Posted on April 27, 2022

The End of the All-Male, All-White Cockpit

Niraj Chokshi, New York Times, April 23, 2022

It’s been a half-century since airlines started hiring women and people of color to fly passenger planes, allowing a handful of pioneering pilots into the flight deck.

In the decades since, commercial aviation has grown exponentially, democratizing travel and rewiring how Americans live, work and play. But one part of the industry has remained mostly the same. Piloting is stubbornly monolithic: About 95 percent of airline pilots in the U.S. today are male. Nearly as many are white.

Zakiya Percy is one of a small and growing number of people trying to change that. {snip}


Now, Ms. Percy, who is Black and a first-generation college graduate, expects to have her airline pilot’s license within a year, bringing her a step closer to that goal.

For many like Ms. Percy, piloting has long been or seemed out of reach. Few women and people of color aspire to fly planes because they rarely see themselves in today’s flight decks. The cost of training and the toll of discrimination can be discouraging, too. Now there’s urgency for the industry to act. Pilots are in short supply, and if airlines want to make the most of the thriving recovery from the pandemic, they will have to learn to foster lasting change.


Airlines have started to do more to diversify. United recently launched a flight school with the aim of hiring thousands of pilots in the years ahead, at least half of them women or people of color. Other carriers have launched similar initiatives, too. The goal is to staff up to meet the industry’s aspirations.


As air travel became more popular in the 1970s and 1980s, airline advertisements almost exclusively depicted pilots as white men, with some exceptions in publications directed at Black consumers, said Alan Meyer, a history professor at Auburn University who is working on a book on the slow pace of racial integration in airline flight decks.

“It just continues to reinforce this image,” Dr. Meyer said. “This simultaneously plays into this often subconscious association between whiteness and maleness and technical competence.”

There were few Black pilots at the time, in part because airlines had only recently started hiring them. Marlon Green, a former Air Force pilot, became the first after winning a discrimination case before the Supreme Court in 1963, forcing Continental Air Lines to make him an offer. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned such discrimination outright, but insidious forms of prejudice have long remained. A decade later, Frontier Airlines hired Emily Howell Warner, making her the first woman hired permanently to command the cockpit for a major American passenger airline.

Undisguised bigotry was common. Ms. Warner once recalled a co-pilot refusing to shake her hand and instructing her not to touch anything in the flight deck. David Harris, a trailblazing Black pilot hired by American Airlines at about the same time that Mr. Green got his job, recalled having to bite his tongue as a white co-pilot unleashed a “nasty” tirade days after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Airlines felt little pressure, from consumers or anyone else, to make it a more hospitable work environment. And because piloting jobs were well-paid and people generally stayed in them for years, those early firsts didn’t give way to broader change.


Two years and about $100,000. That’s what it takes, in most cases, to gather the experience necessary to qualify to become a commercial airline pilot.


Historically, the armed forces offered a less-expensive path into the field. But the military has long struggled with pilot diversity and shortages, too. Still, the Air Force has slowly improved diversity among active duty pilots: Today, about 8 percent of those pilots are women and about 13 percent are nonwhite. While nowhere near reflective of the American public, those figures are still better than the numbers for commercial airlines.

But the reason for racial inequality among pilots that is most commonly cited by experts and instructors is perhaps the most apparent: A lack of role models and exposure has played a central role in keeping many women and people of color out the field.

“Historically, we’ve seen that a lot of our aviators come out of the military or have family members that were pilots or are somehow involved in the industry,” said Allison McKay, the chief executive of Women in Aviation International. “If you don’t have either of those two things, you may not even have considered flying.”

The group is working to change that. Every year, the nonprofit hosts an annual “Girls in Aviation Day,” with events around the world connecting pilots and other aviation professionals with children and students. The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and groups representing other underrepresented groups, including Latinos or the L.G.B.T.Q. community, are making similar efforts to expose more people to the field.


The Aviate Academy covers 28 acres and has two pools, two aircraft maintenance hangars, five dorms and 27 planes, with dozens more on order. It is owned by United, which bought the flight training school in 2020, and is part of the airline’s goal of hiring 5,000 pilots by 2030. Airline-owned schools are common abroad, but United’s is a first for a large U.S. airline. The carrier says it wants at least half of the new pilots to be women or people of color. Of the 121 students enrolled so far, about 78 percent are women or nonwhite, the airline said.

United’s school joins other efforts from major and regional carriers. In 2018, American launched a partnership with flight schools in Arizona, Florida and Texas, offering prospective pilots training, financing and mentoring, with an eye toward diversity. Alaska Airlines and its regional partner, Horizon Air, unveiled a similar program in March. Universities with flight training programs are working harder to recruit women and people of color, and many have launched scholarships for students from underrepresented communities.

Major U.S. airlines say they’re confident that they will be able to hire the pilots they need in the years ahead. But regional carriers that supply many of those airlines with flights and pilots are already struggling.