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Airlines Take Action to Improve Diversity in the Workplace

by Sheryl Nance-Nash

Aug 15, 2021

PHOTOS: © INGRID BARRANTINE

August 2021

After a year when race dominated the national conversation in a way not seen since the 1960s, soul searching and change are afoot. The moment wasn’t missed by the airline industry.

Executives made statements condemning racial injustice, the death of George Floyd, violence against the Asian community and restrictive voting legislation, and they spoke out in support of LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination legislation.

Airline

© RAWPIXELIMAGES | DREAMSTIME.COM

According to Forbes’ 2021 America’s Best Employers for Diversity, airlines have some work to do. Delta Air Lines was the top-ranked airline at No. 112 on the list of 500 employers, followed by 126 for JetBlue and Alaska Airlines at 209. Southwest was 321, United 474 and American 478. Similarly, on Forbes’ 2020 Diversity Report Card for Airline Executive Teams, JetBlue got a C+; Delta, a C; United, D+; Alaska and American both got Ds; and Allegiant Air, Southwest and Spirit each received a D-.

The 2020 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found just 3.4 percent of those employed in America as aircraft pilots or flight engineers are Black, and women make up only 5.6 percent of pilots.

Global Traveler checked in with the nation’s top airlines which are refining existing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and adding new efforts.

ALASKA AIRLINES

For 15 years Alaska Airlines has supported the United Negro College Fund as part of its DEI commitment to create career opportunities for young people. It took it to another level this April as it unveiled a special plane called “Our Commitment” that symbolizes the company’s support for education and equity.

“As a company, we know we are not yet where we need to be when it comes to diversity, but we are inspired and guided by our value to do the right thing. With this aircraft, we are doing the right thing by amplifying the conversation around education, equity and belonging and taking it to the skies,” said Ben Minicucci, Alaska Airlines CEO at the time. “This aircraft will continue to be an inspiration for us on the journey.”

The plane will fly throughout Alaska’s network, inspiring conversation, raising awareness and spreading the word about UNCF, an organization dedicated to enabling under-represented students to become highly qualified college graduates. Alaska will donate 1 million miles annually to support students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities and has established a scholarship fund through UNCF.

Considering a third of its frontline and manager levels are racially diverse, compared to 16 percent racial diversity within leadership, Alaska set a goal for the racial diversity of leadership to reflect the diversity of its frontline by 2025.

It revamped recruiting strategies to attract more diverse talent and revised processes to mitigate bias, including requiring diverse candidate slates and interview panels. It also updated its succession planning approach and processes. The company trained managers to implement its zero-tolerance policy to clarify and reinforce the definition of and expectations around harassment and discrimination. Alaska is expanding its internship program and tapping a broader array of college partnerships to support a diverse pipeline. It works with organizations like the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and Girls Rock Wings to attract, retain and mentor candidates, including Black female pilots. And it created leadership development and sponsorship programs to attract, retain and develop more racial diversity and support inclusivity at all levels.

What gets measured gets done. Alaska uses data and analytics to fully identify gaps and opportunities to recruit and retain talent and holds leaders accountable for progress, with DEI metrics now part of performance- based compensation for executive leaders.

AMERICAN AIRLINES

Late last year American launched its Community Council. It was sponsored by President Robert Isom and made up of the company’s senior executives and a cross-section of Black community leaders who provide feedback on company initiatives with a focus on issues impacting the customer travel experience.

To develop and retain Black leadership talent, in 2020 American piloted a sponsorship program to foster relationship-building opportunities for their Black directors and managing directors. Applicants to this voluntary program are matched with a member of the senior team or a senior vice president. Objectives include enabling Black leaders to benefit from the perspective and experience of senior leaders, giving senior leaders exposure to issues Black professionals experience in their day-to-day work lives these leaders may not encounter personally, and nurturing mutual understanding to facilitate the advancement of greater numbers of Black professionals into senior leadership roles.

The company, which for 18 years has had a perfect ranking for LGBTQ Equality from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, fervently supports the LGBTQ+ community. It was the first major U.S. airline to include gender identity and sexual orientation in workplace nondiscrimination policies. In 2019 American joined an amicus brief supporting LGBTQ+ workplace protections under the Civil Rights Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2020. The company also advocates for the passage of hate crime laws in states where it conducts business.

Leadership sets the tone, and when it comes to DEI, you only need follow CEO Doug Parker on Instagram. His post from April 30, 2021, spoke of the airline’s Muslim Employee Business Resource Group inviting non-Muslims at the company to Fast for Unity on April 29:

“The invitation I received included these words: ‘The core of fasting is empathy. Fasting helps us feel others’ pain, suffering, loneliness, poverty and hunger. In a way, it connects us as humans. Refrain from eating and drinking to experience what it’s like for Muslims to fast, and also to step into the shoes of impoverished people.’

“I can tell you I was hungry — and really thirsty — by 8:30 at night. It gave me tremendous respect for our Muslim team members and their commitment to their faith. I am proud of the work our Muslim EBRG does for American Airlines, and we all thank them for their leadership and their open invitation to connect as humans.”

DELTA AIR LINES

Delta Air Lines made the Best Workplaces for Diversity lists of Forbes and Fortune, but there is plenty of work to be done.

“DEI isn’t a program or an initiative; for us it’s integrated in every aspect of our business,” said Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “Our frontline is representative of the world, but we want that reflection through every level of the business. We’re working to close the representation gap.”

Having a strong pipeline is key. “We have a lot of talent here. It’s about having career pathways to convert people from frontline to management. We’re looking at what are the barriers and how to move to a different model, like perhaps what it takes to do a job is not necessarily based on a certain number of years of experience,” said Johnson. Delta expanded recruiting efforts to include more HBCUs and requires all schools where they recruit to have strong diversity and inclusion plans.

Delta’s Diversity & Inclusion Council comprises 30 senior leaders. “This is another way to report what’s working and what’s not. Transparency brings accountability,” said Johnson, who adds the company’s board is “super engaged” on this issue.

Delta wants to achieve 100 percent pay parity and is tracking progress toward long-term goals of increasing gender and racial diversity. Its Diversity & Inclusion Council ensures these goals are embedded throughout the organization by evaluating corporate and divisional metrics, programs and proposals.

Diversity goes beyond employees. Last year Delta expanded its partnership with Operation HOPE to support its One Million Black Business and Entrepreneur Initiative, designed to create 1 million new Black business owners and entrepreneurs by 2030 and help close the wealth gap caused by racial inequality and social injustice. Delta provides sponsorship, mentorship and advice to Black-owned businesses. Delta also joined more than 30 companies and CEOs to found OneTen, an organization that will recruit, hire, train and advance 1 million Black Americans over the next 10 years into sustaining jobs. Also in 2020, Delta Air Lines entered into partnerships with the Society of Women Engineers and Girls Who Code to seek diversity, create equity and increase representation, particularly in STEM. Delta’s Propel Pilot Career Path Program teamed up with the Inter American University of Puerto Rico’s School of Aeronautics to offer their aviation students paths to become a Delta pilot by flying for a Delta Connection Carrier or flying military aircraft for the Air National Guard or Reserves.

Said Johnson, “We’re a purpose-driven company. It’s not only about connecting people to places but, in a broader sense, respecting the world we serve.”

HAWAIIAN AIRLINES

Tara Shimooka, manager of external communications, Hawaiian Airlines, is clear on one thing: “Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is a key driver of our success.”

What’s in the secret sauce? Hawaiian retains employees through competitive compensation and benefits packages and by investing in training, mentoring and career development opportunities.

It uses evidence-based processes to minimize bias in hiring and promotional practices. “Our efforts have contributed to a diverse team. Approximately 80 percent of our active work- force identify as diverse based on ethnicity and approximately 48 percent based on gender. We are proud to lead the U.S. industry with the highest percentage of women pilots at more than 9 percent (the domestic industry average is 5.4 percent), and nearly half (47 percent) of all pilots (men/women) identify as minority, primarily Asian or Pacific Islander,” said Shimooka.

You’ll find Hawaiian at career events and conferences for veterans, people with disabilities, women and underrepresented groups. Its policies are inclusive for sexual orientation and gender identity or expression and provide inclusive benefits for same- and different-sex spouses.

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES

Raquel Daniels, director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Southwest Airlines, said Southwest has been on an inclusion journey for many years, “but the events of 2020 gave us an opportunity to look inward at ways we can do our part to continue driving change and champion an inclusive workplace.”

In 2020 the Southwest DEI department completed numerous workshops and listening forums to examine more deeply racism, equity and inclusion. A DEI Rapid Response Team comprising cross-functional internal stakeholders and subject matter experts evaluated the company’s current efforts and made recommendations. The list included the launch of a DEI education and training program with recurrent, required DEI training for leaders and processes to support diverse candidates and interview panels, among others. Last fall Southwest announced it would post all open leadership positions and require diverse candidate slates and measure progress in increasing senior leadership.

“We are working to be more transparent with our gender and ethnicity workforce representation reporting and continue to look for ways to evolve our processes and hold ourselves accountable,” said Daniels.

There’s pride, she said, in the Diversity Council and Military Ambassador programs. “Both of these employee-driven groups champion equity and work hard to foster an inclusive workplace experience where all employees can thrive.”

UNITED AIRLINES

United Airlines, the only major U.S. airline to own a flight school, plans to train 5,000 new pilots by 2030, at least half of them women and people of color. Backed by scholarship commitments of $1.2 million each from United Airlines and JPMorgan Chase, United Aviate Academy will create opportunities for thousands of students to pursue a career as a commercial airline pilot.

For those students who may need additional financial support, United partnered with Sallie Mae to offer private student loans to ensure no eligible applicants are turned away solely because they can’t afford to enroll. Aviate expects to enroll 100 students in 2021.

United will leverage relationships with organizations like the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Sisters of the Skies, the Latino Pilots Association and the Professional Asian Pilots Association to help identify and steer highly qualified, diverse candidates to United Aviate Academy. These key partners will select applicants to receive scholarships and grants funded by United and JPMorgan Chase. United also finalized partnerships with three HBCUs to identify top talent and recruit them into the Aviate program.

Last July, United was recognized for the fifth consecutive year as a top-scoring company and best place to work for disability inclusion, with a perfect score of 100 on the 2020 Disability Equality Index. The index measured United’s inclusion criteria including culture and leadership, enterprise-wide access, employment practices, community engagement and supplier diversity.

Other moves forward include the formation of the Executive Council on DEI, chaired by President Brett Hart with monthly participation by the full executive team, and the creation of “We Stand United,” an officer-led collaborative team to build and implement a systemwide DEI strategy focused on employees, customers, communities and commercial partners.

The Chase United team participated in a number of diversity initiatives. Tom Doelp, vice president of communications, Chase Card Services, highlighted a few. In honor of Black History Month, United Airlines, Chase and Visa rewarded United Credit Cardmembers who donated to nonprofits focused on providing access to educational opportunities for Black students and supporting human and civil rights policies. They received five total miles for every dollar (up to $1,000) in donations to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the UNCF. Similarly, in support of Pride Month, United Visa cardmembers received five total miles for every dollar (up to $1,000) they donated to nonprofit LGBTQ+ organizations such as the Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign and StartOut.

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