Brussels — A female pilot recalls the day when a woman customer spotted her in the cockpit and said to a flight attendant, "I didn't know the captain had a secretary."
Female pilots tend to smile and ignore such remarks. Most of them are just grateful to have the job. And although women have begun to take command of jetliners on major air carriers in the United States, they are being hired at a snail's pace here in Europe.
In fact, only a handful of women have become pilots in Europe since European men made the world's first commercial flight (London to Paris) and founded the world's oldest airline (KLM, of the Netherlands) 62 years ago.
Worldwide, excluding the communist countries, only about 100 women -- most of them Americans -- work as commercial airline pilots. There are about 80,000 pilots total. The world's largest airline, Aeroflot, of the Soviet Union, reportedly employs some women as pilots, although the exact number is not known.
Of the 40,000 pilots working in the US, about 80 are women -- up from 50 three years ago and from zero in 1972. The first US carrier to put a woman in the cockpit was Frontier Airlines, in 1973.
In Europe, the outlook for the immediate future is grim. All except a fortunate few women will remain grounded, or confined to the cabin as hostesses.
There are no women at KLM's civil aviation school. None is being trained by Air France -- "as far as I know," a spokesman said.And in Belgium, the Sabena-owned and operated civil aviation school began accepting female trainees only two years ago.
For several years, women have been working as pilots for some of Europe's smaller carriers. Belgium's charter airline, TEA, which has 70 pilots, hired its first and still-only female pilot in 1974. Three other women fly for a tiny commuter company. In Britain, where out of 5,000 pilots about 15 are women, all except one (who works for British Caledonia) work for small carriers.
The reasons so few women pilots are hired vary. A women who flies for Belgium's charter company, echoing a view held by some analysts that the more backward-thinking European companies are to blame, says frankly, "Sabena doesn't want women." Others say that passenger discomfort with having a woman commanding the ship instead of serving tea is -- and will remain -- the leading reason companies prefer to hire males.
Some female pilots say that passengers in Europe reach with either humor or fear on learning that a woman is in charge. Some say that react with what one called "surprising disinterest."
Recently, however, in a move that is noteworthy if only for its symbolic value, the West German airline Lufthansa, whose all-male pilot's stable numbers 2,300, reversed a longstanding policy and said that it no longer would object "in principle" to having women in the cockpit -- adding, however, that it will be many years before a woman takes command of a Lufthansa plane for the first time.
Until now, women requesting pilot application forms from Lufthansa have been turned down, and today -- with 150 men already on the waiting list -- no woman will be able to enroll at the company's pilot-training school until next year at the earliest. The course lasts two years.
Women have not been rushing in droves to the cockpit at other major European carriers either.
Air France -- the first European carrier of any consequence to hire a female pilot (in 1969) -- employs only two women in the cockpit today out of nearly 1, 400 pilots working for the airline. KLM has only one pilot who is also a woman (hired in 1978) out 762 pilots.Belgium's national airline, Sabena, has 360 pilots. All of them are men.
Making matters even worse for aspiring women pilots in Western Europe is the recession. At British Airways, which employs 2,700 pilots, Lynn Barton was destined to become the company's first female pilot last November. "But because of the economic situation." a spokeswoman said, "a number of pilots have had to stand down, and we are not now taking on any new flight-crew members." Miss Barton will have to wait "until we have a job," the spokeswomen said.