Flight Standards in Question: The Turbulent Debate Over United Airlines’ Pilot Hiring

Last month conservative commentator Ashley St. Clair launched a firestorm over commercial airlines transporting undocumented immigrations. It was an odd criticism of Biden administration immigration policy when at a time when flying and busing migrants has also been the policy of some Republican governors.

Now Ms. Sinclair has turned her attention to United Airlines pilot hiring practices. She offers no substantiation that an incident was caused by diversity hiring – just innuendo that recycles allegations that have been around for a year.

A year ago Tucker Carlson went on an unhinged rant about diversity hiring of pilots. He basically got all of his facts wrong. So I’m naturally reticent to rely on stories that are lacking in facts, attributing specific incidents to specific unnamed people, and making claims about the training and skills of people that haven’t been named.

I’d point out that:

  • air travel remains remarkably safe, and safer than other forms of transportation
  • new commercial pilots frequently have to have bad habits trained out of them which were developed in a quest to meet the minimum hours required to obtain their license – this has nothing to do with diversity
  • there’s no fully formed accusation here, even suggesting who was in control of the aircraft, what the conditions were, and what mistakes if any were made

And diversity hiring is actually going to be important for recruiting pilots.

  • There’s a shortage of pilots
  • Any business that wants to be more successful than average will need to do a better job finding talent, which means looking for talent where others aren’t
  • And providing support for people from nontraditional backgrounds to succeed in a culture not geared to them makes plenty of sense.

Here’s what major airline pilots usually look like, by the way:

Looking for talent where others aren’t is an entirely different approach from choosing people without aptitude for being a pilot in order to get numbers up. That’s not going to help.

Diversity hiring has been a practice in air traffic control, and not because of shortages. In fact, in the face of a shortage of controllers and not enough training slots, it’s meant skipping over qualified controller applicants in favor of ones that needed more training.

During the Obama administration, the FAA moved to ‘off the street’ hiring with diversity as a criteria, passing over graduates of FAA-approved university air traffic control programs.

  • The FAA launched the Collegiate Training Initiative in 1997, working with colleges and universities to offer air traffic control degrees, and making their graduates the primary source for hiring controllers. This trumped the previous requirement of a high school degree and three years of (unrelated) work experience.

  • In 2005 the FAA Inspector General recommended adding coursework to these schools to reduce training time at the FAA’s academy. The FAA didn’t do this, and Congress directed a study of the move in agency’s 2012 reauthorization.

  • Instead, during the Obama administration, the FAA started an Air Traffic Controller Recruitment Campaign which bypassed graduates. A decision made by the FAA, and not by the Air Traffic Organization, meant that both high school graduates and those with air traffic control degrees had to apply through the same program and pass both the standard aptitude test for controllers and a biographical test.

This change had the effect of bypassing hundreds of controller graduates. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) expressed concern with the FAA’s change in hiring practices at the time.

Now, it’s probably a good idea to have these programs. We need more air traffic controllers. We also need more air traffic controller training. We are leaving qualified applicants out of training programs because there aren’t enough slots. Just as we need to expand the pool of pilots, we need to expand the training slots for air traffic controllers and expand efforts to find skilled applicants for them. Qualifying needs to be rigorous, and to have enough potential applicants the recruiting net needs to be cast wide.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Why do people even listen to these fools? Among many other highlights Carlson called the January 6th people, ““…orderly and meek. These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.” And St. Clair said she was going to have a son and worried he would cry because he wasn’t on hormone replacement therapy like all his friends. But then if you listen to Fox (aka the Goebbels Network) you get brainwashed…and these two are laughing all the way to the bank–Carlson made $20 million a year, and I’m sure she did well too. There are legitimate issues and a calm, rational discussion can be held about affirmative action, but those two adjectives don’t apply these jokers.

  2. I want the most qualified person flying the plane. I want it to be merit based.

    The reason this is coming up is because United has made a huge deal with concurrent ad campaign about not hiring straight white men and paying for training for people with no flight experience.

    What this does (and the same can be said for college campuses) is puts a seed of doubt in peoples’ minds when they see someone in the cockpit that doesn’t look like what they’re used to seeing up there.

    Like hmm, is this the best person or the one that ticked the right boxes. Hurts everyone honestly.

  3. @drrichard (?) – If you’re going to call it “hormone replacement therapy”, which is something biological females in menopause used to commonly use, instead of the correct term, gender-affiming hormone therapy, we’re going to wonder which Cracker Jack box you got your “dr” from. No one, but no one, uses the HRT term to describe the treatment of gender-transitioning patients. I’m thinking you’re not a medical doctor, probably one of those fake Ed. D. ones.

  4. @drrichard

    Only fools are people like you who ignore reality. Who are with people dying because of DEI.

    You either suffer from some kind of success envy or are a self loathing liberal.

    Lots of liberals who supported domestic terrorist riots of 2020 are now figuring out the hard way that it doesn’t matter and those same people will turn on them in the end (support for hamas terrorist attack on Israel).

    The atlas flight that crashed into the bay in houston was caused by a dei hire that LIED about failures at other airlines and was pushed through the training program despite repeated failures.

    The truth is coming out about the hard landing in Houston as well by United and who was at the controls.

    Affirmative action is dead and that’s a good thing. Hire based on skill and merit.

  5. @AndyS,

    I encourage you to read the NTSB report on the Atlas accident. Yes, the pilot hid other failures. Are you claiming that Atlas knew he lied and hired him anyway because he was a minority? There was a hiring and training failure that had nothing to do with the pilot’s race. He wasn’t a bad pilot because he was black…

  6. C_M, please read my post again. I didn’t call it “hormone replacement therapy,” that dope St. Clair did. I simply shortened her quote, which can be easily checked. Probably should have given the whole one, but it’s long and pathetic. Oh, it’s a PhD which I worked 6 years for–in the social sciences but I’ve also got a legitimate MS in the hard ones too. (4 degrees total, none as an Ed.D.)

  7. @drrichard

    “Social science”
    So in other words it’s a worthless degree that has nothing to do with ACTUAL science?

  8. So Gary – how much did the Biden admin pay you to write this?

    Did you forget about the part where there’s been a lot more close calls lately among the air traffic controllers? Even the Bid3n apologists at the NYT acknowledges this..


    But no.. of course it CANT be DEI that is causing this. Absolutely not, right?

    Or maybe…

  9. You are all over the place on this rant, Gary. Texas gov is bussing illegal immigrants (and in the process not allowing them to bypass TSA screening requirements) to highlight the hypocrisy of leftists cities/states who claim to be sanctuaries and pro illegal immigration, until it impacts them. You’re saying you can’t criticize giving illegals special benefits by flying them without TSA screening if you are in favor of bussing them to sanctuary cities? I do not follow your logic.

    Seems like you’re just trying to get back into the good graces of your leftist buddies after basically having nothing positive to say about their policies for months.

  10. @mantis
    They are not illegal immigrants! They are literally legally allowed to be here and generally have to come to the point of entry to request asylum by US law.

  11. I’d call St. Clair a bimbo but that would be denigrating bimbos. She’s an impressive combination of hubris, hate, stupidity, and viciousness, with a healthy dose of intentional ignorance.

  12. St Clair was an ambassador to Turning Point USA (TPUSA). This is Charlie Kirk’s very conservative, right wing youth group. On the TPUSA website you will find she was kicked out for her association with both white nationalists and anti Semitic groups. She is now self promoting whatever she can sell. And we have a word for that I will not use here. I would not believe anything she is selling

  13. One of the issues with DEI hiring is the fact that you cant meet target goals without letting those not qualified slip through the cracks. You cant force anyone to be a pilot so you have to go with the supply of interested candidates. Airlines made leftist politicians and social influencers a lot of virtue signaling promises. There will likely be more incidents like this.

    Diversity hiring is the racism of low expectations. Liberals think minorities are stupid and helpless and need extra help to succeed in life.

  14. Lol just about anyone can be trained to be a pilot. Only a HS degree is required. Folks seem to think diversity being a factor is somehow a safety issue. There’s pilots from all corners of humanity flying safely across the globe everyday. There’s pilots from all corners of humanity who’ve made errors.

  15. How TF do these bone heads think people become pilots? Apply as a not white person and just get behind the yoke of a 737? 1500 flight hours. Tons of loaded exams and check rides proctored by all sorts of people and don’t forget type rating. Awful lotta “cracks” to slip through and an awful lotta different people (including a lot of conservatives) apparently complacent in this “woke DEI” conspiracy brought about by people who know f___ all about aviation and flying (albeit the apparent CFI in the comments, but hence my point about conservatives in the process). I would reason people f__ up sometimes, like all the other incidents in the news and the deadheading captain who had a mental break and tried to shut down the engines (funny how we don’t hear any conspiracies about how he got to where he was ). But hey, what does the consensus of experienced professionals in the safest mode of transportation know against people who say things on their Twitter and get 14K likes and an echo chamber.

  16. @Jim Baround

    No they are illegal invaders that abuse the system and have legitimate legal right to asylum.


    Again look at the recent crazy of atlas air. People who have no business being pilots are being pushed through to meet dei targets.

  17. I represent the union at the top executive meeting level when it comes to workplace safety. I represent employees when it comes to workplace discrimination. The company purposely mutes my microphone during the “equity committee meeting” and prevents me from representing my members because I’m not an “underrepresented individual”. Let that sink in.

  18. What makes a pilot “Qualified” is the training, not the color of his/her skin. To assume someone is less qualified because you have a problem with your own insecurities, reveals your ignorance to the highest degree. If I remember correctly, every air crash in this country was piloted by a White person. DEI programs wouldn’t exist IF people were all treated the same. Unfortunately, that’s almost impossible due to the need of supremacy.

  19. As a former FAA inspector and current major airline pilot, I find Gary’s conclusions patently false.

    DEI in all its forms is just wrong! The federal government has been pushing this nonsense on their employees for years and to compare air traffic control hiring practices to the skills required to be a good pilot proves Gary doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    I left the FAA as the best and brightest were not being recruited and allowances were being made for sub standard performance to promote DEI. I saw it first hand Gary!

    Only exceptional air traffic controllers are sent to busy, dynamic TRACONS where those were are not quite as sharp are relegated to small airport tower controllers with low volumes of traffic. Performance matters.

    And hiring to fulfill pilot shortages based on DEI follows the same footprint. When you limit your pool of good candidates, you start dropping standards to ensure your numbers don’t fall dramatically. Yes, this happens at major airlines, but it’s usually isolated, and everyone knows who those substandard performers are. DEI hiring does not aim to hire the most qualified, but bypasses that reasoning on the alter of having a minority representative company.

    As for who broke the spine of the 767 landing at IAH, I have only heard rumors so I would not comment on rumors, but at my previous airline, I saw someone completely unqualified hired because she fit the DEI mold. After numerous reattempts to pass IOE….attempts others were not given, she elected not to continue in lew of termination.

  20. @drrichard (?) – You did call it “hormone replacement therapy” because you didn’t use quote marks or (sic), meaning the words are yours. Seems we have an attribution problem here from a social sciences Ph.D. – did you go to an Ivy?

    And, FWIW, why do social science and education Ph.D.s go around stuffing their academic credentials in non-academic settings. I have no trouble addressing someone as Dr. Richard in class at a university – on a travel blog, give me a break. I think I’ll go all German on you (despite not being German in the slightest) and insist that you, and only you, address me as “IngenieurC_M.

  21. What about “ratemypilot.com”, like “ratemyprofessor.com” or follow Uber’s example of listing the driver’s name, experience, eating, etc.? Even medical doctors can be rated and evaluated on healthgrades.com and other websites.

  22. The more the lunatic DEI crowd screams, the more you know the criticisms are 100% accurate.

    When merit is secondary to woke virtue signaling, people die. Yes, it’s just that simple.

    Want a doctor that got into med school based on ‘boxes’ ? Take your life in your hands.

    Want a bridge engineer who thinks that math is racist? Yep, bridge goes down. People die.

    What is wrong with you? Anyone who disputes that merit is linked to outcomes is either delusional, or has drunk the woke kool-aid with no regard for reality. If Harvard doesn’t wake you up, you are beyond redemption. Critical thinking skills matter.

  23. What a shame the author brought politics into this column. And very biased at that. I won’t be able to enjoy this column anymore, so I’ll stop reading it from now on.
    Scary he promotes hiring of pilots based on dei.

  24. Oh for the love of God, stop with the idiotic nonsense. Hire people based on merit. Period.

  25. As a minority I don’t care if my pilot is white, black, brown or purple. I just want the best qualified person for the job. That’s it plain and simple.

  26. Maria P. “every air crash in this country was piloted by a White person.” You may be partially correct except for the wrong reason. North America, Australia, New Zealand and Western European counties have an excellent safety record compared to the Third World countries. For the past 80+ years the entry requirements to be hired for the INITIAL TRAINING phase were much, much higher. The company I spent many years working for didn’t have “color” requirements but did REQUIRE A B737 TYPE RATING WITH EXPERIENCE.

  27. Interesting article. Shortly after the United incident occurred I received a call from someone with contacts at United. The information given to me was this pilot was in fact a DEI hire and United had to spend many, many more hours than normal in sim time in order to get this person passed his training. While I cannot verify the information I was provided, my contact is not someone to engage in gossip so I take the information as more than likely true.
    The Atlas Air/ Prime Air crash on February 23, 2019 was probably the result of a diversity/DEI hire. Do not take my word or opinion on this instead, read the NTSB 141 page accident report dated or adopted July 14, 2020. Focus on pages 21 through 24 or 25 and pages 41 through 48, give or take a page or two. The following quote from the report stands out and is very frightening, “This check airman described the FO’s
    piloting performance as among the worst he had ever seen and noted that the FO tended to have
    an excuse for each of his poor performances, such as blaming his simulator partner, his instructor,
    or the hotel.” This quote may be found on page 24 of the NTSB report. Note the page numbers listed are of the entire report in PDF format, not the actual page numbers of the report. In this case DEI should be changed to DIE to accurately describe the report.

  28. Gary, nicely balanced piece pointing out where it makes sense to broaden the diversity pool, and where it did not. I’d apologize forthe right-wing bloggers who lashed out without reading the whole article you wrote, but there’s really nothing to apologize for. Their lips simply got too tired from lip reading, and their minds shut down, so they were unable to comprehend the whole thing you wrote…

  29. Lots of responses based in fear here. Minority pilots aren’t being hired because they’re minorities, and bad pilots can be found of every stripe. While the Atlas FO obviously should not have been there, he hid a lot of his past failures from the airline. Had those failures been disclosed, he would not have been in that right seat, period. His dishonesty is not reflective of a larger problem imo.

    Flight hour requirements are higher now (post-Buffalo crash) than they were before 2008 or so when pilots were getting hired at regionals with nothing more than 250 hours and a commercial. Now that’s 1,500 hours and an ATP. So pilots hired now actually have much more experience, on average, than pilots hired 15-20 years ago. Minorities have to meet those same standards – so what’s the problem?

    And as a minority pilot, I’ve been on the front lines having to answer stupid questions from suspicious white pilots who are uncomfortable with the increasing number of minority pilots at my airline and in the industry in general. At the end of the day, no qualified white pilots are being passed up in favor of “unqualified” minorities. Those of you that are pilots – do you know any good white pilots that can’t find a job right now? Everyone wants to talk about the Atlas FO as evidence of “DEI”, but when I mention Commutair 4933 or Delta 1086 and the crew failures there, there’s crickets.

    Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with airlines trying to recruit qualified candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, especially in an industry where barriers to entry are high and training costs routinely run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is especially true in a US where non-white children are the majority of young people. Those kids need access to this industry, and they need to see more pilots that look like them in order for them to understand it’s doable regardless of where they come from. I try to tell any young person I run across (regardless of race frankly) what a great career this is, if you’re willing to put in the work. For young minority kids from poor backgrounds, it offers a pathway out of poverty and a way to travel the world. But all of this blaming of DEI anytime a minority pilot makes a mistake is stupid, reductionist, and reflective of irrational fear – and won’t do anything to grow this industry or increase safety in a world that will have more minority pilots going forward.

  30. I’m confused as to why diversity hires are needed to address the pilot shortage. My understanding is that the pilot shortage is artificially created and maintained with the goal of limiting the number of pilots. Is it really the case that no one wants the job and so we have to increase the applicant pool?

  31. RE: it’s meant skipping over qualified controller applicants in favor of ones that needed more training.

    This doesn’t support the argument AT ALL; neither does it fill me with confidence. I think I’ll skip flying the friendly diverse skies of United.

  32. Can you imagine if a black, Asian, or female pilot was actually the most qualified in an applicant pool? These people would lose their minds

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