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Women in Aviation Management – Breaking Barriers

Women continue to ascend to leadership positions in the aviation industry.

By University Alliance

Although they remain underrepresented in the aviation field, a growing number of women have entered the industry in the past two decades, many of whom have ascended to leadership positions.

In airline management, they include Linda Markham, who became one of the few women to lead a U.S. carrier when she was named president of Cape Air in 2013. In aviation management, they include Boca Raton Airport Executive Director Clara Bennett and Boise Airport Director Rebecca Hupp, both of whom earned their bachelor’s degrees in Aviation Management from Florida Institute of Technology.

Nationwide, the number of women in non-pilot aviation jobs rocketed from about 13,900 in 1996 to nearly 166,300 in 2013, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Flight attendant positions accounted for 80% of those jobs, which also include mechanics, ground instructors, dispatchers and flight engineers. 

Meanwhile, there were about 39,600 female pilots in the United States as of December 2013, up 12% since 1996, FAA statistics show. That increase came even as the total number of pilots nationwide decreased during the same period.

Despite those advances, women accounted for just 23.5% of non-pilots and 6.6% of pilots at the beginning of 2014.

A similar picture is found in the realm of aviation management. By some estimates, women represent fewer than 5% of airline chief executive officers worldwide.

Abby Bried, president of the International Aviation Womens Association (IAWA), said that the past half-century has seen women shatter the glass ceiling in many arenas.

“So now we know it can be done,” Bried wrote in the association’s January 2015 newsletter. “The diversity discussion has shifted to why women leadership numbers still are so low?”

That same question will be the subject of a leadership panel discussion during the CAPA Americas Aviation Summit 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada, in April.

“The Americas airline business is notably short on women CEOs – and the U.S. is one of the standouts in its lack of female executives outside traditional roles in human resources and marketing,” according to the outline for the panel discussion.

Of course, numbers tell only part of the story. As Bried noted, women have been breaking barriers in the aviation world for decades, providing inspiration and serving as role models for young women seeking to enter the profession.


Pictured: Amelia Earhart

Here are some of those trendsetters, past and present:

Airline/Aviation Management

    • Linda Markham was named president of Cape Air in 2013, making her the only woman to head a U.S. airline at that time.
    • Rebecca Hupp was named airport director at Boise Airport in Idaho in 2012. The Florida Tech grad previously spent a decade as director of Bangor International Airport in Maine.
    • Sherry Carbary is vice president of Boeing Flight Services and previously served as vice president of strategic management for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
    • Lillian Dukes is one of the highest-ranking African-American women in aviation. She was named vice president of business operations and global customer support and services for Spirit AeroSystems in 2014.
    • Lesley Kaneshiro served as chief financial officer of Island Air before being named the Hawaii-based carrier’s chief executive officer in 2010.
    • Lori Hunt joined SkyWest Airlines as a reservations agent in 1985, rising through the ranks to become a vice president in 2007.
    • Debbie Tempesta was appointed director of network operations at United Airlines in 2014 and previously held positions in customer service and reservations for the airline.


Pictured: WASP members watch President Obama signing into law S. 614, a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots 

  • Gretchen Kelly manages two general aviation airports as airport manager for San Mateo County Airports in California. She previously worked with the FAA.
  • Clara Bennett, a Florida Tech grad, was airport manager at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport for about 10 years before being named executive director of Boca Raton Airport in 2014.
  • Debbie McCoy spent 26 years with Continental Airlines, beginning her career as one of the few female pilots in the commercial airline industry and retiring as senior vice president of flight operations.
  • Bobbi Wells is managing director of air operations planning and analysis at FedEx. She also served as a captain in the U.S. Army.
  • Olive Ann Beech co-founded Beech Aircraft in the 1930s and led the company for decades after her husband’s death. She was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973.
  • Colleen Barrett held several executive positions at Southwest Airlines, including executive vice president, chief operating officer and president, and was named one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women by Forbes.

Association/Organization Leadership

      • Kathleen Blouin spent 22 years with the National Business Aviation Association, retiring as senior vice president of conventions and forums.
      • Carolyn Williamson served as executive director of the University Aviation Association for about 13 years, was a founding board member of Women in Aviation, International and was a 2013 inductee to the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame.
      • Peggy Chabrian is a pilot and flight instructor, a recipient of the FAA Administrator’s Award for Excellence in Aviation Education, and president and founder of Women in Aviation, International.
      • Brenda Miles has been president of Women in Corporate Aviation since 2013 and is a private pilot.
      • Jean Tinsley was the co-founder and first president of the Helicopter Club of America, as well as an FAA-designated accident prevention counselor and a life member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
      • Sarah MacLeod is executive director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, which provides advocacy and education for the civil aviation maintenance industry. She also has served on FAA committees and task forces.
      • Janice Barden is the founder and board chairman of Aviation Personnel International, and was named a Distinguished Statesman of Aviation by the National Aeronautical Association.
      • Carol Hallett spent eight years as president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America, a trade group now known as Airlines for America. A pilot, Hallett previously was commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service.

Education/Training Leadership

      • Patricia “Mother” Malone joined the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1944 and was assigned to train aircraft carrier pilots on flight procedures. She later became an instructor for the U.S. Air Force, Trans World Airlines, Northeast Airlines, Delta Air Lines and others. She would become known as “Mother” Malone for her 50 years in aviation.

WomeninAviation_BettyJWilliamsPictured: Betty Jane (BJ) Williams

      • Betty Jane (BJ) Williams was involved in multiple aspects of aviation, missiles and space during her illustrious career, including as a pilot trainer, test pilot, and creator and producer of the first TV network aviation show, “Let’s Go Flying.” She retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel and was an organizer of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) organization.
      • Donna Wilt is an associate professor in Florida Institute of Technology’s College of Aeronautics and a master certified flight instructor. She was elected chair of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) Board of Directors in 2014.
      • Evelyn Bryan “Mama Bird” Johnson was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007 when she was almost 100 years old. Johnson earned her private pilot certificate in 1945, became a designated FAA examiner in 1952 and recorded more flight hours than any other woman –57,635.4 hours.

Government Leadership

      • Margaret “Peggy” Gilligan joined the Federal Aviation Administration in 1980 and was appointed the agency’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety in 2009.
      • Sheila Widnall was the first woman appointed as Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, serving from 1993 to 1997. A professor of aeronautics and astronautics, she has been inducted into Women in Aviation, International’s Pioneer Hall of Fame.
      • Linda Hall Daschle began her career with the FAA as a weather observer and was named the agency’s deputy administrator in 1993, making her only the second woman to serve in that role.
      • Jane F. Garvey was the first woman appointed to lead the Federal Aviation Administration and also served as director of Logan International Airport in Boston.

The success stories of these and many other trailblazing women reflect the diversity of opportunities available in the industry, from aviation management to education and from flight-based roles to airline leadership.

Category: Aviation Management