Attracting the Next Generation of Prepared Pilots through Her Own Experience

Like her parents chased their dream by coming to the U.S. from Colombia, Claudia Zapata-Cardone did the same aiming for the skies as a pilot


Long before she became a captain, or had even flown on an airplane, Claudia Zapata-Cardone was no stranger to the airport. Almost every night growing up, Claudia and her mother would bring her father dinner during his shifts at the airport. During these drop-offs, Zapata-Cardone would watch the planes land and take off, imagining how “magical” the experience of flying must be. With her father’s help, she learned to identify the different types of aircrafts, their fuel capacities and how far they could travel.


Even though Zapata-Cardone never saw pilots who looked like her — a Latina — she knew flying was her calling. Her path would not be straightforward, but in 2015, nearly two decades after she began pursuing her goal, Zapata-Cardone was hired by United Airlines; she now serves as an Airbus 320 Captain. What especially moved her was how proud her parents, both Colombian immigrants, were of her.


Zapata-Cardone recognizes that for others who are interested in aviation, the hurdles may prove to be discouraging and, ultimately, insurmountable. To prevent the industry from losing out on top talent, she wants to help the others from underrepresented communities — women, people of color and first-generation Americans — who share her same dream overcome potential barriers to entry while still ensuring they receive the necessary high-quality training. As a captain, along with executive director of community relations for the Latino Pilots Association (LPA) and proud member of Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Zapata-Cardone is working to promote these efforts to attract the next generation of pilots, and believes federal support is key.


Advocating for Diversity and Inclusion in the Aviation Workforce


Speaking before U.S. leaders in the Aviation Subcommittee in July, Zapata-Cardone shared ALPA and LPA’s recommendations for how government leaders could open up similar paths to aspiring pilots like her. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2020 found that the racial makeup of U.S. commercial pilots is 92% white and 91% male.


“It’s important that we tap into the currently underrepresented pool of potential airline pilots to ensure a healthy and robust pilot pipeline in the future,” Zapata-Cardone said in her opening remarks, in regard to the expected pilot shortage in the coming years despite a current surplus of fully qualified pilots. “LPA and ALPA are one hundred percent [sic] committed to changing what the pilot community looks like while maintaining current safety standards.”


Zapata-Cardone encouraged lawmakers to consider several approaches to offset prohibitive costs for prospective aviators as well as to compete with other highly skilled professions. For example, allowing already existing educational aid programs, such as Pell Grants and the GI Bill funding, to go towards aviation training degrees. Additionally, Zapata-Cardone warned that “severe economic disincentives” discourage employment at regional airlines, “which serve as a main avenue for individuals to enter the profession.”


“It’s important that we improve this career entry point while maintaining the first officer qualification requirements that have helped make U.S. air transportation the safest mode of transportation in the world,” she said.


She recounted about how she faced countless obstacles in pursuit of her dream. A high school guidance counselor dismissed her interest in aviation, yet she still wanted to learn to fly. Then, her flight school went out of business just months into her training because of the tragic events of September 11. Disappointments racked up, and she admits the difficulties of becoming a pilot sometimes became too much to bear. “I felt that I would never achieve my dreams and almost gave up several times,” she said.


Thanks to emotional and financial support from her parents and the guidance of the few female officers she met along the way were crucial, Zapata-Cardone worked her way — from crew scheduler to flight attendant to flight instructor — to become a pilot for a legacy airline. Ultimately, she wants others to join her in achieving their dream of flying.


“I believe we can — and must — do more as a nation to open the doors of opportunity for those currently underrepresented in the piloting profession.”

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