(NEW YORK) — For decades, the aviation industry has carried the reputation of being overtly male and white. At least 95% of the roughly 158,000 pilots employed in the United States are men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“This is a very male-dominated industry,” said Dana Donati, a former pilot with Republic Airways.
Donati recalls being one of two females in her college aviation courses and during her early officer training.
At the height of summer travel, as airlines brace for a pilot shortage on one side and recent protests from current pilots on the other, some airlines are making efforts to attract the next generation of pilots who have been historically excluded from the industry — women and people of color.
Donati, who now serves as the CEO of United Aviate Academy, is one of those aviation professionals trying to change the system. Founded by United Airlines, the academy is a 12-month program in Phoenix, Arizona, that aims to diversify the cockpit.
The program offers a 12-month training footprint, in which students complete several certificates on private piloting, commercial piloting, instrument operations and more.
“It’s about time the industry looks at how they have historically operated,” added Donati.
The figures are stark — there are only about 200 Black women pilots in the U.S., accounting for less than 1 percent of the profession, according to Sisters of the Skies, an organization advocating for Black women pilots.
Flying has traditionally been an “elitist” profession, according to Theresa Claiborne, the first Black woman pilot in the U.S. Air Force and a United Airlines pilot.
“They did not make any provisions. So, it’s been perpetuated,” said Claiborne, who holds the rank of captain, the highest rank for commercial pilots.
Claiborne attributes flight costs and generational and economic disadvantages as significant contributors to the lack of pilots of color.
Adding the total costs for an aspiring pilot to obtain all licenses and complete 1,500 hours of flight training required by the FAA to become an airline pilot are estimated to cost nearly $100,000.
“That’s a lot of money. And financial institutions are not jumping at the bit to loan that kind of money to an aviation student,” Claiborne said. “We don’t have these long generations of pilots in the family.”
Other commercial airlines are also pushing efforts toward diversity, including Delta Airlines, which launched the Delta Propel Career Path Program. The program offers an accelerated path to the flight deck for selected students across 13 universities around the US.
“Delta’s commitment to developing a diverse workforce that is reflective of the communities we serve domestically and around the world is unwavering. This includes removing barriers and broadening recruiting funnels to help create a diverse pipeline for qualified and talented pilots to join us,” a Delta airlines spokesperson told ABC News.
In 2008, JetBlue launched Gateway University, the airline’s first pilot development program for prospective pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians.
“JetBlue is addressing the uncertainty that prevent many from pursuing their dreams and can very well meet the growing need for aviation professionals while also opening the door to underrepresented communities, including women and people of color,” a JetBlue spokesperson added.
Donati said the makeup of pilots hasn’t changed in over 20 years. “It’s time that we think differently about how we’re approaching our communities and supporting students entering this career,” she said.
Eighty percent of the inaugural class of future pilots at United Aviate Academy identify as women or people of color. In that number is Abby Awosanya, a 25-year-old first-generation Nigerian-American from Maryland. Awosanya recently obtained her private pilot license and is working to become a 787 captain for United Airlines.
“I probably would have gotten involved in aviation sooner if there was some sort of representation,” Awosanya told ABC News.
After completing her first solo flight in April, Awosanya says she’s proud to be part of the inaugural class. She says she looks forward to “changing the way the flight deck looks to better reflect the passengers who are in the cabin.”
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