DENVER (CBS4)– Trailblazers helping to make the aviation industry more diverse celebrated Black History Month at the airport Wednesday as employees for United Airlines push the company to better represent the people they serve.
“With any first comes a great deal of responsibility, work hard, do a great job so people believe in you,” said M’Lis Ward, a pilot for United. “Pave that way, make that road a little wider for the next one to come by.”
Ward is the first black woman to become a captain for a major U.S. airline. She grew up in Chicago and now lives in the Denver metro area, she was also a flight instructor in the Air Force before she became a commercial pilot. Ward says it is more important to make sure you are not the last, than to just celebrate being the first. A trait other leaders at the airline also emphasized at the event along Concourse B inside Denver International Airport.
“A lot of times I think as a minority you feel like you need to do it better and stronger than the next person,” said Rob Biddle, the chief pilot for United in Denver and the director of flight operations at DIA. “We all stand on people’s shoulders.”
Biddle is the first black chief pilot for United assigned to the airline’s hub in Colorado. Both he and Ward spoke about a time when it was not as easy to be different.
“It was very difficult for men and women of color to chase their dreams and the jobs they would really like to,” said Biddle.
In between two gates, the airline hosted a party for employees working at the airport as well as passengers. There was food and live music along with speeches from employees like Ward and Biddle.
“We have fewer black pilots than, you know, other nationalities,” said Ward. “It’s kind of nice for folks to see that yeah, we do have black pilots and that is something we celebrate at United Airlines.”
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Biddle and Ward have both been flying planes long enough to already have an impact on the next generation. Biddle says that as a pilot he not only influences others in the business but also the customers that travel on United.
“It’s really gratifying to see that when a small child of color is excited to see that I am their captain,” he said.
Sharon Grant is the vice president of community affairs for United. She flew in from Chicago to speak to the crowd. Grant shared her personal experiences growing up as a person of color and talked about the importance for an airline like United to embrace diversity in 2018 in order to be successful.
“If we are going to be flying all around the world, then we need to represent that,” she said. “These differences that we have, actually make us stronger and actually makes us better.”
Grant said it was important for employees and customers to see they value having a team from various backgrounds working together and hear from them directly at the event.
“It’s just having a moment where everybody can connect and learn more about each other,” she said. “All those trailblazers that really have come before each of us and those that are still around us, they represent a light.”
As seasoned pilots, Biddle and Ward now devote a lot of their time to professional organizations that develop talent in the aviation industry.
“It pushes us to be excellent and it pushes us to be the best that we can be,” said Biddle. “I think that it’s important that I reach back and help others and move them forward.”
Ward also emphasized the importance of looking at the many forms of diversity. Not just race but also gender and sexual orientation.
“There was definitely a time, a long time ago, that I would have never told anyone that I was gay here,” she said. “Just a part of my life that I hid.”
Now she is proud to be someone that can represent different perspectives at the airline and says the company promotes her in that role. It’s part of her mission to make sure that someone doesn’t pursue a career based on what is expected of them but instead breaks the mold others may have assigned to them.
“What we want is for kids to dream and dream big,” she said. “Dream that they can be anything they want to be.”