Women in Aviation 2014: Hiring, Team Building and The Future were Key at 25th Anniversary Conference

 - April 5, 2014, 1:50 AM

Concurrent with Women’s History month, Women in Aviation International, a non-profit member organization that promotes diversity and women’s integration into aviation and aerospace, held its largest conference ever at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

At 4,500 “attendance was up 35 percent over last year,” WAI president Dr. Peggy Chabrian told AIN. Women and men from 18 countries walked the exhibit hall, which offered networking with 133 companies spanning airlines, corporate flight departments, government and UN flight departments, universities, flight and technician academies and commercial aviation and space initiatives. Eighty-six WAI members received nearly $500,000 in scholarships during the three-day conference, but what set the show buzz was the more than 1,000 men and women alike who lined up, some waiting from 3 a.m. with coolers and lawn chairs, for their chance at a “fast-pass” slot time for a job interview with six different U.S. airlines.

“It was better this year,” said ExpressJet Capt. Erin Recke, a 12-time attendee who waited in line last year for five hours for a chance to speak with HR personnel. “This year the fast-pass gave me a slot time of 1:30 p.m. When I went to the Alaska Airlines booth I waited barely five minutes for my chance to interview,” she told AIN.

“We gave out 250 fast-passes in a half-hour on the first day,” said JetBlue Capt. Bonnie Simi, vice president of talent, responsible for hiring pilots, engineers and technicians for the company. “JetBlue expects to hire 300 to 400 pilots a year going forward,” Simi told AIN. “We’ve known we’d need to do this for a while,” she said, explaining that the company had forged relationships with five universities some eight years ago, pre-interviewing job candidates. “Pilots in the program are funneled to Cape Air or ExpressJet and, when they have 3,500 hours, to JetBlue.” According to Simi, the program has a 100-percent success rate, as of this year. At the conference JetBlue sponsored 26 high school and college students. Also interviewing were Southwest, United, American/US Airways and Alaska Airlines, as well as cargo carriers FedEx, UPS, Atlas and several regionals and corporate flight departments. Not all used the fast-pass process.

Women in Aviation: Today and Tomorrow

Conference speaker highlights were NTSB chair Deborah Hersman, addressing the importance of women in aviation safety today; USAF Col (Ret.) Eileen Collins, a WAI pioneer, with remembrances of her NASA career as a shuttle commander; Joy Bryant, southeast chief engineer with Boeing’s Space Exploration Division, who remembered being the first female engineer there; and Nagin Cox, an engineer with Jet Propulsion Labs who spoke about both the past and the future of Mars exploration.

“What is wonderful about this conference is that it is one of few places where women from two different worlds–aviation and space–can cross paths and cross-pollenate,” Cox told AIN. In the room for Cox’s Mars Rover presentation were the future of Women in Aviation: more than 250 girls who came to participate in WAI’s Daughter Day outreach. The girls, ages 10 to 17, read charts, built airports and flew a phalanx of PC flight simulators and tablets under the instruction of volunteer CFIs. A college fair and career panel rounded out the experience for the older girls.

That Saturday night WAI inducted four more women into its International Pioneer Hall of Fame: Dr. Nancy Currie, NASA astronaut; Beryl Markham, author and record setter; Sheila Scott, a record-holding British pilot; and Sally Ride, first NASA woman astronaut in space and founder of Sally Ride Science for girls.

The 26th Annual International Women in Aviation Conference will be held at the Loew’s Anatole in Dallas from March 5-7 next year.