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Airline Initiatives Work Toward Building a Diverse Pilot Pool

by Sheryl Nance-Nash

Oct 12, 2023

PHOTO: © LIGHTFIELDSTUDIOSPROD | DREAMSTIME.COM

October 2023

The numbers tell the story. A 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found only 3.4 percent of America’s aircraft pilots or flight engineers were Black, while 94 percent were white. There are fewer than 200 Black female commercial pilots, according to Sisters of the Skies, an organization of Black female pilots.

But the stats are slowly changing. “For decades, the number of female pilots stagnated at about 5 percent, but recently the percentage continues to grow to about 7 percent,” said Kelly Murphy, director of communications, Women in Aviation International. Similarly, said Capt. Robert Williams, who is Black and has 30-plus years in aviation,“We’ve faced adversity but have made slow progress in minority captains.”

What’s the chief barrier to a seat in the cockpit? Money. It can cost more than $100,000 to become a pilot. Scholarships help move the needle.

Williams remains optimistic about the future, especially with the current pilot shortage. “The airlines want diversity. They want warm bodies, as long as they’re qualified,” he said.

There is much in the works. Airline educational initiatives like JetBlue’s Fly Like a Girl program create interest in careers in aviation in under- represented communities. The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals offers Aerospace Career Education Academy programs for middle and high school students. Major airlines have pilot training programs. Scholarships are available from aviation organizations, and the airlines donate money to organizations like OBAP’s Luke Weather Flight Academy, to which American Airlines announced last year it will donate $1.5 million. Since 2019 Boeing has invested $8.5 million in pilot training programs.

United’s Aviate Academy opened in 2021. There are 340 students, and 100 people have graduated (51 graduates in the inaugural class). “The academy is a significant investment in our hiring strategy and will help us meet our aggressive growth goals in the coming years,” said David Gonzalez, senior media manager, United, which aims for 50 percent of academy students to be women or people of color.

Legislators are taking up the issue. The Flight Education Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate this year seeks to increase the limit for individuals taking out student loans to pay for flight training and to increase diversity within pilot training programs.

Williams confidently said, “Ten years from now, things will look different.”

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