BEIRUT: What began as a joke, an attempt to disprove her friend’s misogynistic comments, led to Rola Hoteit becoming the first and only female pilot in the history of Middle East Airlines.
Having never even flown in a plane before, Hoteit, then a mathematics student at the American University of Beirut, challenged her friend to a competition after he dismissed a newspaper advert by the airline that called for “[female and male] applicants” for pilot positions.
“He was making fun, saying that women don’t know how to do anything, that they can hardly fry an egg. Eventually I got very angry,” Hoteit says.
As an indignant 18-year-old she wanted to prove that women could do anything men could do.
“Finally we decided we would both apply, to see who would pass the exam.
“It was just a joke. I wasn’t really applying to be a pilot – I had never been on a plane before,” she says.
Over 2,000 students applied, with 600 going through to the written exam. Only nine passed this section, including Hoteit.
Her male friend did not get through.
“After I passed the exam, I started to think, maybe I don’t want to finish my math major, and I don’t want to become a teacher – I want to go, I want to fly.”
After this revelation, Hoteit went home to south Lebanon to tell her parents of her change of heart.
“My dad was very angry,” she says. “I had always been a grade A student – during my sophomore year I was the first among all the Lebanese universities in Arts and Sciences. So he thought I should do a Ph.D. – he had a bigger dreams for me.”
Determined to become a pilot, Hoteit returned to Beirut, withdrew from her courses, and left her dorm.
“I told my dad, ‘Either I go and fly, or I will stay here at home: I am not going back to university.’” After that, her father could see no way to stop her.
Sixteen years after completing her training, Hoteit remains MEA’s only female pilot. Her father is proud of her achievements now; her mother, formerly a math teacher, was supportive from the beginning.
“She said, ‘This is your dream so go ahead and do it.’”
Hoteit admits that the idea of being the first and only female pilot – there are 179 male pilots with MEA – certainly attracted her to the career, but she was also keen to travel. “I wanted to go and see the world,” she says.
Completing her Commercial Pilot License in Perth, Scotland – where she met her future husband, a fellow Lebanese and also an airline captain – Hoteit returned to Beirut to train for her national license.
“In Perth I was treated just like all the other guys,” Hoteit says. “When I came back to Beirut it was much more challenging, because they really wanted to make sure that I could do it.”
However, since then she says she has faced no gender-oriented obstacles in her career, and although at first she “stood out” she has never experienced any “hostility from male colleagues, [who have] always been very sweet.”
Hoteit says the overwhelming majority of passengers are excited to see a woman pilot and are very encouraging, although there have been negative comments.
Several years ago a Lebanese doctor boarded a Beirut-Cairo flight piloted by Hoteit. Seeing her in the cockpit, he asked some of the cabin crew why she was there, to which they informed him she was flying that day.
“He went to sit in his seat, but five minutes later he started saying, ‘Oh, my heart, I think I’m getting sick, I have to get out.’ When they offloaded him, the security guards standing next to the plane said, ‘Are you feeling better now?’ and he replied: ‘I’m on vacation, I can go tomorrow instead, why should I fly with a female captain?’”
Hoteit laughs at the memory, “It’s okay – I’m used to it now.”
In the 16 years she has been flying, there have been no new female recruits to MEA’s pilot ranks. While women apply every year, Hoteit wonders if their grades are perhaps not the highest, or whether the company is not keen to hire staff who might take maternity leave.
Now 37, Hoteit has two sons aged 7 and 10, and with each of her children she took the standard seven weeks maternity leave.
And why is it still seen as such a “masculine” profession?
The main reason, Hoteit believes, is an unfriendly work schedule that sometimes involves night flights or leaving home for several days at a time. Yet Hoteit believes the mentality that “We still don’t accept that women can do any job,” is also influential.
Hoteit says she would love to have female colleagues – she notes that throughout her career she has been wearing a men’s uniform, despite having asked for her own, with the response by management that it’s not worth hiring a designer for a single female pilot.
“It’s a very small example, but it just shows how I feel alone,” she says. More women might also help cement her rights within the company in terms of maternity leave and related matters.
It’s a job she loves because “every flight is different ... you always have different passengers, different weather conditions, different aircraft,” with the scheduling the only aspect she doesn’t like. Sometimes Hoteit must fly Sundays or on her son’s birthday.
After the July 2006 war, both she and her husband decided never to be in the air at the same time.
Hoteit is also the regional vice president of the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations while her husband is the head of the Lebanese Pilots Association.
“So we have this – the flying schedule, and the family. But the job definitely makes it worth it.”