Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized the lack of diversity in the aviation workforce Tuesday, and leaders on a House panel pledged to make the issue a priority.
There has been some progress by certain airlines, but overall, “the numbers are miserable,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said at an aviation subcommittee hearing. More than half of the U.S. population is female, but only 7% of pilots are women and 2.4% are mechanics, DeFazio said.
Lawmakers said this was particularly important now that the country is reopening to travel after the pandemic, with a workforce that may need to grow.
“It’s perhaps the first time the committee has addressed this issue through a full hearing,” DeFazio said. “These are things that need to be exposed.”
Aviation trade groups and the airline industry pushed for lawmakers to do more to help provide apprenticeship opportunities, push for better industry statistics, expand workforce development grants, and align federal funding to support the education required to become an airline pilot.
“Over the past 22 years, quite honestly, I have often been the only person of color in the room, and many times one of the only women at the table,” said Icema Gibbs, JetBlue Airways Corp.’s vice president of corporate social responsibility and diversity, equity, and inclusion. “With your help, we have an opportunity to diversify the aviation workforce to better reflect the U.S. population.”
Rep. Rick Larsen(D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee, in May sponsored bipartisan legislation (H.R. 3310) to authorize the Transportation Department to develop public service announcement campaigns to promote job opportunities and improve diversity, which industry supports.
“I, myself, have more work to do to understand and address the barriers, such as systemic racism, that enable inequity and injustice to persist in the United States,” Larsen said.
Claudia Zapata-Cardone, from the Latino Pilots Association, said that bill could “help attract the next generation of transportation professionals, while creating a more diverse workforce.”
“Other ways Congress can help this mission is to align federal funding support for the education required to become an airline pilot with that of other highly skilled professions,” she said.
Gibbs of JetBlue said the trend could change by building more awareness for aviation careers as early as possible through public-private partnerships and educational initiatives that encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
More data could also help the industry better address its diversity problems, hearing witnesses said. Joel Webley, chair of the board of directors at the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, said that many businesses and agencies have made commitments to improve diversity, but there’s a large gap in the available data.
“It’s critical that we measure what matters, and have a common data set from which to compare progress and make adjustments,” Webley said, calling for more data from organizations such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Education.
Lawmakers are also pushing for the industry to do more about staff shortages. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, sent letters last week to the CEOs of major airlines, expressing concern about worker shortages leading to delayed and canceled flights.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said there are opportunities to diversify the aviation industry, but urged the committee to look at the overall shortages facing the industry.
“There’s no doubt with the surge back in travel that there have been some extraordinary challenges in meeting the demands,” Graves said. “In the aviation industry there were shortages even before Covid.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org