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Why statutory maternity pay doesn’t add up for pilots

by Nancy Jackson Media and Communications Officer

Being a pilot is a job that both men and women can do. But a quick look at most airline staff lists and it's clear that there still is a huge gender gap. It is something the industry is keen to tackle with several airlines launching high-profile campaigns to coax women in to the cockpit. 

But BALPA believes it simply isn’t enough to proclaim that the doors are wide open without really assessing what the industry is doing to make the profession attractive to women, and what it is not doing. 

Women planning their careers have to consider their options when it comes to family planning. Unless science comes up with a way of having children without the need for someone to carry that child, most women will expect to have to juggle their work life with having children. For those who want a family, careers that make this easier will be more attractive than those where the obstacles are many. 

That’s why decent maternity pay matters. It is one key way any profession can appeal to prospective female employees. 

Pilot B: "The current maternity package does not encourage women in to aviation and in my case is stopping me from having the freedom to start a family when I am ready." Read more testimonials like this on our Baby on Board website.

So, when it comes to attracting women to the pilot profession, airlines are competing with other professional industries for those women’s skills. Many current pilots are struck by how poorly the airline industry compares to comparable professions in terms of maternity pay provision.

In fact, a survey of maternity pay across 341 UK organisations both in the public and private sectors in 2017 found that 54.8% of employers offer maternity pay which is more generous than the statutory minimum. Almost all public sector organisations offer enhanced maternity pay. Among organisations with more than 1,000 employees, 73.1% offer enhanced maternity pay. 

So, when you consider that many airlines offer female pilots only statutory maternity pay, its clear why women may feel this line of work is not for them. 

Why is statutory pay such a bad deal for pilots? 

There are many characteristics of life as a pilot that stand out as different to any other career and make it even more tricky when it comes to having a family. 

Before an aspiring pilot embarks on the career they have to invest heavily in their own training, which costs up to £100,000. This means that most pilots begin their career servicing huge debts. For many, this makes it impossible to consider having children dropping down to statutory maternity pay would mean they would not be able to afford loan repayments, let alone provide for a growing family. It means that young female pilots are often forced to delay having children. 

Pilot A: "I still don’t know what the best thing would be, lose our home and deal with a 90% pay cut, or terminate the pregnancy.”

The standard rate of statutory maternity pay set by the government for weeks seven to 39 of maternity leave is currently £145.18. For many pilots, this will represent a reduction in the normal take-home pay of 80-90%.

The problems associated with such a large reduction in pay are obvious, particularly those which coincide with the extra expenditure involved in preparing for a new baby. 

BALPA hears all too often that women pilots are the highest earners within their families – the traditional ‘breadwinner’ role. Some are single parent families and losing their wage for any long period of time just is not an option. 

The need to build up savings in preparation for maternity, along with the desirability of increased roster predictability for childcare purposes that comes with master list seniority, is an important factor encouraging women to delay having children and, consequently, to delay seeking promotion to captain until their children are sufficiently old to mean that roster predictability is less critical for childcare. If maternity pay was higher, women would be financially better positioned to have children earlier in their careers, with the consequence that they would seek command earlier.

And because many airlines ground their pregnant pilots and prevent them from flying for several months prior to birth, many find their wages in the run up to giving birth are reduced too. 

And the problems don’t end once the child is born. With financial pressure so high, many female pilots have to return to work very quickly after giving birth. The nature of the job with unpredictable rosters and stays abroad mean that pilots have to rely on costly child care to help them get back in to employment. 

So, for many talented women who are considering a job as a pilot, the numbers simply don’t add up. 

But it is not just female pilots who benefit from the industry looking closely at maternity pay, in fact it is good for all pilots. Looking at this issue opens the door for better understanding of other family-friendly employment practices such as paternity, adoption and shared parental leave. 

At our national campaign launch at Parliament, we had the Minister for Aviation, the chair of the Women & Equalities Select Committee and the General Secretary of the TUC all coming out strongly in support of this campaign. That is what the focus on maternity pay can do for us, and we have no doubt that, following improvements to maternity pay, progress will be made on these other family policies too.
That’s why BALPA launched its Baby on Board campaign: to make real change. 

We believe that offering enhanced maternity pay is the right thing to do. By reducing the financial hardship that female pilots face when they decide to have children, fewer women would be put off considering the profession as a career and at the same time shift thinking in the industry to a more family friendly viewpoint. 

So, we call on airlines, MPs and anyone in the industry to urgently look at maternity pay and change a policy that for some is a most urgent and profound source of suffering.

•    Find out more about BALPA's Baby on Board campaign
•    Read the real life testimonials of female pilots.
•    How would going on statutory maternity pay affect you? Try BALPA’s maternity pay calculator.
•    Show your support by signing our petition