Shahza grew up in Male in a large family with six siblings. Flying seems to run in her blood; her eldest brother, whom she looks up to is a pilot at the same company.

Today, Shahza is a senior first officer at Maldivian where she mans a Dash 8, holding the lives of hundreds in her hands every month.

She studied at Skymates Inc in Texas, USA and received her Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), the highest level of pilot certification, in Miami, while still in her early 20s. Now on the cusp of turning 30, she’s a lively personality, exuding a confidence that is typical of driven young people, and she seems ready to take on bigger things. Hotel Insider sits with her to have a chat about her career, her dreams and what it takes to succeed in a male-dominated field.

Hotel Insider: Can we start with how you came to be a pilot? Was it a childhood dream?

Shahza Ali: I actually wanted to study medicine initially but I always had this as a second option. I was interested in flying and travelling as a kid. I guess you’d have a kind of glorified vision at that age. But it was only after I completed my A Levels in Sri Lanka that I sort of realised I wanted to be a pilot. My instincts told me to go for it. It wasn’t something I’d planned on, I just didn’t think medicine was the right fit for me, for various reasons. So here I am.

Hotel Insider: That’s a massive change. How did your family react? Were they supportive?

Shahza Ali: Yes, they were pretty supportive. We had discussions where my brother would go over the pros and cons of being a pilot and the challenges I could potentially face, being a woman in this field.  When I left to study, in 2007, there was just one female pilot in the Maldives. It was a rare thing here, and my brother would tell me that people weren’t used to having women in this kind of position, and that I’d have to overcome a lot of hurdles, which was true. I went through a lot to get to where I am today. But I learnt how to cope and learn from my mistakes, my failures. Not every day is a sunny day, you see.

On the bright side, I’ve had many wonderful opportunities over the years. I had the chance to be the operating first officer on an all-female crew flight for the first time in the history of the Maldives. I also had the privilege of being the first Maldivian female pilot in Maldivian Air Taxi’s (MAT) history.

Hotel Insider: What kind of aircraft were you flying at the time?

Shahza Ali: When I was with MAT, I was flying the Twin Otter on floats, and once I joined Maldivian I started off with the Dornier 228 (15 passengers) and now I’m flying the Dash 8 300 and 200 series.

Hotel Insider: What did you like best? Do you have a preference?

Shahza Ali: Well, I always love the aircraft I’m working with, whether it’s a Twin Otter or something else. But considering the aviation field, I would prefer to be on the Dash 8 compared to all the aircrafts I have been rated on. Because when I was with MAT, with the kind of operation they have, there were things I had to do that went beyond the scope of an airline pilot, like loading the luggage, fuelling, pumping the floats etc. Not complaining, but I prefer the kind of operation I am in right now.

Hotel Insider: Do you dream of flying jets?

Shahza Ali: I think that’s everybody’s dream [laughs]. Mostly, for me, I want to be a jet pilot of a well-rated, well known carrier. That’s my dream, and hopefully someday it will come true.

Hotel Insider: You’re still pretty young so you have time. Speaking of dreams, do you want to fly the Dreamliner?

Shahza Ali: Actually, if I could fly any plane I wanted, I’d go for the A380. I know I’m small but it doesn’t hurt to dream big [laughs].

Hotel Insider: That’s cool, although I thought you’d prefer the Dreamliner because it’s so sleek whereas the A380 seems kind of bulky and ungainly. Pilots must think beyond appearances I suppose. Moving on, why do you think we’re seeing so few women pilots?

Shahza Ali: I suppose society isn’t used to it, they don’t really encourage women to do this, it’s still unthinkable for some. But things are looking up, we’ve got a handful of female pilots today which is an improvement from when I started out.

Hotel Insider: So at your workplace, do you feel that you’re as equally valued as your male colleagues?

Shahza Ali: I do mostly, and also I felt very special because I was the only female pilot around at MAT. But working in a male-dominant industry was a challenge from the very start. I wouldn’t say that they’re discriminating in general but there are certain things that I think are a bit unfair. 

Like when it comes to upgrades (promotions) for instance. It’s much easier for a man to become a captain but they would think twice before choosing a woman. I guess it’s because people are still not used to the fact that women are actually very capable of performing this sort of work.

Hotel Insider: If you were to give a word of advice to young women and girls who want to have a career like yours, what would you say?

Shahza Ali: I’d say that you’d probably have to face a lot of failures before you achieve success. If you give up at your first hurdle, you won’t reach your goal. I have this picture in my mind of two men digging for diamonds, one gives up while he is very close to reaching the diamonds, just a few inches away from reaching them. 

The other, no matter how far it was, he never stopped digging.  This particular picture is always in my head. Don’t give up on your dreams, you may be just a few feet away from them. Don’t let people decide what is best for you. Instead follow your heart. Giving up is not an option. If people get in your way and throw stones at you, use them to build a monument [laughs].

Hotel Insider: That’s quite an image, a good one to end the interview on. So that’s it, thank you very much.

Shahza Ali: You’re welcome.