• Sydney Kathryn

Diversity in Commercial Aviation?


Female pilot taking a selfie in an airplane cockpit
Sydney Kathryn in her "office"


Last week, United Airlines announced that they were going to begin accepting applications to their Aviate Academy, and set a goal to train 5,000 new pilots by the year 2030, with at least half of them being women and people of color. This announcement set off a wave of discussion on social media, and even some soul searching, about why there are so few women and people of color in the piloting profession (between 5%-7% of all commercial/ATP rated pilots, respectively). Many people weighed into the debate, presenting a wide range of viewpoints and opinions. We heard everything from accusations of discrimination, to opinions that aviation doesn’t truly interest women and people of color, and everything in between.


As an LGBT woman who has spent a lot of time in the airline industry, this debate really made me think about some of the barriers I’ve faced because of who I am, why the level of diversity in the industry is so low, and what we can do to improve it.


First of all, let me weigh in on the United Aviate Academy announcement. I think it’s a great start. Contrary to many of the public accusations we have heard, it’s not a “quota” for hiring at United Airlines. It’s a commitment to recruit and train new pilots, (who, upon successful completion of the program and demonstration of the necessary skills and experience), could have a direct path to United Airlines in the future. It also offers scholarships to get them started on their path to the flight deck at United or any other airline.


To understand this issue, let’s go back to the dawn of commercial aviation, in the last century. Until 1973, all scheduled airline pilots were men. Yes, you read that correctly. In 1973, Emily Howell Warner became the first U.S. female captain. Much has been written about the discrimination she faced once there, and the barriers which were placed in front of her, but she persevered and broke the glass ceiling. Yet today, nearly 50 years later, commercial aviation can still only boast about 6% of its airline pilots being women, 1% of airline Captains being women, and by some accounts less than 150 TOTAL women of color who are airline pilots, in an industry of over 70,000 people. So that begs the question: why?


Some would suggest that aviation doesn’t appeal to women, because of the time away from home most airline careers require, and the difficulty that presents in having a family. I disagree with that statement. In fact, a well-known airline offers a unique lifestyle by only scheduling pilots for 1-day trips, and accordingly, they are able to be home every night. One would think that airline would attract many female pilots if the previous statement were true, but in reality, that airline only features 3% of its pilots as women, contrary to the industry standard of about 6%. There are also many female airline pilots I know personally who don’t desire children. I know even more who have spouses, children, and pets who still manage the airline career and its requirements just fine, so that statement wouldn’t seem to hold water.


In my opinion, the reason there are still today so few women and people of color in the airlines is because it wasn’t presented to them as a viable option during their formative years.

It wasn’t even until 1993 that women could fly combat missions in the US military. Until recent times, it just wasn’t even on their radar as something they could do. There have been so few women and pilots of color, that they weren’t able to see themselves in that position and weren’t aware it was an option, so they chose other professions. It’s also an issue that many people may have been disadvantaged by the economic hurdles of learning to fly and gaining the flight experience necessary to qualify to the airlines, so considering that they didn’t see themselves in that position anyhow, they wrote it off as a pipe dream. Now Aviate hopes to change that.


Another issue that women in particular face in the industry, is that because of its long history as a “boys only” club, there is still a much-ingrained bias against them.


If you talk to many women in aviation, you’ll hear the stories - Being asked for sex in exchange for positions or promotions. Being asked for sex or dates in exchange for passing a check ride. Being judged by a separate set of standards as a male coworker, where she performed exactly the same, but was told that her performance was inadequate while her male counterpart was praised. Being locked out of career advancing promotions like Chief Pilot, Instructor, or Check Airman, because it was still an all male “boys club” within the airline, and her interview wasn’t taken seriously, despite her being highly qualified.


The problem is that often men and women in the industry are still judged by different standards. It’s an apples to oranges comparison. We need to work to level that playing field until it’s truly apples to apples.

Another thing we need to work on is to bring items in union contracts or work rules that affect women up to the standard of other industries. In aviation, maternity and family leave policies are still severely lagging. Most airlines still only offer short periods of maternity leave (usually unpaid), and the only time off option after that is unpaid FMLA leave. This has led many women to pass up promotions which would cost them seniority, but further their career, in order to keep a family/work balance. Others have sacrificed their career altogether. If these programs were improved, it would offer women even more incentive to join the industry and would help level the playing field with men.


We also need policy to back the talk from airline HR departments that discrimination won’t be tolerated, will be swiftly and justly dealt with, and that the person making the report won’t face unreasonable reporting barriers, a disinclination to believe their report, or future discrimination because of the report. I feel that for these reasons, too few feel safe to speak up when they do face discrimination. This applies to not just women, but LGBT pilots, and people of color as well. One thing in particular that United Airlines can be proud of, is that they have integrated these needs into their culture and made it a pervasive part of who they are. They have made all employees aware of their core beliefs and live them every day in their corporate conduct. Other airlines could learn from this. Not only is it good for attracting and retaining talent, it’s good for business, as more and more often customers are demanding it.


So, that brings us back to the announcement about Aviate Academy and what to do about the abysmal lack of diversity in commercial aviation. The time for lip service and “feel-good” press releases has passed. The Aviate program’s goals are a great start, and will get more women and people of color into the pilot pipeline, but it’s time for all of commercial aviation to step up in other areas. They need to offer equal treatment for all, and solve these problems that we know have existed for many years. Only then will our diversity problem improve significantly.



Sydney Kathryn has been flying since 1994, earned a BS in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle, and has over 20 years of experience as an airline pilot with several airlines. She holds an ATP certificate with type ratings in the A320, CL-65, and ATR 42/72, and is a CFI/I/MEI. She currently flies an Airbus 320 for a major airline. When she’s not flying, she enjoys spending time with her wife and children, enjoys stand up paddle boarding, and working on projects. She has served as a union representative, a pilot mentor, a leader of many groups, and has a passion to give back by working to improve the industry for the future generations.


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