United Airlines, the only major U.S. airline to own a pilot training academy, is launching a partnership with three historically Black colleges and universities: Hampton University, Elizabeth City State University and Delaware State University. The partnership aims to identify top talent from the HBCUs and recruit students to its flight school. 

At the beginning of April, the airline announced plans to have 50% of its training school students be women and people of color.

“Being that I graduated from an HBCU, I’m very excited that United now has a partnership,” Gabrielle Harding, a United Airlines pilot, told the Virginia-Pilot. 

Harding graduated from Hampton’s aviation program. At the time, Hampton was only one of a handful of Black colleges with a flight school. According to her, she was the only woman in her major during her four years. 

The Hampton alumna was the only Black woman pilot at a regional airline, too. Harding said that after she graduated, she moved back to Michigan, her home state where she worked as a flight instructor. There, Harding says she didn't see anyone who looked like her, but she's now optimistic for the future due to the partnership between United and the HBCUs.

Initially, she decided to become an airline pilot after getting an opportunity through the Tuskegee Airmen to fly over Detroit. It was Harding's first taste of the aerospace field. 

“When you have the opportunity to see someone who’s in a career field that looks like you, then it’s always in the back of your mind that this is possible,” she said

"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," United CEO Scott Kirby said

The airline says it continues to "break down the financial barriers that limited access to the airline pilot career path for generations of women and people of color," and has since committed to funding $1.2 million in scholarships.

United said that it has finalized partnerships with Hampton, Elizabeth City State and Delaware State during its announcement of their new diversity goal for pilots. 

Through the partnership, these students will have the opportunity to participate, fly and associate with dedicated ambassadors and coaches who will help lead them on the path to a United flight deck.

According to the airline, the program promises to give an aspiring aviator the most direct path to United with one of its Aviate regional partners. The future pilots must meet a minimum requirement of 24 months and 2,000 hours of training with said partners.

The flight school will also offer the next generation of pilots more options in program entry points throughout their career and choice of select United Express carriers. Additionally, the airline said it will increase transparency and clarity along the path from program entry to flying for United and improve on career development, including mentoring, access to United pilots and learning tools.