EASYJET has announced plans to double its intake of female pilots.

The budget airline, a major presence at Southend and Stansted airports, has been piloted to success by its female chief executive Carolyn McCall, but women at the controls of EasyJet’s planes are still a relative rarity.

Out of 2.500 pilots working for EasyJet, only 130 are women.

The announcement coincides with the opening of EasyJet’s new pilot training academy, based at Gatwick. The first annual intake of trainees at the new facility will double the proportion of women, from 6 per cent to 12 per cent.

At the opening of the new centre, Patrick McLoughlin, the Government transport secretary, said: “It is astonishing to think that 15 years into the 21st century, men still account for 94 per cent of professional pilots in Britain, and 97 per cent across the world.

“With more initiatives like EasyJet’s to attract more women to apply for pilots’ jobs, I hope we can start to tackle the imbalance and ultimately change the industry.”

By way of encouragement, EasyJet is also launching a schools service, which will despatch senior female pilots to talk to girls in classrooms across the country, and to act as role models.

As part of this programme, it will work in partnership with organisations promoting female take-up of Stem (science, engineering, technology and maths) subjects.

The company is also setting aside £1million to provide ten training loans to female recruits. EasyJet has increased its overall numbers of pilot trainees, in line with a sharp rise in the number of routes it operates, in particular from Southend. More than 126,000 extra flights are scheduled for spring 2016, compared to the same period this year.

Brian Tyrell, EasyJet’s head of flight operations, said: “We value diversity and believe a workforce that better reflects our customers will help support future success.

“We recognise the proportion of our pilots who are female is too low, as it is across the industry as a whole, and we are now taking active steps to improve the ratio.

“This is a long-term strategy, which we hope will lead to EasyJet recruiting, retaining and developing a far higher proportion of female pilots.”

Responding to the announcement, Pauline Vahey, chair of the British Women Pilots Association, said: “The British Women Pilots’ Association is delighted to partner with EasyJet in this ground-breaking initiative.It demonstrates EasyJet is a pioneer in the industry, not unlike the early women pioneers in aviation who founded the BWPA 60 years ago this year.

“It will not only benefit EasyJet and the women who participate, but also the industry in general.”

Pilot courses at the new academy will take approximately two years, depending on previous flying experience. The full cost of the course is about £100,000.

Airline pilots normally earn in excess of this sum annually, so are able to pay off the cost of loans quite quickly once they qualify.