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Boys' club on parade as women struggle for top airline positions

Global airline chiefs gathering in Sydney this week are mapping out the future of an industry that transports a big chunk of the world's population. Good luck finding a woman among them.

It's hard to describe the International Air Transport Association as anything other than a boys' club, at least at the highest echelon. The board of governors of the aviation industry group, which represents 290 airlines and 82 percent of global air traffic, this week posed for a photo on the eve of its meeting: There was one woman among 26 airline bosses -- Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO of Flybe Group, a small regional carrier in the U.K.

The scarcity of women leaders in aviation, which trails other industries, reverberated at the gathering. Ourmières-Widener, the solo woman in the photo, in an interview said IATA can help push the industry to start solving the problem. "Maybe we need to be more creative," she said, suggesting that "if it's a priority" the group could help promote mentoring, coaching and setting objectives that would lead to a larger pool of women.

This discussion comes as airlines face political, economic and workforce hurdles. Trade spats are clouding the outlook for global commerce, rising fuel prices are eating into profits and a shortage of pilots and technicians threatens to limit opportunities for growth.

Some airlines are moving fast to improve workplace diversity. Qantas Airways's senior management is 40 percent female, including the heads of the international and frequent-flier loyalty businesses, said CEO Alan Joyce. He said in an interview that such diversity is a "competitive advantage."

"It's the right business thing to do and it's the right moral thing to do," Joyce said.

The industry's lack of diversity runs deep, according to Goh Choon Phong, chairman of IATA's board of governors, who's also chief executive officer of Singapore Airlines. "It's not just IATA, I think it's all of us," he said at a media conference on Monday. The IATA's board of governors consists of airline CEOs.

More broadly, the proportion of women holding CEO roles in aviation is 3 percent, IATA said in March. That compares with 12 percent in "other industries," the group said. North America has the largest proportion of women in senior aviation roles at 16 percent, while female representation is lowest in the Middle East.

While the gender mix is even at entry-level aviation jobs, the proportion of women dwindles with seniority, said Mylene Scholnick, a New York-based aviation consultant at ICF and former president of the International Aviation Womens Association.

"At the critical years they drop out," she said in an interview. "It's a big issue, the middle-senior management really has to grow. There's no pipeline."

At a press conference of the Oneworld alliance on Sunday, June 3, the all-male panel included American Airlines CEO and Chairman Doug Parker, Cathay Pacific Airways CEO Rupert Hogg and Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways owner IAG SA. As media approached afterward for a photo shoot, the panel was then bracketed by uniformed female airline staff.

Global airline profits this year will slide from a record reached in 2017, dented by higher fuel and labor costs, IATA said Monday. The group's chief executive officer, Alexandre de Juniac, said last week the industry was "probably at the peak of the cycle." The total number of air passengers will reach 4.4 billion in 2018.

Bangkok Airways, meanwhile, has two women serving on its 12-member board. "We respect all who are capable, that can do work," said President Puttipong Prasattong-Osoth. "I don't see the difference from male and female working, it's up to their abilities."

And SkyTeam, the carrier alliance that includes China Airlines, China Southern Airlines Co. and Delta Air Lines, on Monday appointed former Delta executive Kristin Colvile as its CEO. She takes over from Perry Cantarutti, who's returning to Delta.

Story by Angus Whitley, Benjamin Katz and Kyunghee Park

Bloomberg contributor: Hannah Dormido.

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