Article: Unwilling Pioneer

  • Image of Rosella Bjornson

    by Hugh Whittington
    September, 1979, Canadian Aviation

    Rosella Bjornson never wanted to be a pioneer in the area of women’s rights on the flight deck of an airliner. Rosella has always considered herself a professional pilot who, like any other professional pilot, only wants to fly for a living.

    However, Rosella is a pioneer and she does set precedents, no matter how much she dislikes doing so. She set a precedent when she became Canada’s first woman airline pilot when hired by Transair in 1973 and she is Canada’s first pregnant airline pilot.

    The treatment accorded Rosella during her pregnancy by her airline, which is now part of Pacific Western Airlines, and her union, the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association (CALPA), will probably set the standard for the women who are surely to follow Rosella onto the flight deck.

    Certainly, everyone must have known that Rosella would be grounded the minute she discovered she was pregnant because the Department of Transport’s policy has been duly recorded for several years. So, Rosella has lost her ATR for several months.

    Now we have a situation where the federal licensing authority has declared a person to be temporarily medically unfit. However, Transair maintains that she is not medically unfit or ill, she’s pregnant, and not entitled to sick leave benefits. CALPA takes the position that although Rosella is not ill, she has been grounded for medical reasons and should receive sick leave benefits.

    At the time of writing, Rosella was on a leave of absence, without pay or benefits, but without a formal agreement with Transair on the type of leave of absence that she is on.

    Capt. Maurice Durrant, chairman of the Transair master executive council of CALPA, said that contrary to earlier published reports, CALPA has supported Rosella by urging Transair to grant the official medical leave so that she can be paid. CALPA also agreed – and persuaded Transair to agree – that Rosella will continue to maintain and accrue seniority while she is away – this was her major concern – even though under the rules as they are written she could lose her seniority while off work. Transair will also re-qualify her on her equipment when she returns.

    Capt. Durrant said Transair and its parent, Pacific Western, had flip-flopped on their position three times. He said that almost at the outset Transair had agreed to grant Rosella an official medical leave of absence. That decision was overruled by PWA headquarters in Calgary, which did not want to set such a precedent. If a woman pilot is to get full sick leave benefits while pregnant, what about secretaries? Or flight attendants? Then a labour relations committee held a discussion on the subject, and minds were changed to again agree to a sick leave. But that decision, too, was overruled by PWA, still apparently fearing a precedent.

    The fact that seems to be lost here is that pregnant pilots are grounded by the Government of Canada, while pregnant secretaries can work as long as they’re able, and pregnant flight attendants can work for seven months.

    Although CALPA has supported Rosella with Transair, it admits that it’s in a no-win situation so far as its Mutual Aid Plan, which is a voluntary contribution scheme which pays CALPA members a portion of their salary after 30 days of illness. In the case of Transair pilots, who work for a straight salary instead of formula pay based on equipment, etc., the MAP pays 70% of the gross monthly salary. Rosella has been contributing to the plan, but it specifically excludes pregnancy.

    Roger Burgess-Webb, CALPA headquarters communications officer, said CALPA sympathises with Rosella, but he questioned whether Mutual Aid payments should, in fact, be made to pregnant pilots. “Members contribute to receive money in case of involuntary disability,” he said, “Can we ask our members to pay for someone’s voluntary or wilful disability?”

    CALPA and the airlines – at least those with women pilots such as Transair, Air Canada and Nordair – are going to have to come to grips with the pregnant pilot situation during the next round of contract talks. There is absolutely no reason for a woman pilot to suffer loss of pay or sick leave benefits if she becomes pregnant. Similarly, it’s ridiculous in this day and age to presume that a woman should give up all hope of becoming an airline pilot if she also wants a family, or vice-versa.

    As Rosella was quoted as saying, “No woman who has invested time and money and effort in a career to reach airline pilot level is going to have more than one or two children.”

    This article originally appeared in the September, 1979 edition of Canadian Aviation magazine.

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