Gender transformation in the aviation industry is far from taking off, says Zuks Ramaisa, the general manager of operations at the national carrier, SAA.
Of the more than 700 pilots at SAA, only four women are captains and 68 are first officers. Captains and first officers do the same job, but the captain has the ultimate authority on the plane.
Racial transformation is also slow. It was only recently that the national airline appointed its first black chief pilot, Eric Manentsa.
Ramaisa said most captains were white and SAA was struggling to find skilled black pilots to place as deputies so there could be better transformation.
Comair, which controls and runs domestic flights for British Airways in South Africa, and low-cost airline Kulula have also struggled with similar issues.
According to Comair’s 2013 annual report, the employment and retention of pilots from previously disadvantaged groups is a challenge, “especially as the pool of suitably qualified persons from previously disadvantaged groups is less than 18%, with black persons being just over 10%”.
South Africa’s first qualified black female pilot, Asnath Mahapa, knows first-hand the struggles that come with earning the qualification and having to prove herself to her critics.
Mahapa, who said she had been fascinated with flying since she was 13, had to fight her father to pursue her dream. “I did one year in electrical engineering at UCT because my father wouldn’t allow me to fly,” she said.
“He had never flown in his life and died having never been on an aeroplane. He was not comfortable with the idea. It was a scary thought and it’s still a scary thought for a lot of black people,” she added.
Mahapa received her private pilot’s licence qualification in 1998. This meant she could fly an aircraft, but could not get paid.
In 1999, she received her commercial pilot’s licence. Both licences were from the Progress Flight Academy in Port Elizabeth.
“When I started looking for a job, no one would hire me. No one was responding to my CV, so I ended up sitting without a job for more than a year,” Mahapa said.
“Then I got a break. I got into the [SA National] Defence Force in 2001, but they didn’t recognise my previous experience so I had to start from scratch.”
In 2002, she was poached by SAA to join its cadet pilot programme.
“I was the first black female there and there were people who were still resistant to move from their biased thinking. It was a serious challenge,” she said.
At SAA, pilots need at least 1?500 flying hours, which includes a minimum of 200 hours on a multi-engine aircraft. Mahapa did anything she could to get those hours, including flying in war zones.
“I flew for the World Food Programme and the Red Cross, and flew in countries such as Burundi, Chad, Liberia and other west African countries to get my hours.”
She worked for SA Express for just under three years before moving to SAA, where she has been for almost five years.
Comair and SAA have cadet pilot training programmes to address transformation problems, but Ramaisa says there are still not enough women and blacks. The new cadets chosen by SAA began training in May and Ramaisa says all nine of them are women.
SAA has trained 72 cadets since 2012.
According to Comair, since the initiation of its programme in 2000, 11 cadets have earned their commercial pilot licences. Six of them are employed by Comair as commercial pilots.
However, the cost to train a cadet is huge. For this year, Comair has accepted two new coloured cadets into the programme, each at a cost of R400?000.