Whilst it is recognised that a career for women pilots has not always been easy - it is possible for women to get to the top. Icelandair Chief Pilot, Captain Linda Gunnarsdóttir, tells her story.

“Be the change that you want to see in the world” is a famous quote by Gandhi. When I was a little girl, I had a dream. It was a dream to become a pilot just like my father. However, I and many others knew at that time that women didn't become pilots.

Everyone in the industry had heard about Amelia Earhart and the female pilots that were tasked in WWII to ferry military aircraft from the factories to the battlefields, but in the eighties there was still not much going on in the commercial business with regards to female pilots. But things changed and by the time I was finishing college, the first female pilot had started working for an Icelandic airline, Icelandair - which meant that I had a modern and current role model.

Starting Out

I took the path that destiny had chosen for me and flew commercially for the first time in 1994 in a Beechcraft 99, a 15-seater turboprop aircraft for a small domestic operator in Iceland. Since then I have flown various types of aircraft such as the Dornier 228, Metro 23, B-737, B-757 and B-767 all around the world and never regretted the path I took.

I started working for Icelandair, 22 years ago, first as an FO on a Fokker 50 and later as an FO on the Boeing 737-400. For the last seven years I have worked as an instructor and examiner on the Boeing 757/767.

Today

I am currently the Chief Pilot of Icelandair, leading a team of over 600 pilots, of which 12% are female. This is probably one of the highest ratios of female pilots working for any major airline in the world. That is not a coincidence since Icelandair adopted the policy of changing the ratio of females both in the cockpit and cabin with more female pilots and more male flight attendants, but still making sure to hire the best person, therefore reducing the risk of gender bias. I come from a country where female participation in the job market is very high and one of the highest in the world or just 7% less than men, 80% vs 87%.

Icelandic women have on average about 2.3 children and we have a government support system allowing mothers to take three months paid maternity leave after each child is born. Fathers can also take three months paternity leave. Parents can choose which one of them takes three additional months.

This totals nine months for each newborn. Having the government support women and men - the right phrase would be to say “families” - so that companies look at maternity leave as standard and customary and consequently makes women able to participate in the job market on equal terms – and that is a very important expression. From what I have learned, diversity is a very positive thing and a mixed workforce is the most effective one both for the growth of the company and welfare of employees.

During my career there have been bumps in the road and there have been ugly stares and nasty comments, but mostly just encouragement from fellow workers and passengers. I have had to deal with sexual harassment and gender-based bias. But big changes always come with challenges and we must face them without fear and work in a good relationship with all the others that share the same dream as we have.

Challenges

The worldwide proportion of female pilots in the commercial sector is much too low. So, what can be done to change that fact? As mentioned before, Icelandair has a 12% portion of female pilots. But we are facing challenges. Due to maternity leave it takes a longer time for women to gain the required experience and flight hours for captain upgrade. We are using training programs made by men and trained by men, and we have seen that this is something that has to be adapted in the same way as many other aspects in aviation training. Every individual is different, but from my experience after many years of training both genders, women have a bigger issue with self-esteem, and they are both more conscientious and more fragile when facing the tough times in training that can happen for both men and women.

Every one of us needs a balance between work and life. Somewhere down the line I started a family and today I have a good life with my husband and three children.

But being a pilot and finding that balance can be difficult. Working long hours and being away for long periods of time can be difficult to reconcile with family life. We have to understand that women have babies and if not, this planet is going to face major difficulties. So, both airlines and authorities have to understand and make a plan that works for how we handle maternity leave.

I don’t think we should lower the barriers for women to be promoted as captains or any other barrier we have in training, but let's plan for a longer time to gain the hours needed.

If we make the airline industry an attractive workplace for women, we are making a place for diversity and I think that is something we can all gain from. Men and women think differently from my perspective, we have the same goals, but we take different paths. Let us all gain from that.

If I look in the rear-view mirror of course there have been sacrifices but also a lot of good memories. I have been fortunate to have both a career and good family life. It has not always been easy to walk out of the house from young children to go working somewhere far away.

Today my husband is working part time as a pilot, for me to able to work 150%. So, I guess I made a good choice in that respect, because I know for a fact that not all husbands would be willing to assume this role. From my perspective he has been lucky because he has had the chance to spend a lot of time with his children and foster a good relationship without the mother always being in the way.

So, what is my theme? Everyone can be everything he or she likes. It's always your decision to decide on what you want in life and how you should handle all the options and obstacles that arise on our horizon, gender should not be an issue.

Let’s finish with some light-hearted and enjoyable stories from real life. I have so many funny stories to tell from my career. I can tell you about one of my first flights where the captain had a pretty bad landing. Afterwards I overheard him telling some of the passengers about the new girl that needed more practice. I have reversed this joke several times when training new pilots.

It's good to tell the new guy that just made a terrible landing that he doesn´t need to worry since everyone believes it was mine.

I can also tell you about the cabin attendant that overheard passengers talking about the female pilot they just saw sitting in the cockpit. We were flying to an island in the north Atlantic and the weather had been so bad that the previous flights had been cancelled for days. On this day the weather was getting a little better and it was getting close to departure. Two elderly women were talking and one of them said “don't worry I saw a female pilot in the cockpit, and everyone knows that women are always so cautious”.

Happy flying to mixed genders. 


About the Author

Pursuing her dream of a career as a professional pilot, Linda Gunnarsdóttir attained her pilot licence in 1993, having studied both in Arizona and her home country of Iceland. Since then she has flown various aircraft types around the world. Additionally, she holds a Bachelor´s degree in Business Administration from the University of Reykjavik. Linda started working for Iceland´s flag carrier, Icelandair, 22 years ago, having held the position of instructor and examiner on the Boeing 757/767 for the last seven years. She is currently the Chief pilot of Icelandair, leading a team of over 600 pilots, of which 12% are female.

Published in CAT issue 2/2019