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Leon Kaye headshot

We May Soon Be Flying the Friendly, Not-As-White Skies

By Leon Kaye
United Airlines

Last week, United Airlines took a big step to make its flight crew look like the America of the 2020s. The airline is opening the doors of opportunity to more citizens, so the result could be that flying commercial may look very different in the next few years – especially as you disembark from the plane at the jetway and take a peek at who are working in the cockpit.

Depending on the source cited, about 90 percent of all U.S.-based pilots are overwhelmingly white and male. We could go down a Dreamliner-sized rabbit hole on why the composite sketch of a commercial pilot is a white male in his 40s; though one assumption that we cannot make is the demographic breakdown of U.S. military pilots. Yes, the percentage of such pilots who are white males within the armed services remains lies at a similar ratio, but the reality is that the military is funneling fewer pilots as private aviation schools are training more of them.

Bottom line, the challenge is one of access.

The costs of training to become a commercial pilot are among the barriers that many people face as they consider a career in the skies, but United insists that it is striving to eliminate that hurdle. The airline, which says it is the only major airline to own its own flight training school, has opened the United Aviate Academy. Of the inaugural class that started last week, 80 percent of these budding pilots are either women or people of color. The new academy is part of United’s goal to hire at least 10,000 new pilots by the end of this decade, with the airline’s plan to have half of them matriculating through its flight academy. United will need the staff, as the company plans to acquire 500 new aircraft to meet what the wider industry expects to be a renewed surge in air travel if and when the world can get past this pandemic.

JPMorgan Chase is lending funds to this effort, with the financial giant funding about $2.5 million in scholarships for aspiring pilots attending United’s new flight academy. Meanwhile, the airline says it has its own plan in place to build a more diverse flight crew, one that will rely on more targeted recruiting, partnerships and financial aid programs.

"Our pilots are the best in the industry and have set a high standard of excellence," said United’s CEO Scott Kirby in a recent public statement. "Recruiting and training even more people who have that same level of talent, motivation and skill is the right thing to do and will make us an even better airline. I couldn't be prouder of this first group of students and look forward to meeting the thousands of talented individuals who will pass through these doors in the years to come."

Don’t be surprised if other airlines here in the U.S., as well as those abroad, take on a kindred strategy. One consulting firm has estimated that the world could see a shortage 34,000 commercial pilots by 2025 – and that number could soar as high as 50,000 depending on how the air travel industry recovers during the next several years.

Image credit: Chris Leipelt via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye