Ligon is one of the Delta crewmembers who helped lead a new group of students aged 11-18 from around metro Atlanta on the airline’s annual all-female Women Inspiring our Next Generation (WING) charter flight on Friday.
The group of more than 130 girls from schools and programs around the Atlanta area took off early Friday morning for a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
For some of the students, it’s their first time in an airport and boarding an airplane. In the gate area, the young passengers were buzzing with anticipation, cheering as each boarding group of students was called.
“I’ve never flown before, so this is really exciting,” said 15-year-old Leslie Santos Vega.
The airport “is really modern, it’s really clean,” Santos Vega said. “I like it.” The idea of flying in a plane made her “a little nervous,” she acknowledged. “I guess it’ll be fun.”
For Santos Vega, who is in the Air Force Junior ROTC program at Morrow High School, getting comfortable with being in the air is important because she wants to be a pilot when she grows up.
She plans to start learning to fly in the school’s flight simulators next year, “and then by the time I’m 17, I’m gonna be getting my private pilot license.”
“Having immigrant parents, this is like a huge thing,” said Santos Vega, whose parents are from Mexico.
Delta’s WING program, started in 2015 with Ligon’s class, is part of a broader array of efforts to lure more young people into the aviation industry — including females and minorities who may not have considered it for a career.
“The broader we cast that net, we attract a broader range of talent,” said Patrick Burns, Delta’s chief pilot and vice president of flight operations.
Airlines will need to hire thousands of new pilots in the years to come as aviators retire. There’s also high demand for aviation maintenance technicians and other aerospace jobs that can offer lucrative pay.
Yet at Delta, women make up about 5% of the 16,000 pilots, and 42% of the airline’s total workforce.
“If you don’t ever see a female pilot, you don’t know that it’s possible to be one — or a maintenance technician, or a gate agent, whatever the job is,” said Beth Poole, general manager of pilot development at Delta. “Many of these roles are dominated by males.”
Kelly Knoblauch, a Delta 737 pilot on the WING flight, said that on “every single flight, I have some female coming up to me saying, ‘I didn’t know we could do that. I didn’t know that was an option for me.’”
Airlines for many years recruited pilots from the military, “so you saw mostly men because there weren’t a lot of female officers in the military,” Poole said.
There are also plenty of barriers to becoming a commercial airline pilot, including the cost and time required. It can cost $100,000 for the training to become an airline pilot. But pilot jobs at large airlines like Delta can also pay richly over time, especially after a new labor contract approved this year with an initial 18% pay raise for Delta pilots.
Under recently-struck contracts, a pilot starting at age 25 at a major airline such as Delta, United, American and UPS could earn more than $20 million over a 40-year career with advancement to the captain’s position and larger aircraft over time, according to a preliminary analysis by KitDarby.com Aviation Consulting.
At Kennedy Space Center, the agenda included a tour by female NASA employees for the students from Conyers Middle School, Morrow Middle School, Memorial Middle School and Elite Scholar Academy, Rex Mill Middle STEM School, The Ron Clark Academy, Centennial Aviation Academy flight school, the Women in Aviation’s local chapter and the Brock Foundation to learn about rockets and aerospace.
The program also included a panel discussion by female leaders at NASA, before a flight back home Friday evening.