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I am not a jet setter, but I fly frequently.  Sometimes, I fly abroad, but usually, I just hop around the U.S. In the course of this hopping, I have observed conditions that do not reflect positively on the airline industry when it comes to its relationship with African-Americans.  In other words, what United called “The Friendly Skies,” don’t appear too welcoming from a black perspective.

Here are the reasons why:

  • Ignoring the make-up of company management.  When is the last time that you observed a Black pilot or co-pilot?  Data from the 2011 Current Population Survey (CPS) by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that blacks comprise less than 1% of aircraft pilots and engineers.  As you know, blacks make up over 13% of the U.S. population.  The lack of African-American pilots and engineers becomes more astonishing when you consider  that blacks comprise 11.1% of transportation attendants according to the CPS.
  • The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is everywhere, but seldom do you see a black TSA official — especially when you move beyond airports in major cities.  (I have a six-month request in to TSA for the percentage of black employees.  No response yet.)

One could contend that I am just squawking.  However, there is good reason to be concerned about discrimination in the airlines industries.  Here are the facts:

  • The average (median) weekly wage for the airline industry for 2010 from the CPS was $889.  The national average wage was $747.
  • The airline industry continues to consolidate:  United Airlines and Continental Airlines have merged, as have Northwest and Delta.  The more consolidated an industry, the greater control firms have over profit or price.  It stands to reason that workers in that industry should be the beneficiaries of their firms’ greater market power in the form of higher wages.
  • If blacks are excluded from the industry, then we lose the opportunity to reduce our income gap with whites by garnering some of those relatively higher wages.

The way the world works today, and with the price of gasoline ever rising, it is quite often cheaper to fly than to drive.  That is, blacks, and everyone else, will find themselves flying more and more in the future.  It’s just the easiest way to go.  Therefore, if blacks increase their customer share with the airlines, then it seems reasonable that the airlines would hire more blacks for the team providing the service.

The airlines’ response is likely to be that there aren’t many qualified African-American pilots and engineers to choose from.  Blacks’ response should be that it is difficult to aspire to become something that you do not see.  That is, if the airlines were to hire and train more black pilots and engineers, then more young blacks would be motivated to join the industry.

The future promises to be about science and technology—including space.  However, the starting point for access to space is flying.  Therefore, if airlines don’t begin to boost their black staff, African-Americans will continue to lag in aiming for these roles, a missed opportunity of universal proportions.

Dr. B.B. Robinson is an economist and director of BlackEconomics.org, a resource for economic concepts, issues and policies affecting African-Americans.

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