In honor of Women in Aviation month, we’re featuring ExpressJet women who have successful careers in aviation and continue to advance the legacy of women in the industry. 

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On Dec. 10, 2014, Atlanta-based First Officer Fatima Shafi stepped up to a podium in Oslo, Norway to give the speech of her life. She was surrounded by leaders in the Pakistani government, former prime ministers of Pakistan and Norway, and Malala Yousafzai, the guest of honor. Fatima was at the Nobel Peace Ceremony, somewhere she never dreamed she would be.

She was supposed to married in Pakistan, raising a family and attending to her husband’s home.

“I thought marriage was the greatest thing ever,” said Fatima. “It was the goal of my whole life.”

In her hometown of Islamabad, Pakistan, Fatima’s life was a rigid set of rules designed to make her a worthy wife for a waiting husband. Many little girls grow up eagerly anticipating the day of their wedding, but in Pakistan, girls are told that getting married will be the greatest thing they will ever do. But Fatima’s father was ill and her family was too preoccupied to find her a husband, so they sent her to school instead.

“Where I’m from, education for girls is a pastime, not a necessity. You only went to school so your mind wouldn’t wander. Your brain needed to be occupied until it was time for you to get married.”

Despite limitations set by her gender, she graduated as an Electronics Engineer at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, a school that had over 6,000 students – only 50 of whom were girls.

“In classes, I could not raise my hand to ask a question or go to the library and join a study group. As a woman, I had to walk with my head straight ahead, my eyes looking down on the ground. If you looked around, it would bring you a bad reputation.”

Halfway through her college education, Fatima’s parents found her a husband. Usually in Pakistan, when a woman gets married her education stops. However, Fatima’s parents wanted her to graduate before she got married. This decision allowed Fatima to finish school.

“After a while, I started to question how my degree was any different than the boys’. I was putting in the same time, the same work, for the same degree, and yet I couldn’t use the degree for what it was worth. Girls could not do anything.”

One day, while reading the newspaper, Fatima noticed an ad for the Pakistan Air Force. The Air Force always had ads, but there was something different about this one. What usually read ‘attention all male citizens of Pakistan, the Air Force needs you,’ now read ‘attention all citizens.’

“I couldn’t believe it. I kept checking for the fine print, something that said women couldn’t apply, but there was none. I could apply.”

Since she was a little girl, Fatima had been enamored with the idea of wearing the uniform and having the respect, but a career seemed out of the question.

“I knew I shouldn’t apply, but deep down, I think I was curious about whether I had it in me to be selected.”

On the final day the Air Force was accepting applications, Fatima applied and was immediately given an intelligence test. Candidates usually spent years preparing for the test, which traditionally disqualified 80 percent of applicants. With no preparation, Fatima passed. After eight months of rigorous tests, interviews and medical screenings, she was given a formal offer to join the Pakistan Air Force Academy.”

At first, she didn’t tell anyone.

“I was selected. I now knew for sure that I had what it took to be in the Pakistan Air Force. I did it.”

To her, getting accepted into the Air Force was just checking something off her to-do list because she thought that, like going to school, nothing would come of it. She would get married and her whim would end there, or so she thought. Fatima eventually broke down and told her parents about her offer, and their response is something she has never forgotten.

“My parents didn’t want me to waste the opportunity. They wanted me to go and then come back and get married.”

After she graduated from the Air Force Academy, Fatima became an officer in the Engineering Branch. She now set her sights on a new goal: being assigned to a fighter squadron base and running a flight line – an elite Air Force assignment.

“All my life I was told that girls couldn’t do anything, weren’t good for anything. But here, I wasn’t a girl. I was an officer.”

Instead of a fighter squadron, she was assigned to a factory, running paperwork.

“I had an office job; nothing to do with engineering. Apparently, they had been hiring women in the Air Force for years. They just put them behind a desk, filing papers. I didn’t want to file papers. I wanted to work on airplanes.”

Fatima knocked on every door and talked to every officer that came into her factory, looking for ways to get reassigned, though senior commanders made it very clear her that it was an uphill battle.

“I wore the same uniform that every other officer did, and I was going to do the same job,” said Fatima. “Gender had no meaning for me anymore. I was not scared to have a bad reputation for not keeping my eyes down and standing up and asking a question.”

This was the beginning of Fatima’s ascension through a series of avionics shops, modification hangars, engine shops. She was the first woman to attend the airborne para-jumping school, but she continued to chase her dream job, and after six months, she was finally assigned to a fighter squadron.

For the first time in the history of the Pakistan Air Force, a woman was going to be a superior officer to over 300 technicians and 60 crew chiefs.

“Girls weren’t even allowed to visit fighter squadrons,” said Fatima. “For me to be assigned there was unheard of, so I just did my job.”

This was easier said than done. Running a flight line at a fighter squadron meant that she was in charge of all the aircraft, men and equipment there. However, as a woman Fatima wasn’t allowed to step underneath the wing of an airplane, stay at the flight lines after sundown or even wear a flight suit.

Uneasy because they feared the enlisted men would revolt against a woman in charge of them, a commander warned Fatima that if she continued to perform he would make her life miserable. Eventually she had no other choice but to leave the squadron. Still, she refused to back down and was transferred to a ground engineering shop shortly after the altercation, and then again to an F-16 fighter squadron. This base with American aircraft was more westernized, and Fatima was accepted. There, she achieved another first – the first Pakistani woman to fly in an F16.

“I could rip an open F16 and put it back together like Legos. I was so close to the aircraft, but I did not know how to fly.”

The Air Force repeatedly denied her requests to transfer into pilot training, so after her military stint was over, Fatima chose not to renew it.

“Sometimes I feel I should have stayed in the Air Force longer to bring a change for women in Pakistan.”

Instead, she left her life in Pakistan for the flight training program at Flight Safety Academy in Florida, which would ultimately lead to her position as a first officer at ExpressJet.

“My family still thinks I’m missing out because I’m not married with children, but I’m a pilot,” said Fatima. “It’s an incredible thing to walk around freely and look where ever I want. Nobody judges me here. I wish I can explain the feeling I get when I walk on a street, and I know people around me are not thinking that I’m doing something wrong. I could never have that in Pakistan.”

On her last trip to Pakistan to visit her family, Fatima received an extraordinary request. The former Prime Minister of Pakistan had heard about Fatima and her struggle in the Air Force, and asked her to be part of the Pakistani delegation at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

In 2014, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight to guarantee all young people in Pakistan the right to an education. Former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani wanted a successful Pakistani woman to be part of the delegation when Malala received the award and felt Fatima would be a perfect fit. She was honored.

This past December, Fatima flew to Oslo where she gave a speech in front of 300 people at a dinner held by the Pakistan Embassy.

“My voice cracked a bit,” she said. “I spoke about how the fight doesn’t stop at getting an education. It starts there. I got one of the best educations money could buy in Pakistan, but I still did not have a fair shot at using it.”

To this day, Fatima is amazed at her journey to ExpressJet, though she’s still adjusting to a life she never thought she could have.

“I want to learn how to ride a bike, how to swim and all the other things I never learned because I was not allowed to go outside. I also want to show other girls in Pakistan that they can do that too. They can do something.”

Fatima hopes to work with non-profits to empower girls through education and convince them that they have all what it takes to step out make a difference and have any career that can possibly exist.

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Fatima at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with Malala Yousafzai

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Fatima in her Pakistan Air Force uniform in a fighter jet

In honor of Women in Aviation month, we’re featuring ExpressJet women who have successful careers in aviation and continue to advance the legacy of women in the industry. 

Rachael Sullivan

In college, Shreveport-based line mechanic Rachael Sullivan was one of two women in a class of 30 studying for an A&P license.

“There were only about five women total at the entire school,” said Rachael. She graduated from the Airframe and Powerplant program at the Redstone Institute in Houston, Texas, which provides training and instruction in industrial fields.

While she always had an inclination toward mechanics, she never thought she’d be destined for a career in aviation.

“In high school, I was determined to join the military. Unfortunately, my medical history prevented my enlistment.”

Instead, she enrolled in Redstone and earned her A&P license in 2006. After graduation, she landed an interview with ExpressJet and was immediately hired as an A&P technician in Shreveport.

“When I first started my career, there weren’t many women pursuing maintenance careers. The women I did come across mostly got started from their experience in the military.”

It takes physical agility, good judgment and a dedication to safety to be a successful aircraft technician, and Rachael has never once doubted her or any woman’s ability to work in the field.

“I imagine that there was once an attitude that women weren’t as capable, but nowadays it’s not an issue. I’ve never had problems with it being ‘a man’s world.’ If given the opportunity and you work hard enough, you can do this job.”

After nearly a decade in aviation, Rachael has noticed an increase in the number of women, including the number of female mechanics, hired by ExpressJet. She hopes to see more women break into the industry but recognizes there are other challenges.

“It would be nice for women to expand the field,” she said. “But as an individual, you first have to be mechanically inclined and maintenance is a very specialized career. Many people don’t think of it when they think of airlines.”

Rachael encourages women interested in aviation careers to consider maintenance, and she hopes they never view their gender as a disadvantage, especially when in pursuit of a career not often considered by young girls.

“Women need to know we can hold our own and be successful in any career if we put our minds to it.”

In honor of Women in Aviation month, we’re featuring ExpressJet women who have successful careers in aviation and continue to advance the legacy of women in the industry. 

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For Atlanta-based dispatcher Kimberly Bates, life is about having the courage to take the road less traveled, especially when in pursuit of a lifelong dream.

“Since childhood, I wanted to work with airplanes, but for years people told me I couldn’t,” said Kimberly. “I eventually stopped listening to those people.”

The daughter of an Air Force pilot, Kimberly realized her life’s passion when she took her first commercial airline trip at the age of five.

“I was hooked. The flight attendants gave me wings and I vividly remember looking out the window and watching the clouds pass by. I’ve had a wicked case of wanderlust ever since.”

In 1978, during deregulation of the airline industry, Kimberly graduated high school only to find her dream career wasn’t available to most women. At the time, most aviation professionals entered the commercial airline industry through the Air Force, which first opened its doors to female cadets in 1976. Still, Kimberly faced impossible roadblocks.

“I could never meet the height requirements. I was too small to be a military pilot and too small to be a flight attendant.”

With a dream derailed, Kimberly enrolled in college and worked in pharmaceutical sales before returning to school for an MBA. In 1990, she appeared to accomplish her goals when a major airline hired her as an analyst in their passenger sales department.

“I finally worked for an airline, but the job wasn’t with planes. When I expressed interest in moving into operations, I was told, again, it wasn’t the right path for me.”

Kimberly left after two years and bounced from medical sales to telecommunications and project management. When her job was eventually outsourced, she decided to give the airline industry another try.

As fate would have it, while on a flight from New York Kimberly was seated next to a non-reving flight attendant who told her the previous height requirements for flight attendants no longer existed within the industry. Despite the welcome news, she faced another challenge – timing. With two toddlers at home, it wasn’t the right moment to pursue a job involving extensive travel. Instead, Kimberly encouraged her friend to apply and she was hired by Continental Express Airlines.

Three years later, that same friend notified her when ExpressJet opened a station in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where Kimberly lived at the time. In 2004, a decade after her previous airline experience, Kimberly was hired as a cross-trained agent before transferring to Inflight as a flight attendant.

“I owe an immense debt to the gentleman who hired me at ExpressJet. Despite my background and education, he believed me when I told him, ‘I just want to work with planes.’”

After three years as a flight attendant, Kimberly longed to learn more about operations and decided to earn a dispatcher license. In February 2015, she happily returned to dispatch after a period of working in the Inflight training department.

Kimberly knows her career path is an unusual journey.

“Technically, I’m still in training! Eleven years with ExpressJet and I’m the most junior CRJ dispatcher,” she laughed. “But my exposure and experience in different departments allowed me to do some fabulous things and better understand the operations at ExpressJet from both sides. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I’m glad I was willing to take a different step and try something new.”

Kimberly’s patience and relentless persistence is a testament to her adventurous spirit. Though her journey to the OCC was years in the making, she recognizes the hurdles women overcame to make their mark in the airline industry.

“When I was younger, women in aviation were a tremendous exception. The doors were not wide open. There was no mentorship or support available. Today, you meet a lot of females in the industry.”

Kimberly is excited to see more women joining the industry, a fact she noticed when she represented ExpressJet during the 26th Annual Women in Aviation Conference in Dallas, Texas. She credits the increase in women aviation professionals to the generational change in attitude towards women in traditionally male-dominated work environments, as well as the changes in the career path to commercial aviation and exposure to new career opportunities.

“It’s amazing how the world’s turned over in the past few decades. People no longer say a woman can’t do a job because of her gender.”

A travel enthusiast, Kimberly is a published travel writer and photographer, and she advocates taking advantage of the privileges of working for an airline.

“Where else can you fly home to see your family for one day or travel to another city for your favorite restaurant?” she said.

Kimberly also serves as a mentor to others and encourages people to open themselves up to new possibilities and be daring with their career choices.

“There’s this idea that once you’re on one path, you have to stay on that path. If you’re willing to step sideways or even backwards, you may find yourself with an opportunity that puts you two steps forward. It took me 25 years to get into this business, and the incredible opportunities I’ve had are the result of not following one path.”

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Everything is bigger in Texas, including the ExpressJet Dallas/Fort Worth base.

On March 5, we added 15 ERJ145 aircraft to our existing American CRJ flying in DFW. Our first ExpressJet ERJ American flight in history departed March 6.

“We were so excited to welcome our ERJ crews and Maintenance teams to DFW,” said Salena LeDay, Inflight manager – DFW. “It was a great sendoff.”

Salena leads the Inflight team in Dallas, along with Chief Pilot Stace Robeson and Maintenance Base Manager Lou Bauer. With the new ERJ team members, our Dallas base will grow from 232 employees to 370, with additional expansion through July as we gain more aircraft. Currently, DFW is home to 83 ERJ pilots, 39 ERJ flight attendants and 16 ERJ mechanics.

“The majors are looking for reliable partners who understand their brand and deliver high quality operations, and ExpressJet is in the position to provide that level of service,” said Brad Sheehan, vice president – Flight Operations. “The expansion of our American operation is an exciting opportunity for us all, and I know there are more opportunities on the horizon.”

In honor of Women in Aviation month, we’re featuring ExpressJet women who have successful careers in aviation and continue to advance the legacy of women in the industry. 

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As an Army brat brought up among supportive military families, Kristina Serrano, manager – Voluntary Safety Programs, was drawn to the aviation industry by its similar close-knit community.

“The familial environment of working for an airline made me feel right at home,” said Kristina.

Kristina’s aviation career began in 1998 by pure chance when a friend announced she needed a roommate to relocate in North Carolina.

“My friend bet me that I wouldn’t move with her and I bet her that I would. And I did.”

She found a classified ad for American Airlines and was hired by their call center. In 2002, her college professor told her Continental Express Airlines was hiring for positions at the Asheville airport and suggested she apply.

“Originally, I applied to finish my internship requirements but the job stuck with me.”

Kristina worked as a cross-utilized agent in Asheville which lead to her current position as manager of ExpressJet’s voluntary reporting programs, such as ASAP and the Fatigue Program.

“I like to say we’re the mortar in the bricks. We take the data that comes from pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and dispatchers and we help sort through and disseminate that information back to the frontline.”

Back in her early days in aviation, Kristina didn’t find many women pursuing careers in the airline industry as a long-term goal.

“When I first started out, I worked with a good amount of women, but for many, including myself initially, it was just a job. But I was very lucky to go to Newark for a training class and meet the instructor, an incredibly smart woman named Rose Marie Morgan.”

Kristina approached Rose, who still works for ExpressJet, to offer her bilingual skills as a Spanish speaker and Kristina ended up working directly for her in Houston.

“Under her guidance, I learned how to train people and how to conduct new hire classes for employees working in the airports. She was a great influence and I credit her for making me think of my job as a new career,” said Kristina.

Kristina believes there is a lack of awareness of the diverse career opportunities within the industry, especially among those unfamiliar with an airline’s behind-the-scene jobs.

“From the outside looking in, people tend to have a skewed viewpoint of what they can do at an airline. You’re either a pilot or a flight attendant and that’s it. In reality, there are so many careers women could easily accomplish if the knowledge was out there.”

Since 1998, Kristina has witnessed a huge increase in the number of women she interacts with in her job.

“I remember going to industry meetings and when I looked around the room, there were maybe a handful of women. Now, it’s 40 to 45 percent. Of course, it depends on the group but there are more women than ever before.” Kristina encourages others to have passion, persistence, and an open attitude in order to achieve a successful and fulfilling career. She also recognizes the breakthroughs women have made to accomplish their career goals within the industry.

“Everything should always be based on merit and being a woman doesn’t mean you can’t do something,” she said. “But I think that first woman, and every woman to follow her, made a tremendous impact on the others who looked inside and said, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’”

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