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Few women of color are pilots. United Airlines' flight school is changing that

Ricki Foster is one of 30 members of the first class at United Airlines' new United Aviate Academy flight school in Arizona.
David Schaper/NPR
Ricki Foster is one of 30 members of the first class at United Airlines' new United Aviate Academy flight school in Arizona.

As she sits comfortably in the cockpit of a small Cirrus SR20 airplane, 38-year-old Ricki Foster goes over her pre-flight checklist.

"Weight and balance under limits. Emergency equipment's on board," she says into her headset. "Pre-flight checklist complete."

With flight instructor Aiden Zabiegalski next to her, Foster fires up the single engine of this four-seat propeller-driven plane.

"We got the, we're all clear, so you can go ahead and start," Zabiegalski, 21, tells Foster. "Good luck!"

"Thank you," Foster responds.

As the engine roars to life, and the propeller starts spinning, she exclaims, "All right! She is ready to go!"

Foster is one of 30 members of the first class at United Airlines' new United Aviate Academy flight school, in Goodyear, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix.

Facing of a severe pilot shortage, airlines are ramping up efforts to recruit a new generation of pilots, and in the process, they're trying to open the cockpit door to women and people of color, who have been largely left out of the profession.

According to the federal bureau of labor statistics, about 94% of all aircraft pilots are male, and 93% are white. Narrowing the field down to commercial airline pilots, industry groups estimate that fewer than 7% of them are women, and only about 1% are women of color.

Most pilots are white men and women of color remain vastly under represented on commercial jet flight decks

"Historically, they (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, and that has been the majority of the make-up for decades," says Allison McKay, CEO of the organization Women in Aviation International.

In recent years, the military hasn't been producing as many pilots as it used to, and, "We really haven't done a great job on the civilian side of training civilian pilots at the rate that we should," McKay says.

Still, women and especially women of color, remain vastly under represented on commercial jet flight decks, and McKay says a big reason for that is exposure. "The majority of pilots that you see are white men," she says. "If you don't see yourself represented in that (career), then you may not even consider it an option."

Ricki Foster is working hard to be the exception.

Though she's only been flying for a couple of months, Foster seems at complete ease as she guides the plane down the taxiway, onto the runway and takes off into the clear early morning sky. With the sun rising above the horizon to her left, making mountains cast long shadows over the landscape, and a full moon still shining in the darker skies to the west, she remarks, "It's beautiful, huh?"

But being an airline pilot isn't something she aspired to until recently. As a girl growing up in Jamaica and even after moving to the U.S. at 18, Foster never dreamed she could be an airline pilot. She still couldn't imagine it while working for a major airline for a decade.

Ricki Foster with flight instructor Aiden Zabiegalski.
/ David Schaper/NPR
David Schaper/NPR
Ricki Foster with flight instructor Aiden Zabiegalski.

It seemed impossible for her to become a pilot because she saw none who looked like her — a Black woman

"It seemed so unlikely and impossible because I didn't see any woman who looked like me being a pilot," Foster says. "While I was working as a flight attendant, I saw Black men. Not a single Black woman. I saw white women, but not a single Black female pilot in 10 years."

"It's kind of hard to visualize it when you can't really see the examples out there," Foster adds.

But she became friends with some of female pilots she worked with and they encouraged her to try it. When one pilot friend took her up on an introductory outing called a "discovery flight," she was hooked.

"I was like, "Oh my gosh, I love it.' But I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't afford it,' " she says, laughing. "I was thinking to myself, 'I'm too old to start flying, trying to become a pilot. But I really love it!' "

So she started flight training on a periodic basis, an "expensive hobby," she called it, but while raising two kids, the high cost got to be too much and she quit.

Her classmate, 19-year old student pilot Jimena Perez Arroyo, faced similar barriers to becoming a pilot.

"Aviation kind of had always been a dream of mine," Arroyo says. "It just did not seem like a possibility for (me), being a woman, being an immigrant, being Latina, you know, (it's) just not something that I ever saw portrayed."

Arroyo was born and raised in Mexico, and moved to California when she was 10. It was a year or two after that when she first fell in love with flying.

"I was about 10 or 12 years old when I first got into an airplane and it looked amazing. I loved it," Arroyo says. "I was exhausted, but I could just not just fall asleep. I wanted to look out the window, see everything that was around me. In fact, it was just kind of a surreal experience."

In high school, she took an introduction to aviation and Arroyo says she wanted to flight school, but found it to be unaffordable.

The cost of flight school, getting a license and hours required by FAA to become a pilot are hurdles for women of color

"Just looking at local flight schools, it's about almost 100 K ($100,000). So it's a lot of money. There's no federal aid for it, you know."

The high cost of flight school, getting a pilot's license, getting the 1,500 hours required by the FAA to become an airline pilot is one of the biggest hurdles for many would-be pilots, and traditional financial aid and student loan programs don't cover it.

So amid a growing need to replace retiring baby boomers, and hire enough pilots to meet growing demand for air travel, airlines are stepping up efforts to knock down those barriers, while diversifying their pilot ranks.

Airline executives say it's not just about addressing the pilot shortage, but also ensuring that their flight crews better reflect the customers who fly on their customers.

So they're offering more scholarships to university aviation programs and to flight schools, sometimes guaranteeing jobs to pilots who complete training. And they're working with organizations such as WAI, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, the Latino Pilots Association and the Professional Asian Pilots Association to better support aviation education, training and career opportunities.

Delta Air Lines, for example, ispartnering with one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hampton University, adding it to the airline's Propel Collegiate Pilot Career Path Program.

Alaska Airlines has teamed up with the nonprofit Sisters in the Skyto hire more Black female pilots.

At American Airlines, the Cadet Academy program gives those who complete flight school training a guaranteed interview at one of three regional airlines owned by American.

But only two airlines have their own flight schools. Republic Airways, a regional carrier, which flies smaller jets on short routes for the major airlines under the brands American Eagle, Delta Connection, and United Express, opened its LIFT Academy in Indianapolis in 2017, providing training that it says is "more affordable than other pilot training programs," while providing students "a direct pathway to a career as a pilot with Republic Airways."

Jimena Perez Arroyo, 19, is a student pilot at United Airlines flight school.
/ David Schaper/NPR
David Schaper/NPR
Jimena Perez Arroyo, 19, is a student pilot at United Airlines flight school.

United is the first major airline to have its own flight school and aims for half of its pilot candidates to be women or people of color

United is the first major airline to have its own flight school, opening Aviate Academy in December. The airline says 80% of the first class, of which Foster and Arroyo are a part, are women or people of color, because United says it is committed to ensuring that at least half of its Aviate pilot candidates are women or people of color.

To help defray the high cost of pilot training, United will pay for every students initial private pilot certification, which costs more than $17,000.

To help pay for the rest of the $70,000 cost of flight training, United helps provide scholarships and other kinds of financial aid; and will help students secure loans by guaranteeing them a job at one of United's regional airlines when they complete the program.

Jimena Perez Arroyo says the pilot training is hard work and learning to fly can be a bit "nerve-wracking," but she finds the experience overall empowering.

"It shows that no matter, 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," Arroyo says. "I think it just shows that (anything) is a possibility, you know."

For Ricki Foster, who is living far away from her 17-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter while making this dramatic midlife career change, the example she is setting is especially meaningful.

"Every day I think about what it means to (my children) because, for one, the fact that I'm making these strides and I'm doing this, they know it is possible. And (my daughter), she will see me and said, Mom did this despite of everything else."

United Airlines plans to have 500 students a year go through its Aviate Academy flight school. Already more than 12,000 prospective student pilots have applied.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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