By Capt. Kandy Bernskoetter
When airline accidents soared in the 1970s, Congress turned to independent experts for recommendations—and the government used them to transform U.S. air transportation into the world’s safest transport system. Today, as the nation looks to increase the diversity of its aviation workforce so that it better reflects the customers and communities it serves, Congress has again turned to independent experts for help—but will our lawmakers act on the recommendations?
In 1975, Congress reestablished the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as an independent body of experts charged with making safety recommendations to address rising airline accidents. In the more than four decades since, the board’s recommendations spurred federal regulations that have allowed U.S. air transportation to become the global standard for airline safety.
Today, Congress has again called on independent experts to help the United States overcome a challenge in the airline industry. In 2020, women made up about 47 percent of the U.S. labor force. Yet in most aviation occupations, women make up less than 20 percent of workers. The numbers are even lower for airline pilots—only 6 percent are women. Disconcertingly, while the percentage of women in the labor force has climbed steadily over the decades, the percentage of women who make up the airline industry workforce hasn’t budged. This is unacceptable, and it must change.
The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA) led the fight for Congress to create the Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB), an independent body charged with helping address the underrepresentation of women in U.S. aviation. The board was an expert corps of representatives of airlines and aerospace companies, nonprofits, aviation and engineering businesses, the military, institutions of higher education, and aviation trade schools.
I was proud to represent ALPA—the world’s largest airline pilot union—on the WIAAB. Our board was tasked with developing independent recommendations to the government to encourage women to pursue aviation careers. Like those of the NTSB, WIAAB recommendations hold the potential to transform the airline industry, in this case, by improving the accessibility to and affordability of aviation professions so that individuals from all backgrounds can find a career in the skies.
ALPA has also offered recommendations for how the government can help. Federal grants to minority-serving institutions that want to start or expand aviation professional flight degree programs would make aviation education more accessible. The path to becoming an airline pilot would be more affordable if federal funding support for the required education were aligned with that of other highly skilled professions.
It is also important to recognize that the safety of air transportation attracts new workers to our industry. Following a series of tragic airline accidents that culminated with the Colgan Flight 3407 crash near Buffalo, N.Y. in 2009, another independent body of experts, the Federal Aviation Administration’s First Officer Qualifications Aviation Rulemaking Committee, played a pivotal role in transforming the safety of the industry.
In 2010, the committee provided expert recommendations regarding airline first officer qualification and training to help the United States improve aviation safety. The same year, Congress passed a law with safety-focused first officer qualification, experience, and training requirements. Since the law was enacted, airline passenger fatalities have been reduced by 99.8 percent—and any effort to weaken these requirements must be rejected.
Every young person in the United States should feel that the possibility of a career in the skies is within reach from their neighborhood. Right now, Congress has another opportunity to transform the U.S. airline industry—this time by supporting all qualified individuals, including those from diverse and underrepresented communities, to become part of tomorrow’s aviation workforce. As a 24-year airline pilot and a woman, I can tell you that this transformation is long overdue.
Kandy Bernskoetter is a B-767 captain for FedEx Express and is type rated on the B-737, B-757, B-767, B-777, MD-11, and SA-227. She serves as chair of the Membership Committee of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l, which is the world’s largest airline pilot union, representing more than 65,000 pilots who fly for 40 airlines in the United States and Canada.