Careers of Black Pilots at United Delayed for Takeoff
Last week, 24 long-term employees of United Continental Holdings, United Airlines, and Continental Airlines filed a lawsuit in San Francisco, alleging racial discrimination, retaliation and harassment in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state fair employment laws. I vividly remember United Airlines television commercials of the 1970s urging us to “Fly the friendly skies of United.” In 2012, the skies appear to be anything but friendly for Black pilots as they seek an equal opportunity to be to be promoted to the management ranks.
The basis for the lawsuit is not new. In 1976, a consent decree was reached with United Airlines to end discrimination against African American employees. The consent decree stalled in 1995. In 2010, African American pilots and operations supervisors who were members of the United Coalition for Diversity filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints again charging racial discrimination. Following the EEOC complaints, United Airlines hastily hired three African Americans for management positions. But that is not the point.
United Airlines misrepresents its own history of promoting Black pilots. In a 2012 United press release, Capt. James Simons, Jr., who has named chief pilot for the northeast region, was hailed as the company’s first African American chief pilot. Wrong! Actually, Capt. Alfonzo “Rick” McCullough was the first Black chief pilot at United.
This year, Americans lauded the movie Red Tails that highlighted the competence, courage, and commitment of Black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. They faced blatant racial discrimination in the 1940s. Ironically, some 70 years later, Black pilots are still fighting for equal opportunity. United airlines cannot credibly salute the Tuskegee Airmen in magazine ads while simultaneously fending off charges of racial discrimination.
Like the Tuskegee Airman, today’s Black pilots are extremely competent. While piloting airplanes may have been their passion in the U.S. Air Force and through other training routes to the captain’s chair, those who filed suit are extremely qualified to serve in management. For example, 22 of the plaintiffs have Bachelor’s degrees, three have earned Masters of Business Administration (MBA’s), one has a Masters of Science, and one has a Masters of Arts. Yet, by being passed over for management positions at United and Continental Air Lines, none of them seem to “qualified” for jobs their less-credentialed White colleagues now occupy. And America wants to claim we are a “post-racial” nation!
Not surprisingly, African Americans and people of color are woefully underrepresented in managerial ranks in proportion to their representation in the United workforce. Worst still, there seems to be an air (pun intended) of retaliation for “whistleblower” pilots. Of the 13 pilots who filed EEOC complaints in 2010, none of them have been promoted to management despite filing scores and scores of applications. The three Blacks who were hired in 2010 either did not complain or were brought in from outside.
What United pilots are seeking can be summed up in the words of Capt. Leon Miller: “The struggle for inclusion at United Airlines is a long-standing issue that many have tried to address over a long period of time…we must break the glass ceiling and stop retaliatory actions, and make a corporate culture change that is truly inclusive.” Amen.
In 2001, following evidence of racial discrimination at the automaker Toyota USA, I had the experience of organizing informational pickets in 24 American cities with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. As a result, Toyota admitted being a bad actor in the transportation industry and committed to a 10-year, $8 billion diversity plan. Although airlines are different from automakers, the principle of developing a measurable plan for inclusion is in the best tradition of American ideals. United may learn a lot from the Toyota model.
The United States of America was founded on the principle of I pluribus unum (out of many, we are one). The same should hold true for Black pilots in the so-called friendly skies of United Airlines.
Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, Inc
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