Before the world faces another pilot shortage, the industry needs to learn how to recruit, train and retain new pools of people. Rona Gindin reports.

When the pandemic is past, or at least under control, and air traffic climbs toward and beyond 2019 levels, a pipeline of new commercial pilots will again be needed. The industry must look beyond men to fill airline cockpit seats.

The forecasts may fluctuate as the airlines recover from the Covid-19 crisis, yet in coming decades military, commercial and private staffs will be populated with hundreds of thousands of additional pilots, and they’ll look different.

Women alone can provide a virtually unlimited supply of candidates. In each region, various sub-groups of the population can also join the ranks. In the United States, for instance, that includes African-Americans, Latinx, LGBTs and Asian-Americans, among others.

Pilot wannabes will need the proper academic accomplishments, training, drive and resources to attain that training, financially and otherwise. But so does anyone pursuing this line of work.

What’s more, the aviation industry will need to staff other key areas with a generous influx of new populations — particularly aircraft systems technicians and air traffic controllers. Again, those sectors traditionally have been male-dominated.

An Aviation Obstacle Course

Easier said than done, of course. Ushering various gender and demographic groups into pilot and other aviation training programs is challenging. As it turns out, women and other non-traditional candidates need more than just a job opening to move into this growing field. Experts have found that they need exposure to aviation at a young age, emotional mentoring, savvy financial advice and access to affordable training. So far, most efforts have had little effect.

Assorted sets of statistics are floating around the industry, yet all estimate that 5.0 to 7.9% of pilots globally are women. The total number of female pilots increased by just over 1% in the past decade, according to Dr. Rebecca Lutte, Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute. “While we’re increasing, we can do better than that,” she surmises. Lutte recently published “Women in Aviation: Workplace Report,” together with Women in Aviation International and funded by a NASA Nebraska Space Grant.

Only India has made any notable progress. Up to 13% of the South Asian country’s pilots are now female. That spans commercial and military crews. Right behind are two Qantas subsidiaries, Network Aviation (also 13.9%) and QantasLink (13.8%). easyJet, too, has made a name for itself as a go-getter for women. The low-cost carrier’s initiative started in 2015 with the goal of having 20% female pilots by 2020 and had already reached 15% by 2018.

The numbers are nearly as dismal for related fields, as reported by Dr. Lutte:

  • Aircraft mechanic: 2.4% (FAA 2019)
  • Dispatchers: 19% (FAA 2019)
  • Air traffic controllers: 16.7% (Professional Women Controllers 2019)
  • Aerospace engineers: 13% (BLS 2019)

easyJet launched the Amy Johnson Flying Initiative in partnership with the British Women Pilots’ Association in October 2015. Image credit: easyJet.

Ambitious organizations have been taking action in recent years. For example, in 2018 ICAO held the Global Aviation Gender Summit in South Africa. In October, the FAA started the Women in Aviation Advisory Board with the goal of getting more females into aviation careers.

How to Woo Women

Since women comprise about half the population, they’re a natural pool of potential aviation professionals. They’ll need the same skill sets as their male counterparts, yet they respond best to different recruiting, training and retaining techniques than men do. Height is sometimes an issue, but there’s progress in that arena: As of May, the US Air Force has ended its height requirement, so now women and others under 64 inches, or taller than 77 inches, are welcome to apply to be an officer aviator.

To get a general idea of how female aviators respond to different incentives, look at the annual Women in Aviation conference in Orlando, Florida, in March. This organization boasts 16,000 members in 28 countries, and at its most recent pow-wow – of 4,500 attendees – successful female aviation giants mentioned woman-to-woman mentoring repeatedly, always with a warmth unusual in a professional setting.

“Think of the person who pulled out their hand to offer you help, offered to make you better,” implored Joan Robinson-Berry, Vice President and Chief Engineer at Boeing Global Services. “Take the other hand and reach back to one of those students we just introduced to open that door or send that elevator down to help them be successful.”

Dr. Lutte tried to substantiate the softer methods when she set out to do her study. “We wanted to really get a better understanding of what draws women into aviation, and what makes them want to stay or leave,” she explained. “If those numbers aren’t moving much, maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing about outreach, awareness of opportunities and retaining women in the field.”

Early exposure is tremendously effective, she learned. “Over half the women who responded to the survey said that being exposed to aviation early on influenced their decision to pursue a career in aviation.” Girls not only, say, meet a female pilot, but have someone draw the line demonstrating that they themselves can have such a job one day. “It’s not just about awareness of the opportunities out there, but also about empowerment, about making sure young girls know this is out there and definitely within their reach,” Dr. Lutte said. “That’s why it’s crucial for women in pilot and maintenance uniforms to show up and engage with these youngsters. “If you see it, you can be it.”

The industry has certainly been moving in this direction. Pointedly, Women in Aviation International has been holding Girls in Aviation Day programs around the world. Geared at youngsters 8 to 17, the gatherings involved 118 events for 20,000 girls on 5 October last year.

The group also has a free online course for children now. Under the title Aviation Is Your Future, the first session began in March. Girls commit to spending six hours total over a nine-week period to earn a certificate by learning about topics like airplane parts, helicopter flight and space travel. The Massive Open Online Course was developed in conjunction with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - Worldwide.

Young Eagles and other organizations also make efforts, yet Dr. Lutte suggests the industry reach higher: “How can we get buy-in from the powers that be?” she asked.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union with 63,000 US and Canadian pilot members, for example, is upping its support. “It is investing heavily in diversity and inclusion to recruit more underrepresented groups,” she said. Camila Turrieta, a First Officer with JetBlue Airways, is a member of ALPA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and sees its efforts as crucial. “We address how we can support their mission to increase these minority numbers.”

The Magic of Mentors

Mentoring may sound too woo-woo a topic for the aviation industry. Not if its ranks will expand beyond men, it’s not. It’s crucial for women in aviation, the pros say. Women and other aviation-minority newbies who make it past all the entry barriers to pilot, mechanic and other positions held mostly by males find themselves … alone. They’re often left to fend for themselves in unfamiliar territory. Then they leave.

A mentor, preferably someone of the same under-represented group, can be a true lifeline.

After cost, which isn’t gender-specific, women in aviation find workplace culture and family-life/work balance, the two biggest challenges, Dr. Lutte’s study discovered. In fact, 38% of women in aviation considered leaving the workplace driven by concerns over the latter two issues. Mentors and support systems would help newcomers understand how others have dealt with those same challenges, and consequently enhance retention, she concluded.

While Women in Aviation is a strong starting point, smaller efforts help this population support one another. A Facebook group called Female Aviators Sticking Together has 10,000 members. Its public page, with a smaller audience, is filled with pictures of women around the globe with their airplanes, as well as with articles and other media featuring women of all colors and ethnicities achieving success in the aviation industry. Other groups include the Ninety-Nines, operating since 1929; Whirly Girls, for female helicopter pilots; and Sisters of the Sky, for women of color. Its website says the United States has “less than 150 black women pilots” holding assorted licenses.

Embracing Minority

Organizations have sprung up so members of various ethnic groups can support one another beyond the workplace. In the US, these associations make an effort to recruit others into the industry, and mentor those folks once they arrive.

The JetBlue Foundation encourages aviation-related education and helps ignite interest in STEM programs, especially among communities traditionally underrepresented in these areas. Image credit: JetBlue Foundation.

“If you want to recruit more African-Americans to be pilots, then send out an African-American pilot, not a white guy,” said Dr. Mary Niemczyk, an Associate Professor and training specialist with the Aviation Programs at Arizona State University’s The Polytechnic School and Fulton School of Engineering. “We need to show models so people can realize, ‘Oh, that could be me.’”

Since 2015, the Latino Pilots Association has done just that. Among its several initiatives to recruit pilots, maintenance engineers and air traffic controllers is ALAS, the Academy for Latinos in Aviation Science, which introduces high school students to the aviation industry with experiences, field trips, an introductory flight lesson and a graduation. They also work closely with the FAA, the Organization for Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) and NGPA, the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA), a global association for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender aviation professionals.

When reaching out to youngsters within their demographic, members of these organizations try a variety of tactics to usher newcomers into the aviation universe. For JetBlue’s Turrieta, who’s also New York City Regional Director of the Latino Pilots Association, that means acknowledging that some children don’t have the gumption to chat with a grown-up. “We hand them a piece of paper and say, ‘Here’s the website. Here’s information about aviation.’ We might hand out little marketing tools like pens with the URL on it. Eventually they or someone else might see it and in a moment of boredom read it and think, ‘Wow, what is this?’” says Turrieta.

Members find the children easier to win over than their minders at times. Turrieta, for instance, has had to step in during presentations when teachers dismissed girls as ineligible for such a challenging career. As a short Latina woman who was told she was too petite for the job, “got a cushion and became a pilot,” Turrieta has little patience for any blanket rejection. “If a child raises his or her hand because they want to try something, I will give that child a fair opportunity,” she said. “Thankfully I have never taken no for an answer.”

Turrieta’s story demonstrates the power an early introduction to aviation has. In 1997, as her family boarded a flight to move from Chile to the United States for better opportunities, a kind flight attendant brought 7-year-old Turrieta to the flight deck. “I saw buttons, switches and lights,” she retells. “I saw pilots in their uniforms. I was able to try on their hats, and oxygen masks, and push a couple of buttons. I was immediately intrigued.”

Thus began her quest for her hard-won career in aviation. Getting to success was a challenge. “I attended inner city schools. My family had a low income. Even though my parents supported my aviation dream, for me it was completely unattainable.” Acceptance into a public school magnet program provided not only classes but also flight training, saving her the $125 per hour standard for flight training at that time.

Money Matters

Turrieta notes that flight training expenses are beyond what most people can afford. Would-be pilots “have no options except a personal loan or pilot financing,” she said. “That’s it. You can’t offset the costs until you get a job and start earning money.” Few traditional loans are available, she added. “There are very, very limited loan options for these flight students. That is a really big obstacle that as an industry we need to overcome.”

Eager to help other Latinx youngsters break through the barriers, Turrieta’s efforts include straightforward financial insights. “When I talk to kids, I ask, ‘How will you pay for $60,000 to $70,000 in flight training plus college?’” Most never thought it all out in advance, she has learned. “They come to the classroom and think they will somehow fly an airplane. They’re all excited but have completely omitted that info. I know it’s not my job but I take most of those students under my wing so they can have a clear path into the field.”

Without those loans, solid advice and/or a more affordable way to train, the aviation industry loses out not only on women and minorities, but young men from low-income families.

Rethink Training Tactics

Most new pilots come from Gen Z, born from 1997 to 2012 and graduating from high school and college in recent years. Since this age group was affected by the 2008 recession, they’re keen to find well-paying and stable jobs with a career ladder so they won’t suffer the losses their parents did, explained Dr. Niemczyk of Arizona State.

Old-time classroom teaching will turn them off, she said, so to keep these students interested, change the way you train. “The Gen Z generation has always known the internet,” she explained. “They not just Googlers, as the Millennials are; they’re YouTubers. This generation is more about video.”

The old classroom model of lecture/note-taking/quizzes/tests doesn’t succeed, Dr. Niemczyk insists. “If these individuals prefer video, then at your airline you can’t just hand a 737 manual to the students and tell them to read it,” she said. “Instead, say, ‘Here’s a video about the hydraulics of your airplane.’ They’ll watch that. That’s how to teach them.” Video learning goes back to the theory of modelling, Dr. Niemczyk observes. “The learning theory many years ago was that I’ll model this behavior and you’ll pick it up.”

Simulation, especially with virtual reality and augmented reality, fits into this mold, Niemczyk adds. “It’s immersive. Students can see this cockpit or the aircraft engine, then move the screen up and down to open its elements. We want to immerse these individuals, to make them as active as we can in the instructional situation so they can learn it better.”

Keep it short, too. “Instruct in small chunks. Here’s 15 minutes of instruction, now let’s practice.” Repeat. “That way people learn better and retain better. We need to give our brains a break to make associations.”

Once the aviation industry is back in full swing, it can recruit and train women and minorities to fly, fix planes and control flights. Leaders need to reach out early, offer sound advice on finances, and make these newcomers feel welcomed and supported. That’ll help the industry’s growth take off.

Airlines Help Make Training Affordable

Say the outreach works. Folks from underrepresented groups want to become airplane pilots. Then someone shows them the numbers: they need the cost of college tuition plus $70,000, maybe more, in flight training. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that ambitious top students are nearly guaranteed a decently paying job upon completion; that up-front financial investment is a deterrent.

Some airlines are starting to address that concern. The most obvious way is starting their own flight schools. Republic Airways, for example, accepts students with zero flight time into its academy and will provide all the training needed, in return for a time commitment upon earning an ATP license.

On its website, the Indianapolis-based regional carrier spells out three opportunities, described as “Your runway to a career in commercial aviation.” Those with some experience might choose the RJet Cadet Program, for students who completed a four-year college Part-141 program, or the RJ Pilot Prep Program, for those who have trained under different circumstances. Applicants need to meet other requirements too.

Would-be pilots with no experience might look into the LIFT Academy, which debuted at the Indianapolis airport in 2018. LIFT stands for Leadership In Flight Training. Republic touts its program – which uses a combination of flight, flight simulator, online and in-classroom training – as “classroom to cockpit,” and claims “more affordable” tuition than typical flight schools. To help offset costs, once students become CFIs, they can earn money teaching newer recruits while continuing to build flight hours.

A year later, LIFT also began training maintenance technicians in a program that takes less than 36 months. These apprentices will be guaranteed employment upon completion of the program, although they’re free to leave Republic if they so choose. It’s aimed at high school graduates with a penchant for mechanics and features small classes plus one-on-one instruction. The first class of six students started in fall 2019. This, too, has an “earn-to-learn” model wherein students get paid for the work they do while learning skills.

United Airlines also announced recently that it will start its own flight school. “This is new for the United States. European carriers have had programs that partner with flight schools for years, or have their own flight schools, and make Zero to Hero programs. US airlines are just catching up,” said Camila Turrieta, an FO with JetBlue.

In February this year, United announced plans to create the United Aviate Academy. The reasoning puts diversity first: “The United Aviate Academy will give the airline more visibility and direction over the recruitment, development and training of future pilots, enabling United to increase the percentage of women and minorities who become pilots.” United expects approximately 300 students to graduate in its first full year of operation. A longer-term goal is to turn out 10,000 pilots by 2029.

This effort is an expansion of the existing Aviate program, which worked on pilot recruitment and training from the Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix, Arizona.

Addressing cost, Aviate is working with financial institutions to create special arrangements, such as “industry-tailored grace periods” and low interest rates to those who meet certain qualifications. United will also offer scholarships specifically designed for women and minorities.