The conservative media ecosystem is piggybacking on Americans’ fascination with air travel to stir up opposition to corporate diversity programs, an effort that may raise the salience of culture war issues at the start of the 2024 election year even as their claims are largely based on false or misleading information.
In recent weeks, right-wing influencers, politicians and media outlets have repeatedly attacked efforts by airlines to find more job applicants who are women or nonwhite, programs that are known within big corporations as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Some of their attacks are getting millions of views on social media and being picked up by Republican politicians.
But the outsized criticism of the programs in the airline industry and the speculation about their effects doesn’t reflect reality, according to airline employees who spoke to NBC News
On Fox Business, a former Federal Aviation Administration employee claimed without citing specific incidents that diversity commitments from airlines could lead to safety issues, even though airlines say they haven’t changed their standards and that DEI efforts are about finding qualified-but-overlooked job candidates.
And podcaster Charlie Kirk said this week that he had no choice but to be prejudiced against Black pilots because some of them have benefited from a DEI program.
“I’m sorry, if I see a Black pilot, I’m going to be like, ‘Boy, I hope he’s qualified,’” Kirk said.
Despite the focus on certain statements from airlines about diversity, DEI programs have not led to drastic changes in airline employee diversity: About 92% of pilots and flight engineers are white and 92% are men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The proportion of pilots and flight engineers who are Black grew from 2.7% in 2018 to 3.6% in 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Asian representation fell from 4.2% to 2.7%, and Latinos rose from 6.8% to 10.7%. The share of pilots and flight engineers who are women fell from 9% to 8.3% from 2018 to 2023, according to the bureau.
But the topic may be tantalizing for Republicans as they attempt to fire up their voter base ahead of the 2024 presidential election: They can capitalize on widespread interest in news about air travel while also appealing to conservatives’ long-standing criticism of affirmative action and other diversity programs.
Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author, said in an email, “I believe airlines are being politicized because travel is something everyone can connect to, regardless of race, gender, economic status, etc.”
Fox, the Trump Organization and Turning Point USA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Many of the criticisms are based on misunderstandings or false narratives about DEI programs.
“We are talking more about fishing for talent in new ponds,” Jessica Muench, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at United, told Crain’s last year. United’s Aviate initiative pours money into new training academies for pilots and mechanics who otherwise might not be able to afford traditional schools.
One statement in particular from United CEO Scott Kirby is being misquoted on social media. Kirby told Axios in a 2021 interview that the company wants 50% of its flight academy “classes” to be women or people of color. Flight academy students are at the start of their careers, years away from being hired as pilots for any major airline, but some critics of diversity are saying incorrectly that Kirby made a pledge about 50% of “hires.”
United said in a statement to NBC News on Thursday that its flight training standards are rigorous and have not been lowered.
“United is proud to maintain the highest standards in our pilot hiring, training, and safety practices. Every aviator who joins our ranks must meet them. No exceptions,” the company said.
The FAA raised the standards in 2013 after a fatal crash near Buffalo, requiring co-pilots to get the same 1,500 hours of flight time as captains. Last year, the FAA rejected a request to reduce the hours requirement.
The claims connecting DEI initiatives to safety issues have bordered on the absurd, blaming diversity in hiring for anything and everything that goes wrong near an airplane. In one post on X that got 1.6 million views, podcast host Joey Mannarino claimed that “the diversity hire brigade” was to blame for tarmac delays at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Mannarino stood by his concern in a direct message to NBC News, saying he believes that spending money on diversity initiatives detracts from other considerations and improvements. “Imagine all the free Wi-Fi for all customers that could be given if they weren’t busy funding stuff like this,” he said.
To some industry veterans, the criticism of airline DEI programs is ridiculous and insulting — not least because there hasn’t been a fatal U.S. airline crash since 2009.
The Air Line Pilots Association, the union for more than 77,000 pilots at U.S. and Canadian airlines, said in a statement to NBC News that the critics are wrong.
“Flying is the safest mode of transportation in the world thanks in large part to airline pilots, professionals that are all held to the highest training and qualification standards,” the association said.
“There are real threats to aviation safety like efforts to replace pilots with automation or lower training and experience standards, but opening the doors of opportunity to ensure we have a robust supply of qualified aviators isn’t one of them,” they said.
And for decades since, change has been slow. Ann Hood, a former flight attendant who wrote a memoir, “Fly Girl,” about her experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, said that she saw one female pilot and zero pilots of color when she was working.
“It was all white guys in the cockpit,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t think it is that long ago, especially when you think that aviation history is pretty short.”
Brett Snyder, who has been writing about the airline business since 2006 and who runs the website Cranky Flier, said that he’s seen no connection between diversity efforts and safety.
“Even someone with basic knowledge of airline operations and safety would know that there’s no data to support this,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s an affront to the people who are being brought into this industry and making them feel like they don’t belong.”
Snyder said the industry is used to being under a harsh media spotlight, which creates an opportunity for anyone who’s pushing an agenda.
“Airlines are always in the news, and people love talking about airlines,” he said. “Anyone who is trying to seize on an anti-diversity message would probably do the same thing as anyone else and say, ‘Where are the eyeballs?’”
Airline incidents frequently go viral on social media, from the 2017 episode when a passenger was forcibly dragged off an oversold United plane to videos about face masks from early in the coronavirus pandemic.
There was even a media flare-up about airline diversity efforts in 2021, when then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson and others said that airline executives would get people killed if they continued DEI programs.
“They’re suffering from an incurable brain disease called wokeness,” Carlson said at the time.
But the cascade of criticism is on a different level now. Tech billionaire Elon Musk attacked DEI efforts in two posts on X this month, prompting two civil rights organizations to denounce his statements. Musk responded by calling the organizations “openly racist.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., tweeted this month that “DEI is destroying our major airlines!” He also recorded a podcast on the subject in November. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Libs of TikTok, an X account with 2.8 million followers, has hammered airlines for their DEI programs in more than a dozen posts this month. In a post Tuesday that got 2.1 million views, the account alleged a connection between drag queen flight attendants and the cancellation of a flight last week because bolts were missing from a wing.
Asked for further comment, Libs of TikTok, which is run by conservative influencer Chaya Raichik, told NBC News in an email Thursday: “I strongly believe in the opportunities that DEI offers to other communities. Therefore, I only respond to reporters who identify as black, trans, nonbinary, or Latinx. Unfortunately it appears you don’t make the cut.”
Some of the conservative attacks on air travel have looped in other hot-button political subjects such as immigration.
Libs of TikTok has posted at least three videos this month of people said to be migrants, including toddlers, sleeping in airports, and the account expressed outrage at their presence.
“Which airport or school will be next?” one post said. “This destruction of America is intentional, and it’s treasonous.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., alleged at a congressional hearing this month that migrants were swarming airports.
“I just traveled in airports across the country just the past few days. You know what I saw in our airports? Migrants, illegal aliens, all over in the airports,” she said, leaving social media users perplexed about how she concluded that the passengers were migrants.
Greene’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Right-wing influencers and even a Boston TV station have gone into airports to shoot video of people they believe to be migrants. Ashley St. Clair helped to kick off the phenomenon in December with a video of people boarding a flight from Phoenix to New York. She said many of them carried bags provided by immigration processing centers, and her post has gotten 27.3 million views, according to X.
St. Clair did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The focus on airline DEI initiatives appeared to pick up after the Jan. 5 incident on an Alaska Airlines flight where a panel blew off the Boeing-made fuselage. There is no known connection between the blowout and diversity efforts — in fact, the pilots have received praise for their calm handling of the situation, and at least one of them was a woman — but the incident drew intense attention to airline safety.
Comedian Rob Schneider is among those who have fanned the flames of DEI criticism. He told jokes about nonwhite pilots in a comedy special last year, and this week, one of his posts on X where he said he was boycotting United Airlines and calling for the firing of Kirby, the United CEO and a supporter of diversity efforts, was viewed more than 4 million times.
Schneider and Libs of TikTok both criticized Kirby for appearing in drag at least once in the past — a costume that Kirby wore for a Halloween party at US Airways in 2011 as part of a company tradition, according to the industry blog View from the Wing.
Without evidence, Schneider also tied diversity to a near-crash in 2022.
“Your diverse but incompetent flight crew didn’t know which flaps were causing its near disastrous [descent],” he alleged.
Federal regulators have said that pilot miscommunication was to blame for that jet losing altitude after departure and descending to within 748 feet of the ocean. Both pilots had well over the minimum number of 1,500 flight hours to be certified.
Representatives for Schneider did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.