Diversifying the Pilot Pipeline

Aug 4, 2023

As U.S. commercial airlines staff up to meet new hiring goals, there is an opportunity for them to break down barriers to entry and diversify an industry that has a legacy of being overtly white and male.

Hosted by Carla Harris


Carla Harris: In recent years, two words that have come to be associated with the airline industry are “pilot shortage”. A 2022 analysis issued by consulting firm Oliver Wyman found a shortfall of 8,000 pilots in North America, or 11% of the total workforce. That gap is estimated to grow to nearly 30,000 by the end of the decade.

This shortage can be attributed to a number of factors, including baby boomer pilots nearing the federally mandated retirement age of 65, having fewer military pilots to transition to civilian carriers, and pilots deciding to take early retirement during peak COVID when air travel demand fell. But as the volume of people traveling has ramped up at rates higher than expected, airlines are struggling to fill the gaps.

In their pursuits to staff up and meet new hiring goals, there is an opportunity for commercial airlines in the United States to diversify an industry that has a legacy of being overtly white and male. However, doing so requires intentional efforts to break down the barriers to entry.

Eric Hendrick: When you get into the aviation world, you meet so many good people, but they say things such as, "My granddad flew. My dad was a pilot." Now they're a pilot. They have exposure to it. And for minorities, we've not had exposure to those things. And for women, they weren't allowed to do those things either. So that's why we have this separation, this gap in equity that exists today.

Carla Harris: This is Eric Hendrick, Delta Air Lines' first Director of Pilot Outreach. I speak with him about how the airline industry is working towards ushering in a new generation of pilots who have historically been left out: women and people of color. But first, we'll hear from Captain Beth Powell of American Airlines about what it's been like to navigate piloting as a Black woman.

Beth Powell: Many times you were one of few, if not the only one, and so when there was a challenge, you would wish to have support from someone who looked like you. And you also question sometimes, "What am I doing? Do I belong?"

Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, a show from Morgan Stanley's Inclusive Ventures Group. I’m your host Carla Harris. And we’re telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We contextualize systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.

[SFX - footsteps]

Beth Powell: The feel starts off when you step into this aircraft that's over a hundred thousand pounds.

[Footsteps stop]

Beth Powell: The engine starts.

[SFX - airplane engine starting]

Beth Powell: You hear the roar and you feel that power and that connection within you.

[SFX - airplane on runway, picking up speed]

Beth Powell: While you're rolling down the runway over 120 miles an hour, that speed transfers into you as well, and you're going as fast as that airplane in your head.

Carla Harris: For Captain Beth Powell, to fly the Boeing 737 is to be one with the aircraft.

[SFX - airplane takeoff]

Beth Powell: And then when you pull back, you feel your body pitch up with the airplane. You feel it ascending and climbing in the air. You feel every movement it makes. But then you realize you're in control. All that power is within you as you handle that airplane safely from point A to point B.

[SFX - dramatic warpy whoosh to end airplane series + “dramatic” pause]

[Music #1 - dreamy pastoral]

Carla Harris: Beth's journey to coasting above the clouds begins with her dreaming big in St. Mary, a rural town in Jamaica.

Beth Powell: There's still goats on the road with cars where I'm from. So a really small town in Jamaica. And coming from that small town, one thing my mother realized at an early age is that if we got an education, we would ‘become’, which means being able to visualize whatever it is you wanna be, but knowing that it's possible. Our mother was a stay home mom, and she wanted more than the status quo for her three daughters. So she moved us to a Catholic boarding school in Kingston, the capital.

Carla Harris: Beth excelled at school, especially in math, physics-- any subject that had to do with numbers, really. She would often impress her teacher by not only solving the problems on the board but also finding alternative ways to arrive at the correct answer.

Beth Powell: And he was just excited about that. And I thought to myself, I get that I love numbers, but why are you so excited? I actually said that to him one day, and he said, “Are you kidding me? You could ‘become’.”

[Music fades out]

Beth Powell: Now, he said a lot of things thereafter. And I remember pilot. And so I rushed home at 15 years old to my parents, and I was like, “Mommy, daddy, the teacher said I could ‘become’. I could become an airline pilot.”

[Music #2 - determined]

Carla Harris: With the encouragement of her mother, Beth dove right into researching this potential career path. They scanned the Yellow Pages for local flight schools and came across Wings Jamaica, the only option available at the time. But before Beth gave the school a call, her father asked her an innocent question that gave her some pause.

Beth Powell: My dad, he too is from a small town in Jamaica, where he didn't graduate high school. He worked odd jobs to make ends meet, to take care of us, and he only knew what he knew. He never really saw any female pilot flying around, even though they existed back then, and so when I said, “Mommy, daddy, I could become,” he said, “Do females fly?”

[Music fades out]

Beth Powell: That got me thinking, in that moment, because really and truly all of our time traveling, we haven't really seen a female pilot either. That kind of lack of awareness and representation was a major challenge back then.

Carla Harris: When Beth called the flight school, her first question to the owner was "Do women fly?" His unequivocal “yes" assured Beth that becoming a pilot was very much within the realm of possibility.

[Music #3 - swelling excitement]

Beth Powell: Next thing I knew I was in a Cessna 152 rolling down the runway 80 miles an hour. The instructor said, “Guard the controls with me.” And so I did. He pulled back, and I felt that. We made a turn. I felt that, too. I felt every movement that airplane made as if I was a bird flying around free in the sky. When I landed, I had this huge smile on my face, and he looked at me and said, “They pay us to do this.” And so I said, “That's it. I'm gonna be an airline pilot.”

Carla Harris: There are two pathways to becoming a pilot, through one of the branches of the military or through flight school as a civilian. At just 16 years old, Beth embarked upon the civilian pathway and enrolled into Wings Jamaica. Over the next two years, she underwent various training courses, solo’ed cross-country flights, and logged the required hours to obtain her private pilot license by 17 and commercial pilot license by 18.

Beth Powell: Thereafter, you have to build flight time to have the minimum hours to work for an airline. That's another 1500 hours total time that can take you another year and a half to two years to build. I flight-instructed for two and a half years to build my requirements while working on my degree, and then at 21 years old I got on with American Eagle, one of our wholly-owned carriers for American Airlines.

[Music sting out]

Carla Harris: Beth eventually worked her way up from the regional carrier to flying for American Airlines directly. While she had come a long way from her high school math class, pursuing her dream of becoming an airline pilot wasn't without its challenges.

Beth Powell: When I started, I remember my parents borrowing the money to get me through flight school, and after I got my commercial license, they were not able to afford that anymore. I've seen my dad work three jobs and I thought, Well, I'm gonna work three jobs to get that money to help pay for flight training. And so that's what I did.

Carla Harris: Between training, obtaining the necessary certifications, and securing the appropriate amount of flight hours, these days it costs civilians at a minimum $100,000 to become a commercial airline pilot. And for pilots like Beth, there is the added hurdle of not feeling represented and lacking a sense of belonging because Black women pilots are so few and far between.

Beth Powell: We had three female pilots in Jamaica. However, they didn't look like me. And so the question of belonging always resurrected in the back of my head. Many times you were one of few, if not the only one, and so when there was a challenge you would wish to have support from someone who looked like you. And you also question sometimes, "What am I doing? Do I belong?" All Black female pilots in America share a very similar sentiment and wanted a platform where we could share and uplift and support each other.

[Music #4 - happy informational]

Carla Harris: Out of that longing, Sisters of the Skies was born. It started small, as a text message group where the Black women who flew professionally could connect and share their experiences with each other.

After a year of building community, the founders of Sisters of the Skies encouraged members to think about ways to leverage their resources and network of Black female pilots to expand the organization to support future Black aviators.

Beth Powell: And that's when we came up with the same support that we needed for ourselves. Let's give this back to others. And so we did.

Carla Harris: Today, Beth sits on the Board of Advisors for Sisters of the Skies and helps craft the execution of the organization's goal.

Beth Powell: Our mission is about bringing awareness through outreach, mentor, and scholarship to women of color in our communities. To help to overcome that barrier of representation. Yes, you do belong. Yes, this is a career path for you.

[Music sting out]

Carla Harris: According to Sisters of the Skies, fewer than 150 airline pilots today are Black women, making up less than 1% of all professional pilots in the United States. In August 2022, Beth was Captain of the American Airlines flight that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first Black woman, Bessie Coleman, to earn a pilot’s license. It made for a historic moment because all 36 individuals involved, from the pilots and flight attendants to the cargo team and aviation maintenance technician, were Black women.

Beth Powell: I remember a moment walking through that airport and I looked to our left and I looked to my right and I saw us walking together. We made it in our own right, and that itself needed to be celebrated. We were also channeling Bessie Coleman that day as we walked together as Black women from all aspects in aviation who made it.

Beth Powell: It was bringing awareness so that others could see themselves within us and know that there's a pathway for them in this field.

Carla Harris: It's crucial to have pilots like Captain Beth Powell in the skies because diverse representation is such a powerful tool for recruitment. But in addition to that, airlines are going to have to be committed to investing their dollars in initiatives that attract and support pilots from minority backgrounds. That's particularly why over the past few years several airlines in the U.S. have launched programs that remove barriers and broaden their reach, from American Airlines Cadet Academy to United Aviate Academy to Delta Propel Career Path Program, to name a few.

Our next guest, Eric Hendrick, is a former pilot who was roused out of retirement to dedicate the next phase of his life to progressing the piloting industry. Unlike Captain Beth Powell, Eric became a pilot by way of the military. After spending several years flying for the Navy, Eric went on to fly for AirTran Airways and then Southwest Airlines, where he eventually retired in 2020.

In May 2022, Delta hired Eric as the airline’s first Director of Pilot Outreach. Among his responsibilities are to help the airline hire more diverse pilots and create opportunities for potential young minority pilots. I sat down with Eric to learn how piloting has become so homogeneous and how he and Delta are involved in the industry-wide endeavor to get more women and minorities invited into piloting.

Carla Harris: Eric Hendrick, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show and are you ready?

Eric Hendrick: I am ready and thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Carla Harris: Alrighty. So let's start with, in what ways does the pipeline to commercial piloting make the industry less diversified?

Eric Hendrick: Well Carla, the largest barrier to entry into this industry is finance. It's very expensive to learn to fly on the civilian side. So now we have the most underserved communities proportionally in America – African Americans. We don't have the resources to do it, but yet we don't want to go to the military to do it either.

Carla Harris: And can you give me a sense, Eric? You said it's very expensive to do it on the private side. Give us a sense of what that looks like if I was going to pursue that not in the military, if I was gonna pursue it, as you say, “on the civilian side.”

Eric Hendrick: Well if you started off as you're sitting there now you have zero flight time, you know nothing about this…let's go from there to your ability to apply for a job.

Carla Harris: Okay.

Eric Hendrick: That ranges about $90,000

Carla Harris: Okay.

Eric Hendrick: Just to say I can now apply for a flight instructing job. That's not qualifying you to fly people yet.

Carla Harris: Okay.

Eric Hendrick: That's not qualifying you to be at an airline. So now let's tack on another $50,000 to $60,000 to get to the point where you can now apply for a job at a regional carrier to continue to build your flight hours, right. So it's very expensive. Lending institutions are very wary of giving loans for this endeavor, so it's very challenging to, even the middle class American, to get into this industry.

Carla Harris: Mm-hmm, understood. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics at least 95% of the roughly 158,000 pilots employed in the United States are men. And another report from the job platform Zippia finds that among these commercial airline pilots, 90% are white. You've already given us one great reason why that's the case and that is, you know, money, and what it might take to become a pilot if you're on the civilian side, but are there any other gatekeepers that might have contributed to this homogeneity?

Eric Hendrick: Well, if we go back through the history of airlines, we start in an era where it was a male-dominated America in the first place.

Carla Harris: That’s fair.

Eric Hendrick: We start in an era where it was a white-male dominated career to fly airplanes. Blacks weren't allowed to do it. I mean, so if we think about it, if we go back to World War II – the famed Tuskegee Airmen – think about having to fight for the right to fight for your country.

Carla Harris: Yeah, okay.

Eric Hendrick: Okay. Okay.

Carla Harris: Yep.

Eric Hendrick: Yeah, so that's how these things start. Well if you go through several generations of this, all of a sudden now other people don't even see this as existing. When you get into the aviation world, you meet so many good people, but they say things such as, "My granddad flew. My dad was a pilot." Now they're a pilot. They have exposure to it. And for minorities, we've not had exposure to those things. And for women, they weren't allowed to do those things either. So that's why we have this separation, this gap in equity that exists today. And if we do a 20 year snapback the year 2000 the diversity numbers in the airline industry haven't changed much at all.

Carla Harris: Wow, in 20 years?

Eric Hendrick: In 20 years, diversity hasn't changed much at all. It's flatlined and so that's why we have to start working to do things about that. So that's why companies like Delta are creating pathways to try to get people into this industry and quite frankly not only Delta but a lot of airlines are doing the same thing to get people in the industry and to give exposure to communities as well to get diversity into the industry. So we're working on that.

Carla Harris: Yeah. So let's talk about some of those programs that exist out there and what you think their responsibilities are at this point to really make it happen.

Eric Hendrick: Well when we look at Delta Propel we started off with a program that gave a pathway to fly for Delta for the universities that we support. Now we are going reaching out to our HBCUs who have flying programs that we can increase that diversity here at our company. So we've brought on Hampton University in 2022. We're now bringing on Elizabeth City State University. We're doing this so that we can get more diverse candidates into the Delta mainline system.

Carla Harris: So, are you helping the colleges actually with a specific curriculum, making sure that they have the right science courses or the right engineering courses or whatever it is you think somebody needs at that age of 18 to 22 to A) get excited about a career in aviation but B) have the tools and the sensibilities around being a pilot? So talk to me a little bit about what you're doing at the university level to make sure you get the candidates you need by the time they graduate at 22.

Eric Hendrick: Well the programs for all carriers are geared to universities that have an existing flight program.

Carla Harris: Okay. Alright.

Eric Hendrick: So let's just talk about, we're freshmen at a university with a flight program. If they're in a school with a flight program and they wanna fly, they're already interested. So now we're marketing to them to say these are opportunities we have for Delta then in their junior year they sign up for Propel. Also, in your junior year is where the majority of young people may start running into a financial crisis as well.

Carla Harris: Mm-hmm.

Eric Hendrick: That's why we have lending partners that, they could step in, get that lending opportunity and do not have to start repayment for over 42 months until they get a job, and until they're actually making income.

Carla Harris: Almost four years, okay.

Eric Hendrick: Almost four years. Now once you're accepted into the program, you now know that once you graduate, and that once you build the required flight time, you will go to one of our regional carriers. Because you are a Propel student, you only stay there for 36 months, at the most. So now, in 36 months, you are walking into the door of Delta Airlines, and that usually precedes the time when you have to start paying back that loan. And so now we're bringing those opportunities, we're bringing Delta Propel to our HBCUs, and we will do more in 2023 because we want to make sure that we have those opportunities out there for everyone.

Carla Harris: Outstanding. Outstanding. Now you’re Delta's Director of Pilot Outreach, and the first person from my understanding, to hold this particular role. What does that mean for our listeners?

Eric Hendrick: So I control all of pilot hiring. That's the first leg on my stool. The second leg on my stool, I control the pathways, Propel. The third thing that I do is I control the community outreach, so I can get down to the middle schools. And the fourth leg of my stool is I run the DEI shop for flight operations, and that's with 14,500 pilots. So that's what I do. And Delta has given me the opportunity to use my imagination, if you will, to execute my passion for this purpose of increasing diversity.

Carla Harris: Wow. My guess is that if you guys are successful, and I know you will be, having the kind of diversity that you envision over the next few years will make a difference in your overall competitiveness at the company, and certainly will make a difference in consumer appetites.

Carla Harris: Well, earlier this episode our listeners heard from Captain Beth Powell of American Airlines and she spoke about navigating the industry as a Black woman. How do you think seeing women like Captain Powell in the cockpit will change the piloting landscape?

Eric Hendrick: Well, I think number one if you see it you can do it. The visibility is amazing. A black female pilot is a unicorn. Okay. That's a unicorn.

Carla Harris: Yes, unfortunately that is still the case. You are right, Eric. Yes.

Eric Hendrick: That is still the case. Okay, so there will be a young black girl who gets on the aircraft and see her and say, “Wow, I can do this.” When I was flying and when you're the captain you have the authority to do a lot of things. The one thing I would do is I would invite young Black kids, four, five, six years old. “Come up to the cockpit. Come to the flight deck. Have a seat.” And just the awe factor, just “Wow.” They can't believe it: first, there's a Black person standing there; number two, they're sitting in the flight deck of this amazing piece of machinery and that inspires people.

Carla Harris: Yes.

Eric Hendrick: That inspires them to say, “I can do this.” And that changes their trajectory and their mindset because now they can see it. So for Captain Powell, her reach is so expansive, it's so wide – just walking through the airport. It's amazing and it's awe inspiring.

Carla Harris: Well I could not agree more cause I must admit I do have a different sensibility when I step on a plane and I see a female pilot or I see a person of color. No question about it. Even today, you know it sort of makes me stand up a little bit straighter. And and what is your dream with respect to the piloting industry in the next 10 years?

Eric Hendrick: I'll go through a few steps. So we work with some amazing industry partners as well. Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, we work with them. They do an amazing job at introducing aviation to African Americans all over the country and we've been a partner with them for over two decades. And that organization was started by Black pilots because there was no network. We also work with Women in Aviation to increase our diversity with women, and that's an amazing organization who introduced women, from young girls all the way up through 19, 20 years old, that they still can realize their dream. And there are many more. We work with the Professional Asian Pilots Association, Gay Pilots Association, Latino Pilots Association, so there's quite a few of our industry partners that we work with to help us get that diversity that we desire. But, let's talk about how serious we are about it. With the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, every year we do camps here in Atlanta, in Cleveland, and Minneapolis. We also have a Dream Flight. We take our aircraft offline, we fly over 180 kids to locations where they can see different aviation aspects. We'll give them that exposure. And for most of those kids that's the first time they've been on an airplane. We do the same thing called a Wing Flight, where we take another big airplane, put 180 women on that airplane and do the same thing. And the amazing thing about that is everything, from TSA to the check-in counter, to the baggage handling, to the maintenance, to the pushback crew, to the pilots and the flight attendants, are all women.

Carla Harris: Wow.

Eric Hendrick: And it's amazing to see these young women come back off of that flight and talk about how it changed their life.

Carla Harris: Yeah I can believe it. I mean I'm just getting excited hearing you talk about it. And earlier, I was happy to hear you say that you already reached down to middle school because I cannot impress upon you enough Eric how significant that is because it's what you see in sixth, seventh and eighth grade that I think really impacts you the most around what you think you wanna pursue. Even today, in communities of color, if you have college aspirations people are pushing you towards things that are gonna give you a “functional” job. Well if you don't know about different roles in an airline, at 13 you're not saying, “I wanna be a maintenance engineer. I wanna be a troubleshooter in an airport.” So the more you can expose sixth to eighth graders to all those different roles, I think the higher probability that you have, and more people getting excited, about being in the industry.

Eric Hendrick: Yeah, well you know, we're engaging with the community. We did so well that we had to stop our engagement in 2022 because we were just overbooked. We didn't have the staffing to do it, okay. But that was an amazing thing. It's a good problem to have. We can increase staff. We can reorg. But we're gonna continue to go down there and reach 'em because they can't see it, they can't do it.

Carla Harris: Yep. It's exposure and it's exposure to our kids early. I mean I didn't know anything about Naval ROTC, but someone showed up at my predominantly Black, Catholic school and basically she had on this great Naval uniform. And I said, “Okay when I get to that high school I'm gonna join Naval Junior ROTC,” because she looked so sharp. Did I know what it meant? – no. Did I know what I was gonna have to do? – no. But boy I liked how sharp she looked, how well she spoke and I said, "Yep that's what I'm interested in." So I could not agree more.

Eric Hendrick, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

Eric Hendrick: Thank you. And you know Carla, if I could leave anything with people, I can tell you that if a good old country boy from South Hill, Virginia can do the things I've done and get to this level, they can do it as well.

Carla Harris: Amen.

Eric Hendrick: It's been an amazing journey.

Carla Harris: Amen.

Eric Hendrick: An amazing journey.

Carla Harris: I want to thank Captain Beth Powell and Eric Hendrick for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity. What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at msivg@morganstanley.com. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along. 

A 2022 analysis by consulting firm Oliver Wyman found a shortfall of 8,000 pilots in North America, or 11% of the total workforce. That gap is estimated to grow to nearly 30,000 by the end of the decade. In their pursuits to staff up and meet new hiring goals, there is an opportunity for commercial airlines in the United States to diversify an industry that has a legacy of being overtly white and male by breaking down the barriers to entry.


On this episode, we’re exploring how the aviation industry is helping people from as many communities as possible to access roles within the industry. First, we hear from American Airlines pilot Captain Beth Powell about her journey to become one of just a few Black women holding high rank in the cockpit of commercial flights across America. Then, host Carla Harris sits down with Eric Hendrick, Delta Air Lines’ first Director of Pilot Outreach, to discuss the industry-wide endeavor to get more women and people of color involved into piloting. Come on and join us for the ride.



Interested in the Morgan Stanley Inclusive Ventures Lab?

Read about the firm’s in-house accelerator for underrepresented founders.

More Access and Opportunity