How United Airlines Celebrates Black History Month

To celebrate Black History Month, which ends today, I have been highlighting African-Americans who were pioneers in aviation. I was fortunate to grow up in the household of an Air Force officer, and had parents that emphasized black history before it was “a thing.”

Of course, one of my big heroines was Bessie “Queen Bess” Coleman, the first black person in the United States to get a pilot’s license. After being turned down by numerous flight schools in the U.S., she moved to France to take lessons and get her license. Coleman was the first person I put in the spotlight using the hashtag #BHM.

Among those who followed my #BHM tweets and Facebook posts were my friends at United Airlines.  A person from their communications team told me about one of many events being held by the carrier to celebrate Black History Month — guest speaker Gigi Coleman Brooms, the grandniece of Bessie Coleman, who spoke to employees based in Chicago. Another Chicago speaker (and another person I highlighted) was a United employee who was a cousin of William R. Norwood, the airline’s first African-American pilot.  

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On Feb. 24, United held “An African-American Multigenerational Discussion – Careers, Success and History,” moderated by Gregory Jones, the company’s Managing Director Diversity & Inclusion, along with panelists Brett Hart, Acting CEO; Christine Izuakor, senior analyst, Information Technology; James Simons, Chief Pilot NA Hubs & GUM; and Michelle Brown, Managing Director AO, Planning and Standards

Below is an interview I did with Jones.

Greg Jones of United Airlines.

Aviation Queen: Why is it important for United Airlines to acknowledge Black History Month?

Greg Jones: Black History Month is important because it’s also American history. Our approach to diversity is that we view it as a core leadership competency. By celebrating Black History Month, we get a better understanding of all employees in the United Airlines family. It’s part of our efforts of overall engagement when it comes to diversity.

AQ: How do you come up with the activities to celebrate the month?

GJ: The diversity and inclusion office coordinated activities with people in our hubs and in the field. These events are things employees want to do. They give us the ideas and we give guidance and support.  One thing we try to do is coordinate and try to have our leadership participate in all of these events.  Overall, these are very organic activities that are created by our employee base.

AQ: Who do you work with to implement these programs?

GJ: What we do in our office is note that we have dates coming up and we start working on ideas. We also get ideas from employees and the people they know.  We select ideas based on best ones or who we can get to participate.  When it comes to events like this, it’s rare that people won’t do it.  Last year we did an event with some Tuskegee Airmen in [our] Willis Tower [headquarters]. The really nice thing about all of this is it’s all grassroots.

AQ: How does the Executive Diversity Council work and how many members does it have?

GJ: Our council is a good one. I’ve worked in this area at several other companies, and ours is one of the strongest. Everyone on the council is at least a vice president, and we even have some direct reports to our CEO. They come from departments including operations, human resources and finance. The council serves as the strategic body for all things diversity in the company.  It fluctuates between 12 and 15 members. It meets every other month on strategy and execution. For example, the council was very helpful when we were looking at the same-sex marriage issue. We ended up supporting this issue, even filing an amicus brief about it.  

AQ: What does diversity mean to United?

GJ: When you think about it, we provide services to the world.  We have to have an understanding of the many communities we serve. What better way to get insight than to get it from the people who work for us?  Not being afraid of these differences is why diversity is important. Having diversity puts us in a position to better serve our customers.

We have five affinity groups: LGBT, Multicultural, Veterans Women, and Millennial. Our LGBT group was very helpful on educating us about same-sex marriage. Our Veterans group showed us how to effectively recruit and retain vets at United. And we recently launched the Millennials group, which will be very interesting. They will teach us what we need to do in order to get them to come and work at United.

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