’s speech was that security–both national and aviation-related–is the federal government’s top responsibility. Emphasizing the importance of aviation to the U.S. economy and way of life, Mica nearly apologized for having created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as it stands today, implying that the bureaucracy has done little to keep aircraft travelers secure.

“Sometimes in government you get a little more than you ask for,” Mica said. “I’m one of the most conservative members of Congress as far as fiscal responsibility goes. [Yet] I helped create the largest bureaucracy in the U.S. since World War II…We’ve seen how it does and doesn’t work, and so now our responsibility is to make sure it protects us and keeps us secure. I think we’re a ways from that…But I must say, in putting the [TSA] together, the way we did it when we did it, we had no choice.”

Mica also discussed fiscal policies relating to aviation, noting that the government has actually profited from the $5 billion 9/11 airline bailout because most airlines are paying back the loans on time and with interest. Mica also defended the recent FAA budget cuts. “It’s not how much money we spend; it’s how we spend it. And we can spend our money much more wisely and have a safe and secure environment.”

Several speakers alluded to the “woman’s touch” while addressing the 95-percent female crowd. None was more frank than Southwest Airlines CEO Colleen Barrett, who has held the corporate secretary title since 1978 and succeeded Herb Kelleher as president in 2001. Noting that male businessmen composed the majority of airline travelers when Southwest started in the mid 1970s, Barrett admitted that the company’s initial marketing plan was essentially to sell sex.

“Although it may seem awful today, we put our females in hot pants, Go Go boots and bright colors, and we honestly just about sold sex,” she said. “We were the only carrier to have a Title 7 lawsuit against us because we didn’t hire men for flight attendant positions. Even when the judge ruled against us from the bench, he was laughing.”

However, Barrett made it clear that Southwest’s female employees were not mere Barbie dolls. “We have pioneered a lot on the behalf of women and with women…We started Southwest Airlines with 198 employees, 52 percent of whom were female. We now have females in every department and in every level of staff and management.” Barrett noted that three members of Southwest’s 12-member board of directors are female.

According to Barrett, the female touch has lent a major hand in Southwest’s success. “We started on day one saying, ‘We may never be the biggest or the most profitable, but we’re going to be the warmest, the most compassionate.’ I’m really proud of that.”

Unlike Barrett, who worked her way up at Southwest, Gretchen Jahn did not have any aircraft manufacturing experience before she was named CEO of Mooney Aircraft last December.

“People ask, ‘What did you do to work your career to prepare for being a CEO of a company like this?’” Jahn said during her Saturday morning general session speech. “The answer is that I didn’t prepare. If you would have told me 20 years ago that I’d be the CEO of an aircraft company today, I’d say, ‘Why would I want to do that?’”

Jahn explained to the audience that she sees two paths to a successful work life: building a career and pursuing capabilities and interests. As a former CEO of two companies in different industries and a private pilot, airplane racer and member of the Ninety-Nines, Jahn has chosen the latter.

“A lot of people have a particular goal they want to strive for. Like the woman who finds that she wants to be a pilot and then works toward that goal…and then there are those of us for whom life isn’t about building a career. In fact, if you’d look at my résumé, you’d say, ‘This woman can’t hold a job.’ Instead, I’ve been building capabilities and pursuing interests.”

Career-building Strategies

Though none of the major speakers was from corporate aviation, Women in Corporate Aviation (WCA) presented a panel of female pilots, dispatchers, mechanics and other personnel during a well attended educational session on Friday afternoon. The panelists addressed questions from the audience that ranged from networking methods to pilot hiring minimums and job security.

“If you know that you want to work for a particular company, contact the company and then continually update your information,” advised FedEx corporate pilot Vikki Wilbert. “Whenever you get a new type rating, a new position or transfer bases, update your résumé.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” added Falcon pilot Ava Sumpter-Shubat. “I’ve known people who have been hired as corporate pilots with 500 hours.”

Cassandra Bosco, president of TailWinds Communications, answered an audience question regarding corporate aviation stability. “Flight departments are particularly stable,” Bosco said. “Very few companies have lost flight departments recently, though there have been mergers. There are more companies flying business aircraft than ever before, and we expect that trend to continue.”

“There are some concerns,” said Challenger pilot Karin Proctor, who indicated that she left a corporate flight department after a merger significantly reduced flight operations. But she does feel that on the whole, corporate aviation is stable. “There are companies like [consulting firm] Leading Edge Solutions that align the flight department with the company’s goals and make the flight department more viable. As aircraft acquisitions get more expensive, we get treated more like justifiable business tools.”

Apparently, a merger can sometimes create corporate aviation opportunities. “When FedEx acquired Kinko’s [copy and printing franchise], Kinko’s didn’t have a flight department,” said Wilbert. “FedEx felt it was important to put a corporate jet in Dallas to support Kinko’s operations, so we now have three pilots and a new Learjet 45 here. Just because someone buys the company, that doesn’t mean [the pilots] will get a pink slip.”

WCA also elected a new slate of officers. Sumpter-Shubat retained her post as WCA president; Proctor moved from secretary to vice president; Carol Foy joined the board as secretary; and Gay Williams was re-elected treasurer.

Sumpter-Shubat also presented the organization’s $1,000 scholarship to Trinity Stanley of Monrovia, Calif. Sponsors awarded 55 scholarships totaling more than $500,000 in cash or training during the three-day conference. United Parcel Service ($25,000), the Chuck Yeager Foundation ($20,000) and American Airlines/American Eagle ($5,000) announced contributions to WAI’s International Fund, bringing the fund’s total to $370,000.

Military Representation

Several employee groups attended the conference en masse. Boeing sent more than 300 employees to the conference, and nearly that many attendees came from the military services. One of those attendees, U.S. Air Force Capt. Kim Black, gave the most stirring speech of the conference. A B-1B bomber pilot with more than 1,500 hours, Black has flown more than 500 combat hours in support of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“During my second deployment, I was a direct part of the justice that was being served,” Black said. “The B-1 has got a big load, and we were dropping quite a few bombs. Over the years, the missions changed, which makes you question your role as a bomber pilot.

“Flying 16-hour missions, we’d arrive and hold for a couple of hours, then get a radio call from ground troops for a show of force. The B-1B has four large and loud engines; if I were on the ground and a B-1 flew over low and fast, it would make me run into a cave, too. So we’d go in make some noise and go home. It wasn’t until the debrief that we’d find out our show of force had saved 20 troops’ lives…

“If you’re in a support role, be proud to support, because you might be doing a lot more good than you think.”