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India has the greatest proportion of female pilots in the world at roughly 12.4% of all pilots, compared to 5.5% in the US, the largest aviation market in the world, and 4.7% in the UK, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.

In 1989, Nivedita Bhasin became the youngest commercial airline captain in the world, but the Indian pilot vividly remembers those formative years when other crew members would nudge her into the cockpit so that passengers wouldn't feel uneasy seeing a woman piloting their aircraft. But, now, Indian female pilots are no longer a novelty three decades after Bhasin's career began, making the nation a success story in terms of diversity in the airline business.

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The numbers raise the question of how a nation that came in at 135th place out of 146 on the World Economic Forum's list of countries for gender parity was able to buck the trend in this particular industry. Some of the solutions might be used as models by other countries and sectors who want to enhance the representation of women. Generally speaking, diverse organisations perform better, and some studies have even claimed that female pilots have less safety issues. Additionally, employing more women could help airlines handle the labour shortages that are causing travel delays after the world has recovered from the Covid outbreak and demand rises.

Pioneers like Bhasin claim that a number of reasons, such as outreach programmes, improved company practises, and strong family support, are motivating Indian women. A 1948-formed youth programme called the National Cadet Corps' air wing, which trains pupils to fly microlight aircraft, attracted many Indian women to aviation. Some state governments are providing financial aid for the pricey commercial pilot training, and organisations like Honda Motor Co. offer complete scholarships for an 18-month programme at an Indian flying school and support their employment to make it more affordable for women.

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“India has started decades ago recruiting women into STEM positions, including pilots," Bloomberg quoted Michele Halleran, a professor and director of diversity initiatives at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, as saying. “In the U.S., we have only started the demand for a diversity movement in aviation because of our current drastic pilot and technician shortage."

The Indian Air Force began recruiting women pilots for helicopters and transport aircraft back in the 1990s. It wasn’t until this year that they were allowed to take up fighter roles.

Some airlines in India are devising policies to retain female talent. IndiGo, India’s largest passenger airline, said it offers flexibility to women pilots and crew to continue working safely, excluding flying duties, during pregnancy. It gives 26 weeks of paid maternity leave that is required under law and also offers creches for childcare. Women pilots can opt for a flexible contract with two weeks leave in a calendar month, until a child is 5 years old.

Vistara offers pregnant pilots and cabin crew the option of temporary jobs on the ground or administrative roles until they are ready to fly, according to a spokesperson. It also gives paid maternity leave for six months and reimburses creche fees.

Some carriers also assign a driver and guard to drop and pick up women flying late at night, Hana Khan, a commercial pilot with an Indian airline, said.

Many female pilots in India also have a more prosaic explanation for their successes: Family support. India’s familial structure, where extended families often live together and grandparents and aunts often help raise children or manage households, is particularly helpful in an industry that demands long hours and regular travel away from home, pilots say.

“It’s no secret we have the support of parents and it’s a norm to hire staff," said Zoya Agarwal, who got international media attention when she flew Air India’s first nonstop flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru with an all-women crew last year. “Women like me can fly to San Francisco for five days and not think about what’s happening at home. You have that comfort."

Because airline markets in nations like the US are significantly larger and have a larger overall personnel of both men and women, the absolute numbers of women pilots still tend to be higher there than in India.

The continuous shortage of pilots and airport staff, which is causing airlines to curtail and cancel flights and endangering the aggressive traffic resurgence, can be alleviated by hiring more women. Over the next 20 years, the globe will require more than 600,000 more pilots, according to Boeing Co.

Several people think the advantages may go even farther and may even be responsible for India's aviation safety rankings, which are higher than those of some developed countries. According to the Aviation Safety Network, the US has seen nearly five times as many fatal air crashes as India since 1945, while the UK has experienced 15 more tragic events.

Some of the differences in statistics could simply be the outcome of the US being a larger aviation market than India as more flights increase the probability of accidents. Even so, many pilots believe that having a large percentage of women is at the very least helpful to safety.

A study called Gender Differences In General Aviation Crashes, which assessed aeroplane and helicopter crash data between 1983 and 1997, found that crash rates for male pilots exceeded that of women. Women operate aircraft “more safely" accounting for only 3% of accidents even as they constituted 10% of all US army helicopter pilots, according to Women in Combat Arms: A Study of the Global War on Terror, which compared the accident rates of men and female pilots from 2002 to 2013.

Bolstering diversity has the potential to make air travel safer because women often take a more measured approach to risk and are therefore involved in fewer accidents than men, said Halleran, the professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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Kunjal Bhatt, chief flight instructor at Indian flight school Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi, said she found women trainees particularly “meticulous" and showing greater dedication to succeed because the stakes are higher for those who go against the social norms to pursue this profession.

Indian women who’ve succeeded in the airline industry are educating girls about aviation. Harpreet A De Singh, who became the first woman to head an Indian airline when she took charge of Alliance Air Aviation Ltd. in 2020, conducts outreach programs in schools to raise awareness about jobs including pilots, technicians and air traffic controllers.

“Over a period of time this consistent effort all over the country has led to large number of women choosing a profession some didn’t even know it existed," Singh said.

(With agency inputs)

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