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Black pilots allege racial discrimination at United Airlines

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Black pilots are alleging they’re flying through unfriendly skies at United Airlines (UAL).

A group of 18 black pilots are calling on federal officials to investigate what they allege is a pattern of discrimination that has tarnished everything from hiring to promotions, according to a statement from the group, called The United Coalition for Diversity. The pilots claim that United has an “utter lack of diversity at the management level” and has systemically kept black employees from entering the managerial ranks.

The claim may focus on alleged problems at one airline, but women and men of color have made few inroads with the profession. Ninety-seven percent of aircraft pilots are white, while compared with just 80 percent of all occupations. Only about 5 percent of commercial airline pilots are women. One researcher, looking at data from 1966 to 2003, found that desegregation hadn’t progressed since 1980.

“It is time for all pilots to be provided with equal opportunities, regardless of the color of their skin,” Brian R. Mildenberg, the attorney for the pilots, said in a statement. “According to the coalition pilots, the executive leadership of United Airlines has failed over the years to integrate the airline and remedy the serious concerns of racial discrimination against black pilots that have plagued United for more than two decades.”

United said the claims are “as baseless today as they were four years ago when they were originally filed,” referring to lawsuits previously filed by the pilots. “We are very proud of our diversity record and programs – as an example 5 of our 8 chief pilots at our hubs are people of color and women (including 3 African Americans),” a spokeswoman said in an email.

She added, “So, this is clearly just an attempt by the plaintiffs’ attorneys to try to put pressure on United to settle these meritless claims.”

The coalition is pointing to a 40-year old case as failing to provide meaningful change. In 1976, United entered a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over diversity. As part of the agreement, United provided more than $1 million in back pay and agreed to hire minorities and women into upper-level jobs including pilot and management roles.

While that should have helped minorities and women climb through the ranks, the coalition is alleging that the white pilots reacted to the consent decree by creating a “secret, racist organization called “the Vault,” which they claim was geared to keeping black pilots from advancing at United.

“White pilots have disparagingly referred to African-American pilots as ‘consent decree hires’ and ‘equal opportunity hires’,” the coalition alleges.

Black pilots claim they were subjected to racist photos and messages, such as one that showed a black man lynched by white supremacists with the words “How to move up in seniority at United Airlines.”

United’s current new pilot recruitment classes are predominately white, the group said. The coalition is asking for Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate hiring, training, and promotion at United Airlines. 

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