United’s new flight school prepares its first class for a more inclusive cockpit

When United Airlines announced the launch of its own aviation academy last year, the first-ever flight school to be started by a major US airline, there was also a promise to blaze new trails, especially for underrepresented groups of aspiring pilots.

Ricki Foster, 38, is one of the few to make history as a first class member of the United Aviate Academy. Foster was born in Jamaica but was living with her family in Atlanta, Georgia when she first entered the world of aviation as a flight attendant.

After a decade in this job, Foster rediscovered her passion as a pilot when a fellow pilot suggested she consider the role and took her on a discovery flight. Shortly after, she was training at a local school in Georgia when she heard about United’s Aviate — more importantly, its initiative to diversify the flight deck. When she did a bit of her own research, she was blown away.

“You mean, there’s a real company, a great company, that isn’t scared, that isn’t shy, that doesn’t back down, that doesn’t just do an hour-long seminar on diversity and inclusion. They’re really pursuing that? For me, that was really appealing and long overdue,” Foster said. “I pursued a path here because I felt this was where I needed to be.”

Ricki Foster, 38, at the United Aviate Academy

United Airlines faced a huge response from students across the country when it announced the opening of a flight school committed to promoting diversity and inclusion. Additionally, the need for more pilots is increasing as a shortage of pilots is hurting the entire industry right now.

“Through the academy, United Airlines hopes to continue to increase the diversity of its flight decks and realistically represent the communities the airlines serve,” said Charles Hobart, United Airlines spokesman. “Our goal is to train around 5,000 drivers at the academy over the next 10 years. United intend to hire 10,000 drivers over the next 10 years, so we expect half of those drivers to come from the academy. ‘academy.

For a long time, becoming a pilot seemed like a financial impossibility for many. According to United, just taking private pilot training, which is just one step towards becoming a professional pilot, could cost around $17,000. Obtaining a commercial pilot license can go up to $100,000.

The United Aviate Academy hoped to ease this burden on aviation students by leveraging longstanding relationships with partner organizations: JP Morgan Chase-sponsored scholarships and student loans provided by Sallie Mae are notable financial stepping stones offered to future aviators. United also works with the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Sky Sisters, Latino Pilots Association and Asian Professional Pilots Association to help identify and direct highly qualified and diverse candidates to the academy.

“We are overwhelmed with the enthusiasm of people who want to join the academy and those who are there right now,” said Hobart. “It’s not easy to train to be a pilot, but we were extremely impressed with the first generation of students and the commitment they put into their studies.”

Recruit from the deepest pool possible

The academy’s first class, which started in December 2021, was made up of 80% women or people of colour, 30% more than the number United committed to in their announcement last spring. There are currently 125 students in the academy, but the number has remained constant despite the increase in student numbers, with 78-79% still being people of color. The academy continues to welcome new students each month and add classes to the school itself.

“Traditionally pilots come from the military or some legacy connection. When you look at the history of commercial aviation among airline pilots, they tend to lean towards a particular demographic, the white male. Our commitment to training is always to recruit from the deepest possible pool of exceptional and qualified candidates,” said Hobart. “By looking elsewhere for talent while maintaining our high standards, we know we’re going to be an even stronger airline.”

Sure enough, mother-of-two Foster was one of the potential talents United discovered through their newly framed search. Despite ten exciting years of flying day and night in commercial planes as a flight attendant, the idea of ​​becoming a pilot never crossed Foster’s mind, at least until a year ago. .

She was immediately taken aback by the thought of being in the cockpit, just a few feet from where she normally sat at work, taking charge of the flight instead of watching over it. But it didn’t take him long to fall head over heels in love with piloting, and this new avenue stuck “like a love bug in his brain.”

When Foster entered her first class at the academy, consisting of 30 students, she knew she had come to the right place.

“My class was like what they were talking about. We had men, women, gay, straight, black, Hispanic, Asian, we had everyone,” Foster said. “The initial ‘Wow, we look like what they say.’ was very fulfilling. And as we continued to have more students, it’s the same thing. We have a bit of everyone on campus.

Students range from 19-year-olds with no kids and no college experience to people in their 40s looking to start their next career. Despite the diversity of experiences, they were all able to find commonalities between them. As a mother herself, Foster was able to connect with other parents. As a black woman, she bonded with other women who shared her initial passion and reluctance to become a pilot.

But while Foster was impressed with the academy once she joined her first class, she was aware of United’s previous commitment to racial diversity.

“I know United have been diversifying their flight deck for a long time,” Foster said. “I don’t have hard numbers, but I’ve been in the industry for a while and from my observations most of the black drivers I see are from United. So I could say that United were working on it, but this new initiative is so commendable. I am so proud to be part of it. »

Other people’s dreams

Besides becoming a pilot, Foster has other dreams she wants to achieve – or rather the dreams of other people.

Foster regularly speaks to aspiring young pilots who have concerns similar to hers when she was in their position. More recently, she met a young black girl who initially spoke with uncertainty but quickly radiated excitement as their conversation ended. Foster finds children the most rewarding to talk to.

“I have young parents who ask me to talk to their children. It’s satisfying because they’re the next generation,” Foster said. “I don’t want them to be like me and never think they could be pilots. This was for my generation. In the future, I want every child, every minority, every boy and every black girls know they can be pilots if they want to.

So far, Foster has received her private pilot’s license, the first of the grades she will earn during her one-year program. Professionally, she hopes to continue to excel at the academy and is looking forward to getting her first job as a pilot after a long period of training. Personally, she can’t wait to take her mother, her biggest cheerleader and supporter, on a flight where Foster herself is the captain.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain a private pilot’s license.

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