Fourteen female Aircraft Maintenance Technicians (AMT) who are TWU members touched down on Capitol Hill July 28, to lobby for support of legislation that would improve safety standards for the aircraft they work with: The Global Aircraft Safety Improvement Act, as well as more visibility and support for women in their trade.
Only 2.6% of AMTs are women, a huge disparity compared to other crafts employed by airlines, such as pilots and flight attendants.
The following women traveled from all corners of the country to TWU International headquarters in Washington, DC for a day of in-depth training followed by a day of lobbying:
Denise Andrade, Local 591, based at LGA|
Kim Blair, Local 567, based at DWH
Tammie Brown, Local 576, based at AUS
Wendy Burkinshaw, Local 591, based at ORD
Daisy Chauca, Local 591, based at LGA
Karen Davidson, Local 591, based at MIA
Bertha Gallardo, Local 591, based at LAX
Kristy Howe, Local 574, based at MQT
Marla Johnson, Local 514, based at TUL
Tammee Kelly, Local 591, based at STL
Caroline Neidl, Local 591, based at ORD
Lisa Prince, Local 514, based at TUL
Sharon Riffle, Local 591, based at DFW
Jasmine Vargas, Local 591, based at LGA
‘Shop Class Was Where It’s At’
Each worker’s introduction into the trade is a bit different. For example, Andrade, Chauca and Vargas, all graduated from Aviation High School, a vocational school in Long Island City, Queens, and went directly to work as an AMT for American Airlines (AA).
“Shop class was where it’s at,” Vargas said.
Howe explained, “High school offered me classes, or I wouldn’t be here. I like working with my hands, knowing how things work, tearing them apart and putting them back together. If I didn’t have that awareness I don’t know where I would be.”
Others, like Johnson, Prince and Blair started out with other positions at AA, put themselves through school, graduated with an A&P license and became mechanics.
Many shared stories of families trying to talk them out of becoming an AMT, being told it’s not “work for a woman,” and were encouraged instead go into another field such as cosmetology or nursing.
“We want more women in our field, and we have to spread awareness to bring more in,” Andrade said. “People look at us and they don’t see an aircraft mechanic. I am commonly confused as either a Flight Attendant or a Gate Agent and I have to explain to people who I am just to do my job. They are directing me to the cabin, but I need to go to the flight deck.”
“We want to break these stereotypes. Even the males in your field don’t take you seriously because they don’t see as many women here and it’s something they don’t understand,” Vargas explained.
“If we [women] make a mistake they [men] don’t have the same repercussions as we do,” Burkinshaw said.
“You have to work 10 times harder than any man to have to prove yourself. I’ve been touched inappropriately multiple times,” added Johnson.
‘Prove Them Wrong’
Because women are so underrepresented in the field, many bases don’t provide proper bathrooms, locker rooms, or safe spaces to pump. Uniforms that fit properly are on backorder for months.
Kelly said that after she gave birth, she was back on the job in six weeks and had to pump. “They were very strict with breaks. Some guys were jerks and felt it wasn’t a female’s place to do this type of work, but I was able to prove them wrong.”
Vargas also called for designated spaces, “We are working with dirty things and cancerous chemicals, and they can’t be touching breast milk.”
During their Lobby Day visits, each asked for better support in these areas, as well as improved childcare.
“We’re here talking about women in aviation, but we should be just biased towards women- there may be single dads who need that support to,” Howe noted. “We don’t deserve it any more than they do based on gender but due to circumstance.”
One of the ways to make change is to simply spread visibility and awareness to girls – beginning in high school – that becoming an AMT is an option and a satisfying career. Many are not even aware it’s out there. This can be achieved by expanding high school apprenticeship programs and providing more student grants to study.
“We have to reach students in junior year, get them interested,” said Kelly, who encouraged four of her daughter’s friends to get their A&P license.
“There needs to be more access to grants, especially for women – need more education on women in the fields dominated by men, like plumbers, electricians,” Johnson noted.
You can graduate with an A&P license in two years and are guaranteed a job after graduation.
“It’s not a risk, it’s known you will be employed, and you can pick in the country where you want to live and work,” Howe explained. “We used to have over a thousand and only have about 700 or 800 mechanics. We need more people coming out of school.”
The women also lobbied for the passage of the Global Aircraft Safety Improvement Act, as well as an FAA reauthorization bill.
“Foreign repair stations are not held to the same standards,” Kelly said. “I found 20 rows of seats with pins missing – passengers were complaining of seats moving. It took a long time to fix but they were able to find it in Dallas.”
“We don’t want work to be outsourced but if it is, then it should be regulated. We just want a level playing field,” Blair said, adding that she and her co-workers have found drugs and guns hidden in panels in aircraft arriving from overseas.
‘Go for It’
No matter what the challenges, everyone loves their job.
“I highly recommend it. If you have any mechanical ability, it is a great profession where you can be an independent female. It’s fulfilling. I enjoy it and I like what I do. You get to work on an airplane every day of your life and know that you helped make that go into the air,” Johnson said.
“Go for it and don’t be afraid! We may not have the same upper body strength as a man does, but sometimes they need someone with small hands,” Howe said. “We all work together as a team.”
“Don’t discredit or underestimate yourself,” Kelly said. “We need to get the awareness out there that anyone can do this job.”
Click here for more photos from Lobby Day.