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Why airlines aim to train more women and people of color to become pilots

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Airlines need more pilots. They face a shortage. And as they recruit more, they would like cockpit crews to be more diverse. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For airlines, the problem isn't just that they don't have enough pilots; it's who those pilots are and how they got there.

ALLISON MCKAY: Historically, they 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 makeup for decades.

SCHAPER: That's Allison McKay, who heads the group Women in Aviation International. She says today only about 7% of airline pilots are women. Only about 1% are women of color. And not being exposed to people who look like you in certain professions can have a huge impact. As a little girl growing up in Jamaica, Ricki Foster never dreamed of becoming an airline pilot, and it still seemed far-fetched even after moving to the U.S. and working in the industry.

RICKI FOSTER: 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.

SCHAPER: But the 38-year-old mother of two became friends with pilots who encouraged her to try to become one. And after Foster went up on a discovery flight, she was hooked.

FOSTER: And I was like, oh, my gosh, I love it. But I was like, oh, my gosh, I can't afford it (laughter). So I was like - you know, I was thinking to myself, I'm too old to start, like, trying to become a pilot. So - but I really love it, so it's just going to be an overpriced hobby.

SCHAPER: Going to flight school and building up the 1,500 flight hours needed to fly for an airline can take years and cost $100,000 or more, and the expense forced Foster to stop. But about a year ago, her friends told her that United Airlines was opening a new flight school called United Aviate Academy here in Goodyear, Ariz., outside of Phoenix. United pays some of the hefty upfront costs and helps secure loans for student pilots by guaranteeing jobs to those who complete the program. Foster was one of 7,000 initial applicants and was accepted.

FOSTER: Pre-flight checklist complete, weight and balance within limits, emergency equipment's onboard.

SCHAPER: And now five days a week, Foster sits at the controls of this Cirrus SR-20 airplane next to flight instructor Aiden Zabiegalski firing up the single engine of this four-seat prop plane.

FOSTER: All right, we'll see.

AIDEN ZABIEGALSKI: We got no tie downs. We're all clear. So you can go ahead and start.

FOSTER: All right.

ZABIEGALSKI: Good luck.

FOSTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE COCKPIT AMBIENCE)

FOSTER: All right. She is ready to go.

SCHAPER: Ricki Foster seems at complete ease as she guides the plane down the taxiway and onto the runway and then takes off on this training flight. She's 1 of 30 student pilots at Aviate Academy's first class, 80% of whom are women or people of color. Another is 19-year-old Jimena Perez Arroyo.

JIMENA PEREZ ARROYO: Aviation kind of had always been a dream of mine. It just did not seem like a possibility for being a woman, for being an immigrant, for being Latina. You know, it's just not something that I ever saw portrayed.

SCHAPER: Arroyo was born in Mexico.

ARROYO: And for most of the people that I had grown up around or anything, like, airplanes were not just something you got into very often in the small town I grew up in. It was just, like, kind of what rich people did - you know? - quote-unquote.

SCHAPER: But after moving to California when she was 10, Arroyo got her first taste of air travel and loved it. Then she took an introduction to aviation class in high school, and she wanted to go to flight school, but...

ARROYO: Just looking at local flight schools, it's about almost 100k - almost 100k. So it's a lot of money. There's no federal aid for it, you know?

SCHAPER: With United helping defray the costs, Arroyo is now on track to be flying a regional airline jet by the time she's 22, and she could be a mainline United Airlines pilot just two or three years after that. Arroyo says the training can be nerve-wracking but also empowering.

ARROYO: And it also 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. I think it just comes to show that it is a possibility, you know?

SCHAPER: Other airlines are stepping up efforts to knock down barriers to flight school and training while diversifying their pilot ranks. They're offering more scholarships to university aviation programs and flight schools, sometimes guaranteeing jobs to pilots who complete training. Delta Airlines is partnering with historically Black Hampton University, adding it to the airline's collegiate pilot career path program. And Alaska Airlines has teamed up with the nonprofit Sisters in the Sky to hire more Black female pilots. Efforts like these allow a student like Ricki Foster to make a dramatic midlife career shift. Though it's temporarily taking her away from her 17-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, she says it's an important example for them, especially her daughter.

FOSTER: Every day, I think about what it means because the fact that I'm making these strides and I'm doing this, she knows it is possible.

SCHAPER: United Airlines plans to have 500 students a year go through its Aviate flight school and is committed to ensuring that at least half of them are women or people of color. Already, more than 12,000 prospective pilots have applied.

David Schaper NPR News, Goodyear, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF YASUMARU'S "KANTAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.