New mothers are often left to discover themselves how to smoothly transition back to work after having a child. When this new mother is also a commercial pilot, it becomes even more difficult to balance a new motherhood with the long times away from home and unsociable work schedules. How do you reconcile an ‘office’ at 30.000 feet in the air with nursing a baby? Is working an irregular roster achievable with a baby at home? How adequate are the pregnancy and maternity leave provisions and policies across European airlines?
In times when ‘attracting more female pilots’ is on the agenda of almost every single airline in the world (or at least they say so on International Women’s Day), motherhood will also have to come in the picture. If the industry is serious about breaking the male-dominance in aviation, it must be looking at concrete steps. Accommodating new motherhood is one of those.
We asked 4 European pilots to share with us their experiences.
"As the principal earner in the family I had no other choice but to get back to work right after the legal maternity protection period with both of my children (note editor: In Germany – 8 weeks after giving birth).
I know how important breastfeeding is for the health of the children and also for mother-child bonding. So, it was very important to me to find a way of providing my sons with precious mother’s milk, in spite of my not really nursing-friendly job.
I purchased a special backpack with a built-in electric milk pump (battery powered), which could pump both breasts simultaneously within a very short time. The backpack also contained a cold storage compartment.
On every flight with a ground time of at least 45 minutes I managed to put in 15 minutes of pumping in the toilet. This, of course, being the only place onboard a plane, where this was possible.
There were days when I was about to burst after work and when I had to pump in my car on the parking lot.
When I stayed overnight at hotels, I asked the receptionist to keep the milk refrigerated until the following day. That way I managed to keep the milk running during longer periods of absence. At home, before early shifts I got up an hour earlier than usual in order to pump. And, when my little one was already asleep, I did the same procedure in the evening. The elder boy stopped drinking after 14 months, the little one after 16 months.
It was a very tough and demanding time, as I had (and wanted!) to be up to my tasks as airline Captain as well. Looking back, I am glad I did it that way. It was very important for my boys and for me."
Lactation rooms & policies at airlines are as good as non-existent. Are airlines ready to provide a private place for female pilots to pump milk in airports or on the aircraft itself? Or temporary ground assignments while pregnant or nursing?
"I'd like to start by saying that for some female pilots getting pregnant is rather difficult: being home at the right moment is not easy, especially if both partners are pilots. That was my case.
After one miscarriage, I got finally pregnant again. Knowing the effects of the miscarriage I was very cautious. As soon as I got a positive test result, I informed my company and I was grounded on the spot. Luckily, my company sent me home with full payment till birth day. From then on, the Social Security took over during my maternity/breastfeeding leave up to 9 months after the baby is born.
I took one year off for child care. Upon returning to work, my schedule could be reduced as I wished with 12,5%, 37% or 50%. Both mothers and fathers could even fix the days off they wish to have according to a company scheme.
My worst experience was my Captain training. New type-rating plus all check rides with a baby at home. There were times I thought I wouldn’t make it as I had two hands full with little time to study or prepare the simulator missions.
It is difficult to go back after such a long time without flying, not only because you have lost practice but also because sometimes your mind is somewhere else. It is very hard to leave a sick child at home, leave the care burden to grandparents (my case) or a third person. And yet, I was lucky to work for a company with a strong CLA, allowing some flexibility."
Working for a responsible and employee-oriented airline can really make a difference. But what about the female pilots who do not work in companies with Collective Labour Agreements? Or what with the 10% contractor pilots who immediately have no payment, no job to return to?
"When I got pregnant for the first time in 2003, the law in Germany was already pretty good. I wasn’t allowed to fly, the moment I knew, I was pregnant. I had to work in the office. That was ok, but has not that much to do with flying. I was able to refuse a job within in our fleet and worked in the safety department. 6 weeks before due date I was at home. This maternity leave is until 8 weeks after birth.
I decided to stay at home for 7 months. Maternity leave was nearly fully paid, but during the following parental leave I received only 450€ per month.
Thereafter, I continued in parental leave while working part time. It is allowed to work up to 75%. I have tried several part time models. E.g. 9 additional days off (70%), which gave a lot flexibility to the company, because they decided when. I also tried 66%, 2 months of work, 1 month off. This did not work too good for me. Right now, I am working 75%, with a fixed week off.
That’s so far the best for me. In the second pregnancy it was nearly the same, although I have had a different job. I have had no difficulties within the company as retraining was good. After the second child, they didn’t want me to return in part time. But since the law is strict, they lost the fight."
ECA Comment: Part time schedules should not be an uncommon tale or something to fight for. Family-friendly rosters, part time or fixed days off – all extremely helpful to new parents. Retraining is equally important! But with contractors – who pay for it?
"I became pregnant in 2016 and my airline grounded me straight away. I stayed at home and continued to receive basic salary.
Based on the regulations of the origin of my contract I was supposed to return to work 8 months after giving birth. My husband is also a pilot flying for an Asian airline and most of the times abroad for a duration of 4 weeks. When returning to us he is home for 9 days before Asia is calling again.
As we do not live in our home country, meaning no family who could support
us around, I decided to stay at home longer and took unpaid leave.
I come from a country where parents are entitled to stay at home with their kids for the first three years and I highly support those values avoiding an early separation of parents from their young children.
When my company tried to push me to return to work in Summer 2018 my decision was easy: I decided to continue staying at home taking care of our son and my step-children who are with us every second week.
My company offered me 50% part-time, but as we would have been required to give the care of our children in the hands of strangers, we decided against it and my company terminated my contract.
Now my child is 2 years old and my decision gave us the freedom to continue
breastfeeding without any stress. I do not regret my choice, but I do understand that I was only able to follow this path as my husband is earning enough to abandon my salary.
I wish for all parents and especially mothers to have the freedom of choice whether they want to stay at home with their little ones until a certain age or return to work as early as they have/want to."
Being grounded during pregnancy might represent a serious pay cut, specifically in cases where basic salary is a small part of the total pay. Not returning to flying following a parental leave is also an option and a viable choice, if flexible working solutions don’t fit the specific family situations or wishes.