I spoke with Judith and Karine, two passionate women pilots, in honour of Women’s Day.
Judith is new to the profession while Karine is well-established with a major Canadian airline as a pilot.
Could you tell us briefly about your path in aviation?
You have to know that I come from a very conventional family that wasn’t supporting the idea of me becoming a pilot, so I took the leap later in my career.
I started in the field as a flight attendant to familiarize myself with the environment, the lifestyle and to make contacts. I was laid off during the pandemic. I took this time off to begin my flight training and to devote myself full time to studying for the written exams and finalizing the qualifications and licenses I was missing.
I went to flight school when I was 20 years old. After my course, I did fire patrols and following 9/11, I worked in another field for a few years before returning to aviation.
When I returned, I went to Northern Ontario where I worked for a few years before joining a regional company and eventually ending up with a major airline.
What made you want to become a pilot?
Aviation came into my life by chance. I did a familiarization flight and I never stopped flying! I was hooked. In addition to the actual flying of the aircraft, I appreciate the lifestyle. And at the same time, sometimes it’s hard to leave the kids.
In my case, it’s a passion that came during my youth (around 8-9 years old); all I wanted to do was fly airplanes! I probably also got the bug while travelling, as I remember not having anything to do with the vacation itself, it was pretty much all about the ride!
It’s funny how this job has that kind of effect; once you’re hooked, the rest seems like history!
Is it difficult to become a pilot? What does this mean for schooling?
It is a job of passion. There are several hardships in getting to a regional or major airline. Several steps to be taken. The training can be done in a private school, a CEGEP or a university.
Indeed, I imagine that it is very difficult and expensive to join a major airlinr since you need a minimum of flight hours to your resume and these are all at your expense unless you are lucky enough to study in the public system and get a job after completing your initial training!
Indeed, I don’t consider it difficult to become a pilot, but it takes a lot of determination and dedication for the first years. The financial aspect is probably the biggest deterrent for candidates, as we are talking about an expensive apprenticeship when you go the private route.
Fortunately, there are scholarships created to encourage women to undertake studies in order to practice a traditionally male trade. These organizations even offer mentoring programs and support among women pilots.
What types of jobs can you do as an airline pilot? Is it difficult to become a pilot in a large company?
There are many job opportunities depending on your choices and needs. You can fly for a regional airline and come home almost every night or fly international routes for a bigger carrier, fly 10-12-16 hours and stay at your destination 24-48-72 hours. There are many options depending on the lifestyle you desire.
To get to a major company, you need to accumulate flight hours (often more than 2000 hours). This can take more or less time depending on the economic situation of the moment, the chosen path and a bit of luck too. The difficulty, in my opinion, is one of perseverance.
Indeed, the first job is the most difficult to obtain. There are three possible routes.
- Become a flight instructor.
- Work on the ground as a ramp agent, customer service, etc. for a regional airline that offers a pilot-in-waiting program.
- Start with aerial work contracts (SOPFEU forest fire patroller, skydiving, aerial photography, etc.)
There are some regional companies that hire straight from school as pilots, but often they are out of province, so candidates must be open to moving.
So, what’s your first job since you just finished your flying lessons, Judith?
I am currently sending my resume to different companies that might be interested in my application. The difficulty is of course the lack of experience. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m open to all possibilities!
How do you feel as a woman in a man's field?
I don’t feel any different as a female pilot because I know that my training is the same and the skills required are the same for everyone, and I don’t want to maintain anything less than the required standards, as it should be. The perspective is no longer the same and there is definitely more openness to bringing women pilots into the fold.
I would even go so far as to say that I was supported by more men than women in my initial journey. Now, I am part of groups of women pilots and we all encourage each other to achieve our milestones and that support is awesome!
Today, I have an equal working relationship with my colleagues, most of the time. There is the exception to the rule, the misogynistic colleague, but nothing unmanageable.
When I first started out, however, I think I had to work harder than a male colleague to prove that I deserved my place. Times were tougher for women, especially in northern jobs, where you can rack up the hours required to get ahead.
It’s interesting to compare your journey, Karine, with Judith’s. With your experience sharing, we can see how the profession has evolved in 20 years and that women pilots are more accepted today. This is a great improvement in my opinion.
What is your relationship with flight attendants being in a position of authority?
Most of the time it is excellent. I regularly go for dinner or on excursions with the flight attendants. Flight attendants know a lot about our destinations… where to eat well, where to shop for certain things that are worthwhile! Before arriving at my destination I make sure to ask them for their local secrets!
It is true that many flight attendants are “regulars” at certain locations compared to pilots.
Indeed, pilots are assigned to one type of aircraft only. So, it is often the same routes to the same destinations; when a rescheduling occurs, a route may be assigned to an aircraft for the first time. Flight attendants work on different aircraft, so they visit more places.
Judith, could you tell us about the flight attendant job? What did you like and dislike?
Flight attendants’ primary purpose is to ensure safety during the flight. There are often long days, delays related to the weather, mechanical problems (we don’t get paid until the plane door is closed!) and we must also adapt to each of our passengers.
It’s not always easy to please everyone, and the airport experience brings stress on many levels. The conditions at the beginning of the career are rather difficult and the financial compensation relatively low. It is not uncommon for flight attendants to have two jobs.
I don’t particularly remember anything negative about this part of my life, despite the “lows”, because beyond the experience of being a flight attendant, I discovered the environment, I learned the ins and outs and I will certainly have a better understanding of the cabin section when I’m in the cockpit.
Judith, were you able to use credit card rewards points to pay for your training?
Yes and no! The best cash back cards have a maximum spending allowance for the rebate, often around $2000 or $3000 for 10% or 15% back, so I maxed them out quickly.
However, with the amounts being exponential, sometimes a few thousand dollars a week, I wanted to get as much out of it as possible and make it profitable in some way. I quickly turned to the super flexible Membership Rewards points that add up so quickly with the American Express Cobalt® Card and Aeroplan for future travel plans I will make.
Indeed, with these amounts, it is the welcome bonuses that you should aim for since you can easily unlock them. You were also “lucky” to have been able to make these payments over several months, which allowed you to strategize and space out your applications.
I’m glad to hear you’ve taken a liking to credit card rewards programs! With your future job as a woman pilot, it is certain that you will travel more, so nothing is better than to travel better!
Karine, what kinds of points do you collect as a pilot since you already have many travel benefits with your job?
I don’t know much about credit card rewards programs. I accumulate cash back rewards on my personal expenses, but unfortunately I don’t have the opportunity to accumulate specific rewards with work.
I invite you to read our beginner’s guide if you are interested!
It is often mentioned that there is not one perfect credit card, but a nice combination of a card your daily spending at home and a card allowing you to get the best exchange rate could be very beneficial for you.
What are your favorite destinations to visit as a woman?
Is it a cliché to say St. Marteen for a woman pilot? I was lucky enough to go there on a stopover during my last cruisevacation! I wouldn’t say that I liked these destinations because I am specifically a woman, but Portugal also has a very special place in my heart. I can’t wait to go back and travel to the West Coast of Europe.
It’s very interesting to get out of Canada and see how things are going socially, economically, the values and customs of other countries. We are blessed in Canada.
Some countries do not treat women in the same way as men. That said, I particularly enjoy Japan where I feel safe to explore on my own and Tel Aviv, Israel, a city I had preconceived notions about, but turned out inclusive, diverse and beautiful.
Since you travel a lot in your job, what destinations are on your bucket list and why?
I would like to go back to Portugal, because Lisbon in 24 hours with work is just not long enough, and I would take the opportunity to doSpain.
Yeah, you often have very short stays at your destination and that’s usually right after an overnight flight where you’ve been working, which is not ideal for exploring.
Indeed! Greece also seems to me to be endlessly beautiful with its many islands, so maybe I’d go spend some time there too, on a cruise?
I’m someone who loves being close to the water, so I’ll admit that I’m a huge fan of waterfront sites, the coast vibe and cruises with days at sea.
I would love to visit Greece as well and go diving and sailing there. The heat, the sea, the olives! Austria for its history, its museums and its mountains. There aren’t many places I don’t want to go. I believe that it is possible to find interesting things to see and do in every country.
Do you travel often outside of work?
When I started in aviation, I went on 4 trips in 6 months. The travel benefits were new to us and we wanted to take advantage of them!
However, there comes a time when you are constantly living out of your suitcase and time at home becomes moments that allow you to settle down and rest.
We often think it’s a vacation when we’ve gone to our destination with work, but on the contrary, we come back exhausted and often with a sleep debt.
I understand, even with privileges, it’s not always fun to fly, sleep in hotels and eat in restaurants when that’s all what you do with your job.
I try to travel as much as possible outside of work, especially for the children to discover new things. But in a single-parent reality, between work schedules, childcare schedules, school, it’s a little less easy at the moment.
Oh, I agree! The trips are super educational for the kids. I hope you can quickly find a better balance in this area, it can’t be easy.
How do you see the conciliation of family and work in this profession for a mother?
I don’t have any family plans personally. However, aviation is an underrated environment, as I consider it can offer good schedules for parents. The first few years are not so easy, as the jobs can be regional, on call, on rotation, the pay is generally low, etc.
As the years go by, the seniority within the company increases, and the working conditions also improve, allowing for better schedules. The minimum number of days off per month is often set at 12 days in most commercial airlines, which is still 4 more than a regular schedule!
You still need a good support network and a flexible partner, because unexpected things happen! Cancelled flights and schedule changes bother us too; we are just as frustrated as you are when we can’t get home to be with our families at Christmas!
I truly believe that everyone can have their fill of the work/family balance, even if it sometimes takes temporary sacrifices and fiery logistics!
Indeed, this is one of the difficulties, especially when you are a single parent. When they were very young, I found it difficult to leave them for a few days. But they are resilient, the children, they adapt. And with technology, we can see each other on video.
It makes for a different family dynamic, but one beautiful thing is, when I’m home, I’m home. No running to thegrocery store at the end of the work day…I have a little more time to spend with them.
As a mom myself, I can understand how difficult the separation can be. A mother might not feel the same way as a father pilot, but at least you still have job options that allow you to come home every night and have plenty of days off as a female pilot.
As Judith mentioned, a minimum of 12 days off per month is already great. Then, if you are able to combine that with a schedule that allows you to come home to sleep often, it’s not that far off from a “normal” schedule.
I think you are amazing for following your passion and persevering in this profession. I hope you will inspire many young girls to do what they want to do, not specifically as an airplane pilot, but any job that is not typical or usual for women.
Indeed, I was lucky enough to start my studies at the right time to become a dentistI don’t know if I would have had the courage to go for it if the image and perception of my profession were different!
Hats off to you and thanks for sharing your experience!
P.S. Judith also encourages you to come to the free Elevate Aviation event in Montreal on March 17, 2023.
This tour is for all girls and women interested in learning more or aspiring to a career in aviation, regardless of profession.
All the details are here.