United Airlines Sparks Debate With Pledge to Diversify Pilot Staff

United Airlines' new initiative to increase representation among an upcoming generation of pilots sparked debate on social media this week, as some commended the company's intent to develop a more diverse training program while others strongly criticized it.

United announced on Twitter that it aims to train an incoming class of pilots in which enrollment rates of women and people of color equate those of white male students.

"Our flight deck should reflect the diverse group of people on board our planes every day," wrote United Airlines in Monday's announcement. "That's why we plan for 50% of the 5,000 pilots we train in the next decade to be women or people of color."

Supporters echoed the company's stated objective to enhance the presence of women and people of color in its highest-ranking aviation positions by lowering barriers to entry that previously prevented them from doing so.

However, those opposed to the United Airlines initiative suggested that it sought to prioritize pilot trainees' race and gender over skill levels and related qualifications.

Similar arguments have played out over initiatives at higher-education institutions and some companies in other industries, which aim to increase the presence of students or employees whose gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation is underrepresented.

"United Airlines is now prioritizing race and gender over qualifications for hiring future pilots," wrote conservative author Brigitte Gabriel in a tweet shared Wednesday morning. "They are literally putting the lives of their customers at risk in the name of being woke."

United Airlines is now prioritizing race and gender over qualifications for hiring future pilots.

They are literally putting the lives of their customers at risk in the name of being woke.

— Brigitte Gabriel (@ACTBrigitte) April 7, 2021

"Race and Gender are the LAST things that should matter when hiring a pilot," added Nick Adams, a conservative political commentator and author, in another tweet. "United Airlines is going to put their riders at risk all so they can make liberals happy. This is sick."

Other social media users, advocating for the United Airlines training initiative, pointed to problematic misconceptions about who is, and is not, qualified to become an airline pilot in subsequent messages shared to Twitter.

"As usual, folks are losing their s*** because a large company has announced they will do better & implement an initiative for diversity. When folks claim only White males are qualified to fly a jumbo jet, that's racism," said Twitter user @cwebbonline. "Diverse doesn't mean unqualified."

Zack Guzman, a reporter at Yahoo Finance, shared a similar sentiment.

"United Airlines saying they want to hire more diverse pilots sparked a lot of backlash from conservatives claiming it's a 'sick' 'woke' move that will 'endanger passengers,'" he tweeted on Wednesday. "But what *is* sick is automatically assuming minority applicants are somehow less qualified for the job."

United Airlines saying they want to hire more diverse pilots sparked a lot of backlash from conservatives claiming it's a "sick" "woke" move that will "endanger passengers"

But what *is* sick is automatically assuming minority applicants are somehow less qualified for the job https://t.co/qXVY0VO4vX

— Zack Guzman (@zGuz) April 7, 2021

United shared a link to its application platform on Twitter, encouraging interested candidates to apply for the program. An accompanying webpage on unitedaviate.com provided additional details about the training initiative, noting that United Airlines will coordinate with JP Morgan Chase and several groups—such as the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Latino Pilots Association and Sisters of the Skies, as well as three Historically Black Colleges and Universities—to assist with recruitment and scholarships.

"Together United and JPMorgan Chase are offering $2.4 million in financial aid to the best and brightest talent, opening the door to a lucrative career for people who previously didn't have the opportunity to pursue one," read a statement from the airline in part.

United Airlines
United Airlines' initiative to include more women and people of color in its pilot training program sparked debate on social media this week. In the photo, a United Airlines Airbus A319-131 takes off from Los Angeles International Airport on January 13, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Most aviation professionals currently employed by U.S. airline companies are white men. National employment data at bls.gov indicates that slightly more than 5 percent of pilots and flight engineers are women, while just under 10 percent are Black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women and people of color presently account for almost 20 percent the pilot population at United Airlines, according to the company.

Newsweek reached out to United Airlines for comment but did not receive a reply in time for publication.