Sisters need to do more for themselves: What an all-women crew flight across the Atlantic taught me

SAA 626 all-female crew.
SAA 626 all-female crew.

This is a man’s world.

And while we know it wouldn’t mean much without a woman or a girl – it’s still hard to grasp that in the 84-year history of South African Airways – the airline has not had an all women crew do an inter-continental flight.

All that changed last week, when the national carrier highlighted the need to “transcend male-dominated aviation boundaries”, with the all-female crew running the flight from South Africa to Brazil on Wednesday, 22 August.

Yes, history was made.

The crew were all women - from the ground technicians to the captain in the cockpit, all through to the cabin and check-in staff.

But are sisters really doing it for themselves – if in 2018 – this is still a thing. 

The shortage of women in key position in the aviation sector is very much a reality and while I had the privilege of experiencing the all-women flight, it also gave me an opportunity to reflect on this as Women’s month draws to a close.  

Because, truth be told, gender inequality needs way more than one month of focus to highlight just how much ground needs to be gained. 

But after this flight, there is one thing I know for sure - any job a man can do, a woman can do it just as well – I’d hazard to say, even better. It was a delight that our flight to São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport arrived 5 minutes early. Yasss!   

But while many cheers were given during and post the all-women crew flight, for its smooth and safe landing, it was the eye-roll of Senior Captain Jane Trembath, that said it all.  

SEE: Women pilots fly against cockpit prejudices.

“Well, we’ve being doing this for years, what did they expect?” she told me over dinner in Sao Paulo.

Jane runs a tight aircraft and the margin to earning a senior position such as hers is even tighter – since women make up less than 1% of the airline’s cockpit crew.

Trembath, SAA’s only long-haul female captain (a huge factor in why the gender inter-continental historical flight took place), was joined in the cockpit by her co-pilots Asnath Mahapa and Anne-Marie Smit. They make up three of the 69 female SAA pilots overall, with only six female captains in total. SAA also has about 114 female aircraft technicians in the mix. 

Interestingly, for Asnath and Anne-Marie, the historic flight was a reunion of sorts, as much as it was historic. They attended flight school together about 20 years ago and have not been in a cockpit together since.

When Jane first started with SAA, there were about 400 pilots, compared to the 700 pilots currently employed by SAA. The trio explained that some pilots have been "waiting as long as 17 years to earn their captaincy stripes".

SEE: Women urged to reach for the skies at first ever Global Aviation Gender Summit

“You just got to wait your turn,” says Anne-Marie who has been with SAA for 15 years, and remains a co-pilot.

Factors such as expansion, capacity and the number of operating planes requiring crew are all determining factors that allow for movement up the seniority ladder. As a result, seniority rotation in this industry remains slow, with serious growth needed to create more positions.

While there is a projected shortage of pilots expected over the next decade, cost-cutting measures to ensure SAA continues to operate – mean there won’t be an influx of captain positions opening up any time soon.

The all-women crew also brought home that aviation opportunities exist above and beyond the cockpit too. At present SAA women make up 38.96% of all staff. A total of 24.85% general staff, as little as 0.83% and 13.29% females make up the cabin crew.

Fortunately, the mastermind behind this flight, South African Airways General Manager for Operations Zuks Ramasia, has been championing gender equality and challenging the status quo for the past 26 years.

Born in Vosloorus in Boksburg and based in Gauteng, Zuks has a tough area of influence and responsibility - ranging from overseeing flight operation and in-flight services, security and quality audits to mention but a few.

She recalls being an impressionable young flight attendant, when she considered applying for a management position in operations – and 26 years later, she’s not looked back.

"This flight is an important initiative for us at SAA," says Zuks, “It is possible for women to be in charge of this big Airbus 300."

She is also especially proud of SAA's partnership with Boeing for the Sivulindlele truck, meaning Open the pathways in Nguni. 

READ MORE: Little girls' dreams of being a pilot are nothing to joke about...

“It allows a mobile cockpit and cabin experience to tour the nine provinces, allowing us to expose the youth to the industry. When you don't know about something, how can you be inspired?"

“Girls, out there you should know it is possible, if these women have done it, you can too. We want to stop this thing that scarce and critical skills are ordained for men. This must fall,” Zuks says.

A snapshot look at the historic flight between SA and Brazil:

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