GARY L. FLOWERS: United Airlines’ Unfriendly Skies For Black Pilots

Gary L. Flowers
Executive Director & CEO
Black Leadership Forum, Inc.

Last week twenty-four long-term employees of United Continental Holdings, United Airlines, and Continental Airlines filed a lawsuit in San Francisco, California alleging race discrimination, retaliation and harassment in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and State Fair Employment laws.

I vividly remember United Airlines television commercials of the 1970’s featuring the phrase “Fly the friendly skies of United.”  In 2012, the skies appear to be anything but friendly for Black pilots as they seek an employment policy from United Continental that allows them to be promoted to the management ranks, as their White colleagues are so often elevated.

The issue basis for the lawsuit is not new.  In 1976, a consent decree was issued to United Airlines for race discrimination against African American employees.  The 1976 consent decree stalled in 1995.  In 2010, African American pilots and Operations Supervisors who were members of the United Coalition for Diversity filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints for discrimination.  Following the EEOC complaints, United Airlines hastily hired three African Americans for management positions.  But that is not the point.

United Airlines—the world’s largest airline—does not know its own history relative to promoting Black pilots.  In an official 2012 United press release one of the Blacks quickly hired for the management position of Chief Pilot for the Northeast Region, Captain James Simons, Jr., was falsely touted as the “first” African American Chief Pilot at United Airlines.  Wrong!  Actually, Captain Alfonzo “Rick” McCullough was the first Black Chief Pilot at United.

Ironically, in 2012–the same year that Americans lauded the much-heralded feature movie, Red Tails, which highlighted the competence, courage, and commitment of Black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940’s who faced blatant racial discrimination—Black pilots are still fighting for equal opportunity as their colored colleagues did some 70 years ago.  United airlines cannot salute the Tuskegee Airmen in magazine ads and simultaneously refute evidence of current racial discrimination.

Like the Tuskegee Airman today’s Black pilots are extremely competent.  While piloting airplanes may have been their passion through U.S. Air Force and other training routes to the Captain’s chair those who filed suit are extremely qualified to serve in management.   For example, 22 of the plaintiffs have Bachelor’s degrees, 3 have earned Masters of Business Administration (MBA’s), 1 has a Masters of Science, and 1 has a Masters of Arts.  Yet, by being passed over for management positions at United and Continental Air Lines none of them seem to “qualified” for jobs their less-credentialed White colleagues now occupy.  And America wants to claim we are a “post-racial” nation!

Predictably, African Americans and people of color are woefully underrepresented in managerial ranks in proportion to their total numbers in the United workforce.  Worst still, there seems to be an air (pun intended) of retaliation for “whistleblower” pilots.  Of the 13 pilots who filed EEOC complaints in 2010 none of them have been promoted to management despite filing scores and scores of applications.  The three Blacks who were hired in 2010 either did not complain or were brought in from outside of United’s ranks.

What United pilots are seeking can be summed up by the words of Captain Leon Miller who said, “The struggle for inclusion at United Airlines is a long-standing issue that many have tried to address over a long period of time…we must break the glass ceiling and stop retaliatory actions, and make a corporate culture change that is truly inclusive.”  Amen.

In 2001, following evidence of racial discrimination at the automaker Toyota USA I had the experience of organizing informational pickets in 24 American cities with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.  As a result, Toyota admitted being a bad actor in the transportation industry and committed to a 10-year 8 billion dollar diversity plan throughout the company.  While airlines are somewhat different than automakers the principle developing a measurable plan for inclusion is in the best tradition of American ideals.   United may learn a lot from the Toyota model.


The United States of America was founded on the principle of I pluribus unum (out of many, we are one).   The same should hold true for Black pilots in the so-called friendly skies of United Airlines.

  • robjh1

    2012 and still companies can’t get it together.