During a month when airlines have increasingly been drawn into political controversies, United Airlines has not hesitated to take a role.
While attention has focused on Delta and American, which spoke out against restrictive voting laws in their home states, United last week issued three separate statements on social issues: election integrity, diversity and climate change. It committed to specific changes in hiring diversity and in reducing carbon emissions.
“United is a high-profile brand,” CEO Scott Kirby said Friday, on a call with airline reporters. “Because of that were in a unique position to do more than just be a great company. We are actually in a position to make a difference in the world.
“Two things are important to us where we want to lead and make a difference,” Kirby continued. “Diversity and inclusion, and climate change.
“It’s not talk; it is action,” he said, in announcing United’s initiative to join with a dozen companies to purchase sustainable aviation fuel. The carrier formally announced the initiative Tuesday.
“United is being a world citizen,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “People are choosing to fly on United because of its actions for the environment, which is recognized as the existential crisis of our time. Companies like United are a huge part of innovation and scientific advancement.”
As for the carrier’s push for diversity, Nelson said, “United is doing what our union has been pushing them to do since 1945,” referring to the year when the union was founded at United. AFA now represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.
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“Aviation is a worldwide business,” Nelson said. “It only works with the spirit that we are all in this together. It traditionally has been a very white male-centric industry, but it has been working hard on diversity efforts.” Those efforts, she said, attract people to airline careers and attract passengers to select airlines.
Like American and Delta, United has drawn criticism from high-profile voices on the right. Last week, Fox TV host Tucker Carlson and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R.-Texas lashed out at United’s positions on diversity and voting rights.
Carlson said United’s commitment to diversity in hiring is a threat to air safety, while Crenshaw saw a contradiction in opposing voter identification even as aviation security requires passenger identification. Crenshaw tweeted: “That’s your policy, United. Pandering hypocrites. Just shut up.”
United’s week of involvement in current events included three public statements.
On Monday, April 5, United joined American and Delta, critically appraising legislation that infringes on voting rights. “Some have questioned the integrity of the nation’s election systems and are using it to justify stricter voting procedures, even though numerous studies have found zero credible evidence of widespread fraud in U.S. elections,” United said.
“Legislation that infringes on the right to vote of fellow Americans is wrong,” the carrier said. “We believe that leaders in both parties should work to protect the rights of eligible voters by making it easier and more convenient for them to cast a ballot and have it counted.”
On Tuesday, April 6, United, the only major U.S. airline that owns a flight training school, announced that it plans to train 5,000 new pilots by 2030, and that at least half of them will be women and people of color. The carrier committed to fund $1.2 million in scholarships to support women and people of color, as did its credit card partner, JP Morgan Chase.
On Friday, April 9, Kirby unveiled the Eco-Skies Alliance for reporters, with a public announcement scheduled for today. This year, United and its partners are committed to purchase approximately 3.4 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel, enough to eliminate approximately 31,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or enough to fly passengers over 220 million miles Passengers can also contribute to purchase sustainable fuel.
United has been an airline industry leader in seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018 it committed to a 50% reduction by 2050, and in December 2020 it upped that commitment to 100%, saying it would invest in carbon capture technology as well as sustainable aviation fuel.
Crenshaw tweeted about United’s statement on protecting voter rights on Monday April 5, while Carlson attacked the pilot diversity move the following Wednesday.
Carlson, on TV and in a written statement, saw a connection between a commitment to sending minorities to flight training school and a lack of commitment to flight safety.
“United used to be a conventional commercial air carrier,” he said. “It flew airplanes from place to place, most of the time uneventfully. That was the old United Airlines. The new United is very different. It’s a combination of a hyper-aggressive corporate HR department, and a left-wing political action committee
“Safety is no longer that airline’s top concern,” Carlson said. “Identity politics is.” He said airlines should consider “competence,” not “race or gender” in hiring, suggesting there is a difference between the two.
Nelson said Carlson’s remarks were “racist, discriminatory and egotistical as a white man.” She said “Not a company out there should advertise on his show after that comment.”