Lebanese women breaking barriers in civil aviation
BEIRUT - When she challenged a friend who provoked her with sexist comments, Rola Hoteit said she had no idea she would become the first female pilot with Lebanon’s flag carrier, Middle East Airlines.
Hoteit, a 46-year-old mother of two, is no longer the lone female pilot. In the past three years, five other women joined Middle East Airlines’ (MEA) roster of cockpit crews, breaking barriers by moving into the traditionally male-dominated job.
Hoteit said she was studying mathematics at the American University of Beirut when a male student showed her a newspaper advertisement from MEA that called for “female and male applicants” for pilot positions.
“He brandished the paper and said, ironically, ‘Look, they are offering pilot seats for women. That’s a joke. Women can hardly park a car’,” Hoteit recalled. “It really angered me and we made a bet. We agreed to apply and see who could pass the entrance exams. I passed. He didn’t.”
Only nine candidates passed among more than 2,000 applicants. It was the trigger that turned Hoteit’s future upside down. She dropped her university courses and embarked on a career she hadn’t contemplated.
“After all, I thought I did not want to become a math teacher but I wanted to fly and see the world. I was determined to become a pilot, although my father was utterly against it,” she said.
It has been 25 years since Hoteit joined the ranks of MEA’s pilots and she looks back at the early years of her career with a smile.
“It was not easy to be the first female pilot in Lebanon’s history. The problem is that people are judgmental with women doing a job that was mainly a man’s job,” she said. “I was sometimes teased by colleagues like when they asked me for a pencil. They would say, ‘not eyeliner or lipstick’.”
Hoteit was a first officer, or co-pilot, for 15 years and she said it was easy then because the pilot was a man.
“When I was promoted to the captain’s seat, I had to undergo extremely tough training and tests, much tougher than what male colleagues go through,” she said. “I guess, as women we are more emotional and sensitive by nature and they wanted to test my nerves and self-control in emergency scenarios. They put me under maximum pressure.
“Being the first woman pilot, my training was like a pilot project, a model for future female candidates.”
Hoteit’s first flight as captain of the plane was a roundtrip to Amman. “It is a 1-hour flight each way but I felt a bit nervous and anxious because of the big responsibility. However, when I landed back in Beirut, all that anxiety was gone and I felt fully confident since then.”
While MEA’s passengers were not used to being flown by a woman, the majority were encouraging, although there were some negative reactions and comments.
“Some passengers disembarked when they knew the captain of the flight was a woman. One comment I heard: ‘My God, the pilot is a stewardess.’ They could not imagine that a woman could be the actual pilot and not a stewardess,” said Hoteit, who is also the regional vice-president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations.
“Later, we waited until we closed the cabin’s doors before making the onboard announcement and disclosing the name of the pilot,” she added with a laugh.
Hoteit said the biggest challenge for women pilots is reconciling the job with family life. The unfriendly work schedule involves night flights or being away from home for several days at a time. In one instance, her son was hospitalised while she and her husband, also an airline pilot, were away on duty.
MEA now has six women among its 190 pilots and first officers and is expected to add more female pilots.
“We believe in women’s capacities despite our culture that sees flying as a male career,” said Captain Ahmad Mansour, MEA’s head of operations.
“The job does not require muscles. Candidates, be they men or women, must have the passion of flying, the skills and the promptitude to act rightfully and under stress. Flying is no easy task but if one has the will and capacity, he or she can do it,” Mansour said.
Hoteit said she believes she succeeded not only in becoming a pilot but in “opening the way for other women to embark on a flying career and breaking stereotypes.”