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DSU, United Airlines partnership will diversify pilot ranks

Katie Tabeling

DOVER — Odds are when you fly commercial, you might have a pilot sporting a Delaware State University (DSU) Hornet’s lanyard. But with a new partnership with United Airlines, there’s about to be a lot more pilots who graduate from Delaware’s sole historically Black college’s aviation program.

DSU Alumni who are flying for United Airlines (in uniform) DSU Aviation students, and other United and University officials gather for a group shot after the event. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELAWARE STATE UNIVERSITY

United Airlines plans to train 5,000 pilots at its United Aviate Academy in Phoenix by 2030, with half of those students being women or people of color. To build that pipeline, the airline will recruit from historically Black colleges and universities. DSU formalized its partnership with United Airlines on Thursday.

“To have one of the most premier airline partners in the world is a tribute to United, to DSU and to our future,” DSU President Tony Allen said Thursday morning, at an event announcing the partnership at the Delaware Airpark in Cheswold. “Many corporate partners I talk to say they want to do something about social justice, but for United to [start this partnership], that’s knowing better and doing better.”

About 94% of aircraft pilots and flight engineers are white and many are male, according to federal data. United previously told the New York Times that only 13% of pilots were not white, and about 7% are women. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing ticket demand to drop, United is moving forward with hiring at least 300 pilots who had conditional offers, as appetite for air travel rebounds and to head off long-term job shortages in the market.

DSU’s partnership with United would enable it to launch graduates on a fast track to a national airline, instead of taking a disjointed path. United Airlines Systems Chief Pilot Mary Ann Schaffer, who oversees 12,000 pilots, told DSU students Thursday that she flew privately for hundreds of hours and taught flying part-time until she finally made the jump to a regional airline before coming to United.

Aviation graduates need to complete their flight hours to gain certificates before typically moving on to a regional airline. From there, it can be two to three years before that student is promoted to captain. It may take another seven to 10 years for that pilot to move to a national airline like Southwest or Delta. 

This partnership makes it possible for a DSU graduate to fly with a national airliner while in their 20s, by streamlining their career directly to United.

(L-R) Tom Horne, Delaware Market President, JP Morgan Chase, who connected DSU with United Airlines; Lt. Col. (retired) Michael Hales, director of the DSU Aviation Program; Mary Ann Schaffer, United Airlines Systems Chief Pilot; and Del State President Tony Allen gather for a photo after the event. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELAWARE STATE UNIVERSITY

“That crooked path I took is thankfully not one that students here will have to worry about,” Schaffer said. “This journey is not an easy one, and every pilot has landings that aren’t as smooth. But it’s how you deal with them and grow … This relationship will provide that next step, if you choose to see that journey.”

Established in 1987, DSU’s aviation program is renowned for producing top-notch professional pilots and aviation management professionals. Today, there are at least nine DSU aviation program alumni who fly United planes. Right now, there are 127 students enrolled in the program and 15 graduated last year, with the pandemic delaying some graduation plans, according to university officials.

“I’ve seen this program grow in the few short years I’ve been here, and we don’t recruit, we rely on word of mouth,” Lt. Col. Michael Hales, director of the University’s Aviation Program, told the Delaware Business Times. “With this program, it provides a direct path to a national airliner, which is compelling for future students to come to DSU. Before, we could say they would likely be a professional pilot sometime. Now we can say that a graduate is likely to fly with United.”

Allen credits JPMorgan Chase Delaware market leader Tom Horne with bringing United Airlines and DSU together on this partnership. JPMorgan Chase is the airliner’s credit card partner, and both are committing $1.2 million in scholarships for the program. Horne told Allen six months ago that he wanted United to know about DSU’s aviation program. Shortly afterward, Allen started talking with United Airlines President Brett Hart and working on the deal.

“We have gone from a struggling program with 1970s planes to a partnership with one of the leading airlines,” Allen said. “We have worked very hard to find the right partner to build capacity for us so we can continue to be the No. 1 provider of pilots of color in the country.”

United has also finalized partnerships with  Elizabeth City State University and Hampton University, both historically Black universities, as part of its plan to diversify its workforce. 


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