WAI Advocates New Opportunities for Women in the Aviation Industry

WAI Advocates New Opportunities for Women in the Aviation Industry

By Chuck Weirauch

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Blakey was a keynote speaker at the 2004 WAI annual meeting.

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Blakey was a keynote speaker at the 2004 WAI annual meeting.

Although women still only make up less than four percent of the total number of air transport pilots in the United States and Canada, aviation associations, universities with aviation programs and the aviation industry are all moving forward to improve this statistic in the near future. One of the key parties in this effort is Women in Aviation, International, located on the Daytona Beach, Fla. campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

According to Dr. Peggy Chabrian, WAI president and founder, progress on the acceptance of women in the wide variety of aviation careers that include ATP has improved dramatically in the past 10 years. Although the percentage of women ATP pilots is still low, the number has improved by 500 percent in this period, she pointed out.

“The industry itself has done a tremendous job,” Chabrian emphasized. “Today, women aren’t facing the same barriers, such as the good ole’ boy network, as they did in the past. Those attitudes have changed dramatically, although not 100 percent.”

Dr. Tom Connolly, associate dean of the ERAU College of Aviation and a member of the WAI Board of Directors, agreed with Chabrian.

“As we talk to the industry, it becomes obvious that the times are changing and that there is more interest for young women to be involved,” Connolly said. “There is also increasing interest in the industry to attract young women into the workforce.”

Moving to Florida

The WAI and Embry-Riddle are working together to further encourage this industry trend. The fact that WAI is now located on the ERAU campus is a tribute to this joint effort. The move was triggered by the university’s recognition that historically there has been a bias against the acceptance of women not only in the aviation industry but in the aviation educational system as well.

“We looked at the demographics on our campus, and traditionally across the continent, aviation has been predominantly a white male industry,” Connolly said. “Our own enrollment has traditionally reflected that trend. In recognition of our need to provide leadership, we felt we needed to do something aggressively to change that paradigm.”

To help facilitate this change, in 1999 the university added new elements to its strategic plan that provided the means to achieve an aggressive goal to increase female enrollment on its Daytona Beach and Prescott, Ariz. residential campuses. At the same time, Embry-Riddle pledged to support WIA in any way it could. That pledge included the offer of office space in its Corsair Hall for the organization’s headquarters. Chabrian took the university up on its offer, and in August 2000, WAI relocated there from West Alexandria, Ohio.

The move has benefited both the organization and the university, Chabrian said. She credits the relocation both to the foresightedness of the Embry-Riddle administration and to her personal relationship with the country’s oldest and largest flight training institution.

Chabrian was an associate professor in the aero science department from 1981 to 1988. She later accepted a position as the associate vice chancellor at Embry-Riddle’s Prescott campus.

WIA evolution

Chabrian said she got the idea to hold a Women in Aviation Conference after being at ERAU and seeing what the ratio of men to women students was there—eight percent women.

The first conference, which heralded the beginnings of the WIA organization, was held in March 1990, in Prescott with 150 attendees. By 1994, attendance to the now-annual event had risen to 750. Nearly 2,500 women and men participated in the 2004 WIA 15th Anniversary Annual Conference held in Reno, Nev., in March of that year. Although the organization has grown to the point to where it now holds regional and chapter events as well, the annual conference remains the focal point and biggest source of membership for WIA. The organization now has approximately 7,000 members, with a goal of 10,000 set for the near future.

“The success of the annual conference is that it brings together people from all areas of aviation, and that is the key to the success of our organization as well,” Chabrian said. “A lot of other aviation organizations are very specialized, but we try to attract those in all aviation careers, from commercial, business aviation and military pilots to airport managers, mechanics, dispatchers and those from many other career paths.”

Three WAI volunteers and WAI President Dr. Peggy Chabrian were on hand at the organization’s exhibit during its 2004 annual meeting in Reno, NV.

Three WAI volunteers and WAI President Dr. Peggy Chabrian were on hand at the organization’s exhibit during its 2004 annual meeting in Reno, NV.

Diversity is also the rule in the scope of presenters and programs at the annual event. Some of the 2004 conference keynote speakers included FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, Secretary of the Air Force James Roche, air show performers Julie Clark and Mary Dilda, and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Ellen Engleman. Along with several seminars and educational sessions on a wide range of aviation topics, the conference also serves as the venue for the annual meeting of the Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance, as well as that for the Technical Women’s Organization.

Another highlight is the announcement of the annual WAI Pioneer Hall of Fame awardees. This honor was established in 1992 to honor women who have made significant contribution to aviation as record setters, pioneers or innovators. At last year’s event, the 2004 enshrinees included Rosella Bjornson, who was the first women to be hired as a first officer for a scheduled airline in 1973. Others so honored in 2004 included Ann Lewis Cooper, Arlene Feldman, Nelda Lee and Dorothy Swain. Earlier honorees include Patty Wagstaff, Jeana Yeager, Eileen Collins and Harriet Quimby.

“The WAI is probably one of the fastest-growing and most enthusiastic and dynamic organizations that I have ever been associated with, and that’s not an overstatement,” Connolly said. “The WAI annual meeting is one of the most impressive shows in the nation. I would rank it right up there as the next best thing to the National Business Aviation Association’s Annual Meeting and Trade Show.”

Emphasis on scholarships

Although the many events at the WAI annual meeting serve as draws for attendees and an increase of organization memberships, perhaps the biggest attraction of the conference is the announcement of the year’s WAI scholarships. This is when those members who have applied for financial aid by the previous December learn whether they have received an award for the following year.

On the closing 2004 conference night, March 13, more than $450,000 in scholarships and grants for flight, dispatch, management and maintenance training were awarded to 40 recipients. Since 1997, more than $3.5 million in scholarships have been awarded through WAI.

During the 2005 annual conference, to be held in Dallas, March 10-12, the winners of 42 scholarships will be announced. To qualify, applicants had to submit information on how they would meet the needs of the sponsors of the scholarships by Dec. 3, 2004. Some of the sponsors include the Boeing Company, Airbus, Bombardier Aerospace and Cessna. The value of the scholarships ranges from a Delta Airlines Boeing 737-800 type rating estimated to be worth over $70,000, a Pratt and Whitney maintenance scholarship valued at up to $3,200 and a GAT Airline Ground Support management scholarship worth $2,500. In all, 27 different aircraft companies, airlines, aviation associations and aviation schools provided the 2005 scholarships.

“We could never offer such scholarships without the help of our sponsors,” Chabrian said. “Our scholarship program has been one of our biggest success stories. The number and value of our scholarships has grown tremendously since March 1995, when we began WAI as an organization. At our annual conference that year, we offered two $500 scholarships. The initial scholarships provided have tended to be flight-related, but now companies are providing educational opportunities in the areas they would also like women to enter, such as maintenance and management.”

WAI goals

In addition to the annual, regional and chapter events, WAI works closely with aviation companies, organizations, associations, educational institutions and communities to further the acceptance of women in the aviation community. The organization also has some core goals to help further this cause.

One is to reach the 10,000-member target by the end of 2005. Another is to increase outreach and education efforts through its chapters. Each chapter is encouraged to sponsor aviation-related events and work with local high schools to inform students about the many career opportunities in the aviation field.

Other recent outreach efforts include a memorandum of understanding with FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to “work with the FAA in educating and informing WAI affiliates and their constituency groups about FAA programs and career opportunities through its local/national chapters.” The WAI has also recently signed an MOU with the Air Force to mutually promote each other’s programs and educational efforts towards careers in aviation. Still another outreach effort is to work with the Professional Women Controllers organization to have that entity hold its 2005 or 2006 annual meeting in conjunction with the WAI annual event.

“We really want to reach out more to air traffic controllers,” Chabrian said. “That’s a segment of the industry we haven’t really worked with. That’s a part of our reasoning in signing the MOU agreement with the FAA.”

Yet another recent product of WAI outreach efforts is the establishment of the first Women in Aviation Day at the 2005 Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland, Fla. The fly-in will be held April 12-18, with the women’s day event held Saturday, April 16.

In addition to the professional development scholarships, WAI also provides member services that include a listing of career opportunities via its website. One online resource is a summary of jobs advertised in the organization’s bi-monthly magazine, Aviation for Women. Also accessible online are two major aviation placement services. Some other member services include mentoring and discount programs.


Currently there are 36 WAI chapters, 32 in the U.S. and four in Canada. Three of the U.S. chapters are in Florida. Nearly all of the chapters are based either in major metropolitan areas or aviation hotspots, or affiliated with major universities.

The WAI claims more than 120 corporate sponsors, with several of those represented on the organization’s board of directors. Also represented are airlines, the FAA, the NBAA, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the Aircraft Electronics Association, FLYING magazine and ERAU.

The future

With the ever-increasing number of WAI members and corporate sponsors, one would have to believe that the future of women in the aviation field looks bright. A quick scan of several editions of Aviation for Women indicates that the aviation industry is making a major effort to attract women employees, whether they are ATP or business aviation pilots, engineers, maintenance personnel or managers.

“What is happening with WAI reflects what is happening in the marketplace,” Connolly said. “The industry is enthusiastic and encouraging, and the opportunities for women as professional pilots has mushroomed.”

Another reflection of this demand is the encouragement of the industry for aviation educational institutions to provide additional and diverse educational programs for women, Connolly said. His university and others are responding to this challenge, he pointed out. As ERAU has added more degree programs developed to attract women students, the university has noticed a significant increase in the enrollment of young women, he added. He feels that this trend is occurring around the country.

“Traditionally, we have run about 12 percent women enrollment up until the past three years,” Connolly said. “Within this timeframe, we have seen regular increases of women in the freshman class on the Daytona campus. In fall 2004, it was 22 percent, which is a significant improvement. We are happy if we can just encourage women to seek out additional education in the aviation field.”

Chabrian is also encouraged by the recent change in attitudes towards women in education and the aviation workplace. She attributes it to the progressive approach being taken by industry and the increasing influence women are gaining in the aviation field.

“This is precisely what WAI was formed to do,” Chabrian said. “That is to bring women together from the many diverse areas of the aviation and aerospace industry so that they can become a force for positive change within those industries.”

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