Going Direct: Airline Flying Gets Dubious Distinction

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A new study by AdvisorSmith, a company that tracks and creates data related to business insurance, has ranked the position of professional pilot/flight engineer as the least diverse well-paying job in America. It’s not an opinion, either. The company used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to make a list of the 72 best-paying gigs in the economy, which were ones making an average of $80,000 or more, and then it dove into the ethnic and gender makeup of the workforce in that industry. It then ranked the 10 most diverse and 10 least diverse among those desirable professions. The top-ranking jobs surprised me. Number two is statistician and number one is medical scientist, both jobs that, in the past, have had little diversity. But changing times and changing attitudes have made a big difference in helping both professions embrace diversity.

According to the AdvisorSmith study, the same cannot be said for the job of airline pilot. In its latest study, the company found that commercial flying isn’t just lagging a bit; it’s the least diverse profession in the country.

How bad is it? According to the study’s data (based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers), there are 141,000 commercial pilots. The annual salary is $152,610. Not bad. The percentage of women pilots? Just 7.5%. The percentage of all pilots who are white? It’s 93.7%. It’s not just disappointing. It’s appalling.

There’s little doubt that the industry harbors a great deal of negative opinion about both women’s and minorities’ places on the flight deck. The debate over whether women are good pilots or not has passed from the realm of argument to that of pure bias. Same for the capabilities of pilots of color. Sadly, these attitudes make their way onto the flight deck far too often in the form of negative regard and outright harassment, something that nearly every woman who flies for a living admits.

Regressive thinking aside, to any commercial pilot, it will come as no surprise that airline pilots are overwhelmingly male and white. Even outside of the commercial sphere, aviation is not a diverse activity. And clearly, some of the lack of diversity is due to historical factors. For many decades, the airlines drew predominantly from the military, and it wasn’t until recent decades that there was even such a thing as a female military pilot, never mind large numbers of them—there are, by the way, still very few women flying in the military. Why the Armed Services have done such a poor job getting women, and both men and women of color, into the air, is a matter of much debate and frustration among military folks.

There are surely cultural forces at play, too, though those cultural views of what professions young people of any description can aspire to are changing fast, as we’ve seen in recent news. And if you think that women are not enthusiastic aviators, think again. They are smart, dedicated, hard working and intensely passionate about flying. And member organizations that promote women in aviation, including Women in Aviation International and the Ninety-Nines, do their part and then some. Something has to change on the other side of the equation. 

So the question becomes, what can the commercial airline industry to to make its ranks more diverse? Because it is long past time to do that. And the statistics don’t lie. It has utterly failed thus far. 

General aviation is different, but we need diversity as well, albeit for somewhat different reasons. It’s not only the right thing to do to greatly expand our reach and membership, but it’s also in our best interest, as more than ever our strength is closely tied to our numbers. And expanding our numbers doesn’t just grow our activity one aviator at a time, but potentially by the hundreds and thousands as more and more people see what an amazing thing flying is, a truth we should do everything in our power to spread far and wide and not keep a closely guarded secret among the few.

Categories: How to Become a Pilot

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