Dressed in a peach coloured sequined gown, her long hair flowing behind her, the woman who breezes into the hotel room where we are waiting for her has the looks of a star who has just stepped straight out of a movie set. She apologises profusely for being late and waxes eloquent about how much she relishes the hospitality of Dubai, before making herself comfortable in a plush chair. It takes a minute for me to realise that she isn’t a film star, but rather, Captain Zoya Agarwal.
A pioneer of sorts in the aviation sector, Zoya is the youngest female pilot in India to command a Boeing-777.
Currently she is pursuing an MBA degree at Columbia Business School, where she is a Feldberg fellow (a prestigious scholarship offered by the Ivy league University. Zoya is also one of the few Indians to be awarded this scholarship).
Among her many achievements, Zoya, in 2021, became the first female commander to fly one of the world’s longest air routes over the North Pole, between San Francisco and Bengaluru, with an all-female flight crew.
‘We may have also broken another unofficial record that day of being the team that made the most number of announcements (over the PA system). We were so excited and wanted people to know exactly what we were experiencing,’ she says.
Zoya was in Dubai late last month flying in from New York for just a day to attend a Women’s Day program by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, Dubai Chapter, where she was the Guest of Honour.
‘I am happy to take any opportunity to share my story, especially with the next generation, in order to encourage them and foster in them the courage to follow their dreams. Even if I can make an impact on one child, I believe I have attained my purpose,’ she says.
Zoya grew up in a very conventional household in Delhi. Being an only child, her parents were very protective in her upbringing. ‘But I always dreamed big and wanted to touch the stars, so to speak,’ she says. ‘By the age of eight, I had decided I wanted to be a pilot.’ But when she was in her teens she was riddled with many insecurities and weighed 200 pounds. ‘I didn’t have many friends, so I struck a friendship with food,’ she recalls.
After her 10th grade, when she decided to choose the science stream to further her ambition of being a pilot, she had to face the ridicule of one of her teachers who said that she would never make it.
That day was when the pivot of her life changed. As she sat on the steps of her home, crying her eyes out, Mariah Carey’s Hero started to play on the radio. ‘The lyrics cast your fears aside and you know you can survive touched me in such a way that I was determined to turn my life around,’ she says.
When she applied for pilot’s training, Zoya secured one of the top 10 positions out of over 2,000 applicants at Air India. ‘I was the youngest girl pilot and the fifth girl pilot at that time.
‘People used to come and tell me how can a girl who wears makeup and likes to dress up do such heavy-duty work? I’ve always maintained my stand that just because you’re a woman, you don’t have to fit into certain stereotypes. If I want to wear eye makeup or earrings, it shouldn’t matter as long as I do my job 100 per cent,’ she says.
Since then, there has been no looking back for Zoya. In 2013, she became the youngest woman pilot in India to command a Boeing 777.
Two years later, she was responsible for saving a passenger’s life after the passenger complained about breathlessness on a flight bound to New York.
Zoya recollects that a doctor on board informed them that the lady had just two hours left to live. Moreover, the weather conditions were unfavourable. ‘I told my copilot that we had to turn the flight back. Since a life was at stake, I had to take the best possible decision that would ensure that she would live. I got clearance and we were able to save the lady’s life in the nick of time.’
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she was chosen to lead the evacuation flights operated by the Indian Government to bring back around 14,800 stranded Indians from 12 countries on 64 Air India flights.
Touching the skies
In 2021, Zoya commenced her role as an ambassador for Generation Equality with UN Women. The following year, she achieved a significant milestone as the first Indian female pilot to be highlighted in the esteemed San Francisco Luis A. Turpen Aviation Museum.
‘My first flight as a Captain from Delhi to San Francisco coincided with my entry into the aviation museum and my dad’s birthday. So I got a cake and we cut it on the flight. My dad had tears of joy rolling from his eyes,’ says Zoya.
Her commendable achievements have been recognised by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his nation-wide speech. She has also been featured in several major media including Forbes, BBC and CNN.
As a TED speaker, Zoya has been passionate about inspiring future generations, and has made 13 appearances on stage. She is driven to empower young girls and women towards realising the potential that rests within half of the global population, with a focus on female success in STEM and an eye towards climate change activism.
Zoya also had the opportunity to shape her vision by building a charity, ‘Udan Pari (Flying Angel) –Giving Wings to Dreams’, to impart education to young girls. Her goal now is to expand her horizons into investment banking, finance and management to acquire the business acumen required to lead organisations, while empowering young girls who follow her progress through her high visibility social media platforms.
She is passionate about keeping fit and exercises for an hour every day, the timing of which depends on which city she is in. ‘I also like to read stories of failure more than success as they inspire me to work harder,’ she says.
Since she has reached the pinnacle of her airline career, Zoya now wants to be a pioneer in the future of aviation which will be in electrical vertical takeoff/landings and Urban Air mobility (UAM) space.
‘UAM is the need of the hour because it entails the use of small, automated aircraft, like air taxis, to carry passengers at lower altitudes in response to traffic congestions.
‘I think Dubai is the ideal place to make that happen because the economy is growing by leaps and bounds; they have already announced that flying taxis would take to the air by 2026. So people can save precious time and money.
‘Certainly, beats getting stuck in traffic,’ she laughs.