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United Airlines is spreading its wings into new territory with the opening of its own flight school and commitment to increasing diversity in the flight deck through a multi-million-dollar scholarship partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the company announced this week.

Both United and JPMorgan Chase, the airline’s credit card issuing partner are committing to matching $1.2 million in scholarships for a total endowment of $2.4 million dollars.

In launching United Aviate Academy, the Chicago-based airline becomes the first major U.S. airline to own its own flight school and said it is committed to ensuring that 50 percent of the pilot trainees are persons of color or women, both groups that are underrepresented among the ranks of pilots.

“Aviate allows us to open to door to an exciting and lucrative career opportunity that previously had not been open to women and people of color,” said Josh Earnest, United’s chief communications officer.

As a pilot shortage looms with many pilots across the industry reaching retirement age within the next five years, the goal is to make United Aviate Academy more inclusive and affordable through scholarships and a partnership with Sallie May for student loans.

“Over the next decade, United will train 5,000 pilots who will be guaranteed a job with United, after they complete the requirements of the Aviate program — and our plan is for half of them to be women and people of color,” said United CEO Scott Kirby. “We’re excited that JPMorgan Chase has agreed to support our work to diversify our pilot ranks and create new opportunities for thousands of women and people of color who want to pursue a career in aviation.”

The United Aviate Academy’s first class of 20 pilots will begin their studies in the third quarter of 2021, with the class graduating in the first half of 2022, a United spokesperson said.

“Graduates will then have opportunities to further pursue their careers while working specifically within the Aviate ecosystem at partner universities, professional flight training organizations and United Express carriers,” he added.

The Aviate career path offers a graduates a direct career path to United by first completing  24 months and 2,000 hours with a United Express regional partner and being grandfathered in to United even if the regional partner no longer works with United at the end of the pilot’s contract, a United spokesperson said.

In order to identify and recruit talent, United is partnering with three historically Black colleges: Hampton University, Delaware State University, and Elizabeth City State University.

And it vows to work with key pilot organizations including the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Sisters of the Skies, Latino Pilots Association and Professional Asian Pilots Association to help in selecting the recipients of the United and JPMorgan Chase Scholarships and grants.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) offers a free high school STEM curriculum across the country that prepares BIPOC students for a career in aviation. By the time they graduate high school, some students have completed their solo flights and are ready for the FAA written test.

“It’s important to us to reach students who might not otherwise have access to or experience in aviation. That’s why we have done everything we can to lower the barriers to obtaining this kind of high-quality STEM education by doing things like making the curriculum free to schools and reaching out to students who are traditionally underrepresented in aviation careers, including women and people of color,” said Elizabeth Tennyson, executive director of AOPA’s You Can Fly Program.

“Through AOPA’s scholarship opportunities, we also help hundreds of students and their teachers take the next step and earn their private pilot certificate,” Tennyson added. “Many students who have been recipients of AOPA scholarships have gone on to earn more advanced ratings in preparation to become career pilots.”

For the 2020-2021 school year, AOPA has more than 200 schools enrolled in 38 states across the country. That amounts to more than 8,000 students, made up of 20 percent female and 44 percent people of color.

Photo Credit: United Airlines First Officer Carol Hopson United Storytelling / United Airlines