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Opinion: United’s Pilot Recruitment Policy Is the Right Move — If Done Correctly

A United 757 departs Los Angeles. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

“Our flight deck should reflect the diverse group of people onboard our planes every day. That’s why we plan for 50% of the 5,000 pilots we train in the next decade to be women or people of color.”

That is the leading line from United’s announcement last week that it intends to boost the diversity of those who sit at the front of its airplanes thanks to a new training scheme, causing quite a number of headlines that have even spilled into the mainstream news across the U.S.

The problem, however, is that most commentators have said United is substituting race and gender over ability and competency as it selects its pilots. This, I am certain, is not the case, and I think I must have United’s back in this debate.

For the record, I am a 25-year-old white male who has been flying the Airbus A320 family fleet since I was 21 years old, accumulating more than 2,500 hours in the skies transporting 179,000 passengers. (Yes I record them.) I was in a very fortunate position to have financial support to pay for my pilot training, attending one of the most respected training schools in Europe, which saw me go from the classroom to the right-hand seat of the Airbus A320 within four months of completing my last day at pilot school.

To give you an understanding of the lack of diversity across the professional pilot membership, all 15 of my student colleagues on my course were also white males. Across the whole school — which saw around 20 cadets start every month — there would be the occasional female cadet in one of the courses, as well as — relatively infrequently — nonwhite students.

But let’s take a look at the numbers of those who are currently certified to operate commercial aircraft. According to the Air Line Pilot’s Association (ALPA), which is the main pilot union in the U.S., almost 90% of pilots in the U.S. are white males. Another 5% are female. And in addition, only 5% are non-white. Looking at the number for women, the U.S. is a pretty accurate reflection of what is seen across the globe. According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, only 5% of those working inside the flight deck are women. Until recently, you could fit every female captain in the world on one Airbus A380 aircraft.

Have a guess which country has the biggest percentage of female pilots.

You’re wrong. It’s India. The nation which in 2012 was voted the worst G20 country to live in as a woman has the highest proportion of female pilots within its ranks, making up 13% of all Indian airline pilots.

But re-focusing on United Airlines itself, the carrier can respectively boast that 7.4% of its pilot population are female, which according to statistics from 2018 made it the leader of the global airlines outside of India, coming ahead of Germany’s Lufthansa and its 7% representation.

The good news for girls aspiring to become pilots, however, is that the tide is slowly beginning to turn. In 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration said that the number of female student pilots in the U.S had reached around 13% of all pilots undergoing training, a change that has come as female equality has risen over the years, with more opportunities open to young women and girls than in the industry just a few decades ago.

Is Safety Going to be Compromised?

The main outcry over United’s announcement was that the airline would start to select future pilots aiming to fill certain gender and ethnicity quotas without checking their ability to handle the duties that are required for an airline pilot. While I believe the target the airline has set for itself is quite steep and that United may end up struggling to meet it, the airline will not be compromising the safety of its passengers in order to get there.

United isn’t the first airline in the world that has publicly come out and informed everyone of its intention to proactively diversify its pilot ranks. Over in Europe, easyJet started its own campaign back in 2015, called the Amy Johnson Initiative, headed by then CEO Carolyn McCall, which had the intention to remove the stereotype that women didn’t serve in the cockpit.

The airline, which operates an all-Airbus fleet of more than 330 aircraft across Europe, looked at its pilot population and saw that only 6% of its new pilots were women, with only 5% of its total pilot force comprised of women. It set a target that 20% of new pilots should be female by 2020, a target that would have been smashed had COVID-19 not interrupted hiring and training throughout the year.

How the airline went about this was to actively promote the role to girls and young women, going to schools and youth organizations and telling them, “This is a role for you if you want it.” Female pilot ambassadors made themselves available to schools so these young girls could meet a female pilot and have the ability to talk to them about their job. That is how it should be done. Advertising the role as a possibility for young women to think about, and tell them that it is not just for white men. And no, easyJet hasn’t compromised its safety record by undertaking that initiative.

Girls — as well as boys — would have gone through the same tough assessments to get into the course and then must complete the same two-year full-time training program that I did. In Europe, at least, you can walk into the right-hand seat of an airliner full of passengers having only completed 200 hours of training in a propeller aircraft, something that boggles the minds of American crews when I meet them.

The ALPA itself also came out and defended the airline’s decision regarding a potential safety issue.

“Some may argue that we should lower the safety bar to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the piloting profession, but we reject this false choice,” ALPA President Joe DePete said. “ALPA believes we can – and must – do more as a nation to open the doors of opportunity for those currently under-represented in the piloting profession and maintain the highest safety standards in the world.”

“But you should hire the best person for the job.”

The point is that there are just as many non-white or female people out there that have all the right qualities to sit in the cockpit, but they just haven’t had the exposure to realize that it is an opportunity for them. If United does this right and proactively appeals to women and racial minorities to consider a career as a pilot, then it should have more than enough applications to pick from to get the right person for the job and succeed in its generic ambition to accommodate a more diverse flight deck.

As United said themselves, “All the highly qualified candidates we accept into the academy, regardless of race or sex, will have met or exceeded the standards we set for admittance.”

It’s the Econ(omics), Stupid!

The biggest factor of them all — the factor that hinders not just women or non-white wannabe pilots, but everyone — is the cost of training. Gone are the days where airlines would fund the training of pilots. Nowadays, it is incredibly rare to find yourself on a training course to fly for an airline without having the burden of the training costs on your head or your family’s.

There has been some small headway made over the last few years, with some airlines, including British Airways, selecting its own cadets and giving them the financial security of a bank loan to pay for their training at a third-party school.

The cost of training at a full-time flying school can vary but is largely centered around the £100,000 ($137,000) figure. That is before going through the process to receive a specific aircraft type rating after being recruited by an airline, which is not uncommon to cost another £30,000 ($41,000). These figures don’t discriminate. They’re a barrier that affects all pilots-to-be.

United seems to understand this to some degree, as shown by the fact that it’s offering scholarships to potential candidates, up to $2.4 million this year. This will cover maybe 30 students. You can now see why airlines don’t fund the majority of new pilots.

For years there has been the cloud over the airline industry of an impending pilot shortage. The rapid growths of large carriers, let alone new airlines that have popped up predominantly in Asia and other emerging economies, have seen the number of aircraft in the sky jump considerably.

According to one study that took the Covid-19 impact into consideration, a pilot shortage will return after 2023: “In North America, with an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements, the shortage reemerges quickly and is projected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023 — 13% of total demand.”

Thankfully, the resumption in pilot hiring across the United States has already begun thanks to a rebound in domestic travel, with United and JetBlue contacting those that were due to join until COVID-19 happened.

Looking outside the U.S., the study finds that the Asia Pacific region in particular, with a faster growth trajectory, will surpass this by the end of the decade with a projected shortage of 23,000 pilots by 2029.

A Bold Move

I personally believe what United has done is a good thing. It is about broadening the career to those from certain backgrounds who may never have thought they have the ability to become a pilot. Again, the target the airline is aiming for is very high. Although easyJet was able to, or was certainly going to, meet its 20% target, it was a more suitable stepping stone for future ambitions.

The airline would have known that such types of affirmative action in the past have caused a major divide across the United States, but recent polling seems to suggest that is beginning to turn. In 2019 Gallup polled 6,502 Americans. Of survey respondents, 65% favored affirmative action programs for women and 61% favored affirmative action programs for minorities.

I feel easyJet took a small but substantial step in the right direction, whereas United seems to want to make one huge leap forward. However, should United not meet the target that it has set, it certainly would not — and should not — be seen as a failure. The ambition by the airline to come out in today, on the heels of a huge industry-wide crisis, and say it wants to improve its pilot diversity is a successful move already.


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