Robert Silk

Robert Silk

In the wake of the protests across our nation last summer over systemic racism, airlines were among the many corporations pledging improvement in everything from hiring practices to diversity within management to company culture.

Delta, for example, noted last June that Black employees made up 21% of its workforce but just 7% of its top 100 officers. The airline has committed to year-by-year improvements going forward. 

American, too, called the Black representation within its senior leadership, “insufficient.” The company pledged a slew of enhancements to recruitment and mentorship. 

Alaska, Southwest, United and JetBlue were among the other airlines that made new pledges related to racial inclusion.

The airline industry, even more so than many other industries, is right to acknowledge the need for such action. In addition to companies’ own admissions about the make-up of their top brass, only 3.4% of those employed in the U.S. as aircraft pilots or flight engineers are Black, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with the general Black population of 12.2%. Women comprise just 5.6% of pilots. 

Happily, some carriers, even as hiring remains mostly dormant due to the industry downturn, have reported taking appreciable actions since last summer.

For instance, American has begun a mentorship program in which Black directors at the airline are paired for a year with senior company leaders.

Meanwhile, in December, Delta became one of 37 founding corporate members of OneTen, an organization committed to hiring, training and advancing a million Black Americans over the next 10 years.

The carrier also says it has updated hiring practices to reduce bias in job descriptions. As part of that effort, Delta says it is giving more emphasis to certificates, while removing unnecessary barriers, such as college degrees when appropriate.

I spoke recently with Joel Webley, chairman of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), about such efforts. He said he believes the airlines are genuine in their desire to increase diversity and Black representation. 

But Webley said he’d like to see a mechanism developed to better track human resources-related data throughout the airline and aviation sectors. Published government data, he said, isn’t granular enough. And it’s the airlines that are having the most success with efforts toward inclusion that are likely to issue public statements on such matters.

As Webley envisions it, airlines would submit data to a trusted third-party information curator. The data would include Black employees but also women, Latinos and other underrepresented communities and would be catalogued by various types of industry positions. The curator would then assemble the data and publish it in an aggregate form, but not airline by airline.

“It’s not about who is doing good and who is doing bad,” he said. “It’s about all of us understanding the industry, so we know what we can do about it.”

In the meantime, Webley has more active suggestions. 

He said carriers should double down on engagement efforts with minority communities, stressing in particular paid internships geared toward college students. 

And he noted that no airline has entered into a pathway program with OBAP’s own Luke Weathers Flight Academy, which opened in 2018. Uniquely, he said, nearly half of the 53 students at the flight school are Black women.

In fact, Webley said piloting is an example of the type of position for which airlines could de-emphasize college and university degrees in recruitment.

“If pilots are qualified, why does it matter if you come from a four-year school?” he asked.