Before Danielle Hylton takes off, there is one thing on her mind.
"Safety is number one," she said. "So, safety above everything else."
Hylton is a pilot-in-training. It is something she never thought possible, while growing up in rural Jamaica.
"Aviation was never something that was on my radar. Aviation was something that was never mentioned," she said. "I took my first flight at 17 and I fell in love instantly. I knew that that's what I wanted to do."
The cost of becoming a pilot can be staggering, though: nearly $100,000 for all of the required training hours and certifications.
So, Hylton put her pilot dreams on the back burner and pursued a different kind of aviation career.
"I discovered the wonderful world of being a flight attendant," she said.
Now, this United Airlines flight attendant is able to afford pilot training, thanks in part to a scholarship funded by Boeing.
"It was just being in the right company at the right time, running into the right people, that I became so encouraged to switch from being a flight attendant to a pilot," Hylton said.
At Boeing, funding scholarships like Hylton's comes with the effort to get more women and underrepresented groups into the cockpit.
"It's about casting a wider net and getting into communities where they traditionally pilots haven't come from," said Chris Broom, Boeing's Commercial Training Solutions vice president.
Broom said the company recognizes the impact a pilot shortage can create.
"In the end, you have to have pilots to fly our products," he said. "So, that's really important."
That is why they recently awarded $500,000 in scholarships to several organizations that selected 25 people for pilot training, including the nonprofit "Sisters of the Skies," which in turn selected Danielle Hylton.
"We believe that diversity on the flight deck is really important," Broom said. "Not only is it the right thing to do, but it we need to cast a wider net and to help with the pilot supply challenges that the airlines are facing."
It's a challenge requiring efforts on multiple fronts.
Analysts estimate there is currently a shortage of 5,000 pilots – an undersupply of 4%. Within two years, though, that shortage will jump to 12,000 pilots. By 2030, the shortage is estimated to be 14,000 pilots.
In Congress right now, the proposed 2023 FAA Reauthorization Act would raise the current required pilot retirement age from 65 to 67.
"It's mainly retirements and attrition and increased number of airplanes on property that we're seeing a greater need for pilots," said Chad Kendall, an associate professor in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Kendall said it is smaller regional airlines – which serve smaller airports and where pilots first start out – that are experiencing the biggest impact.
"Regional pilots are of desperate need in order to fill those airplanes," Kendall said. "We're seeing frequency changes occurring at airports, where when originally they would use five flights, they're reducing that to three flights. We are seeing some regionals being pulled out of some communities."
That is why some of the legacy airlines are now taking pilot training into their own hands.
"The major airlines being: Southwest, American and United have all created their own cadet programs, or pilot training programs — taking pilots with zero time, getting them through commercial and instructor certificates and allowing them to go out and build their 1,500 hours of flight time," Broom said.
Up high in the sky, Danielle Hylton is working on those hours, adding that without the scholarship's financial support, she would never be able to get her hands on those flight controls.
In the end, she wants her future passengers to know one thing.
"Just believe in my ability to get you from point A to point B, via this lovely vessel," Hylton said. "Trust and enjoy the ride."
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