At present, just 5 percent of pilots are women. And only 7 percent are people of color.
Indeed, aviation is yet another industry where women of color are largely shut out – but now, there’s a push to change all that.
United Airlines recently opened its United Aviate Academy to an inaugural class of 30 pilot hopefuls – 80 percent of which are women, people of color, or both. One student, Jimena Perez Arroyo, concedes that the training is “nerve-wracking.” But, she added to NPR, the program also makes her feel as though anything is possible.
“It shows that … no matter your background, you’re as capable – even if you’re a woman, even if you did not grow up with all the same opportunities as other people around you that are doing this now,” she said.
The move attempts to chip away at a decades-old pipeline that’s excluded women – in particular, women of color – experts say. “Historically, [pilots] are white men, and they either came out of the military or there was some family connection to aviation that got them into flying,” Allison McKay, CEO of Women in Aviation International, explained to NPR.
With military recruits waning in recent years, “we really haven’t done a great job on the civilian side of training civilian pilots at the rate that we should,” she added. (A recent news report about a JetBlue pilot pulled from the cockpit amid suspicions that he was inebriated might corroborate this point.)
To mitigate the cost of obtaining a pilot’s license – another significant barrier for marginalized individuals, with price tags for schools ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars – the airline is offering scholarships, loans and other forms of financial aid.
Other airlines are taking action to improve representation for women of color in aviation, too. Alaska Airlines, for example, partnered with a nonprofit called Sisters of the Skies to increase the number of Black women pilots by 2025.
Another student, Ricki Foster, said to NPR that being able to participate in the United Aviate Academy is meaningful to both her and her two children. “The fact that I’m making these strides and I’m doing this – they know it is possible. And [my daughter] will see me and said, ‘Mom did this despite everything else.’”
United Airlines hopes to eventually certify 500 students per year through its new school, NPR reports – and has already received applications from more than 12,000 people.