Harpreet A De Singh is the president of the Indian Women Pilots Association (IWPA), a registered charitable trust which celebrated its 50th anniversary recently. The motto of an IWPA event held in the Capital was “Bharatiya Nari Ki Udan Shakti”. IWPA has been helping women who want to pursue a career in aviation and takes a stand on issues of women in the aviation sector, as well as linked sectors like aerospace and aircraft maintenance.
Ms Singh is the first woman in the history of Air India to become the Chief of Flight Safety. She is a qualified commercial pilot but has not flown herself. Although she got selected in Air India to become a pilot she was declared unfit owing to a medical test that was introduced for the first time. But she moved to the USA and became a flight instructor there and later returned to India and joined Air India. She has served Air India in various capacities. As Chief of Flight Safety, she has to make sure that pilots follow all safety norms. For this, she and her team make surprise visits to the cockpits of Air India aircraft.
In an interview with ABHIJEET ANAND, Ms Singh said IWPA has been giving individual loans to women who have got into flying but do not have enough financial support. She spoke about other obstacles that women face in taking up aviation as a career. Excerpts:
Q: What are the challenges in career progression being faced by woman pilots?
A: From the feedback we have received from all airlines there are no problems as far as career progression is concerned. Once they enter the organisation, there is no discrimination. The feedback received from all airlines shows that there is no problem.
Q: Are private airlines sensitive to personal needs of the women pilots?
A: Government airlines are sensitive as they follow requirements. About other airlines I presume they are. We don’t have enough information on how they are taken care of separately. Maternity leave, of course, they give. But how sensitive they are is difficult to say. Government airlines are sensitive.
Q: Cabin supervisors say that rostering is a problem as they are told about an international flight only a day or two ahead. Does the same problem exist for women pilots also?
A: This problem is actually not a gender issue. This is an overall pilot shortage issue. When somebody falls sick and if there is no standby, then somebody else’s roster gets disturbed. This is a general issue. It can happen to pilots and cabin crew also. Men face the same problem at times.
Q: Are women pilots able to maintain the work-life balance?
A: Many of them are able to. There is a good family support system. This is the good thing about living in India. Many of them live in joint families. Either the woman’s family or husband’s parents help out. It is difficult no doubt.
Q: There might be some cases where women quit the profession because they are unable to cope?
A: I have not seen too many such cases of resignations. But sometimes long leaves of absence are taken because they had some family issues.
Q: There was a lot of protest by male pilots who are commanders on the one-year notice period regulation of DGCA. Did women pilots also have any issues?
A: Again it is not a woman’s issue. This notice period is a pilots’ issue. Of course the pilots are not happy with such a regulation. If they want to go, they should be allowed to go. But now since it is the law all will have to abide by it.
Q: Aviation as a profession is exciting and lucrative also. But, marginalised sections, particularly Dalits and tribals, don’t have access to training facilities maybe due to financial reasons. How do you see it?
A: IWPA has a role to play. We are a charitable trust and this is the reason we set up the trust many years ago. When somebody sends us a request we guide them so that they have a mentor and when we find somebody is meritorious and has got into flying and there is the last 20 hours of flying left, we give an individual loan. We ask them to return the loan in easy installments when they get a job so that the fund can be used for someone else. We are also giving them moral support. We talk to their parents and this makes a difference. There are some instances.
Q: Have tribal women joined as pilots in airlines?
A: We have to check data whether they are specifically tribal. We get requests in our organisation from all sections of people. To be honest we do not want tribals to feel that they are not privileged. We don’t ask them whether they are tribal. We just help them because there is a lady who has come to us for help. May be they are. We feel we should help everybody without discrimination.
Q: There was a recent case when a male commander slapped a female copilot. Any comments.
A: This is a very rare case. I was surprised about the case involving another airline. It needs to be thoroughly investigated as to what really went wrong. The newspaper may have reported what they got to know. There must be much more information which the airline must be investigating.
Q: There was a recent report of a parliamentary standing committee indicting a few airlines for not responding to needs of the consumers. How can pilots ensure consumer satisfaction?
A: Pilots do not have a face-to-face with consumers at all. Pilots have been sensitised to give more information through voice communication to the passengers. Earlier passengers would not know. To that extent pilots are involved. But the biggest involvement is the safety of the flight. If there is a genuine technical snag he or she will not clear the flight despite the passengers getting irritated.
Q: How many women take up aircraft maintenance engineering?
A: There are very few women aircraft maintenance engineers in India. There is not much awareness about AME as a profession. I t is not advertised much. Engineering colleges do not have a department of AME. In fact, they do not know if there is such a branch.