Denver airport’s “equity center” plan takes new tack to help industry

If a new industry forecast is right that North American airlines will need to hire 127,000 new pilots and nearly as many aircraft technicians in the next 20 years, they’ll have to search far and wide.

Right now, some of those recruits just might be middle school students in metro Denver who haven’t yet developed a passion for aviation. Others might be working at an airport restaurant or be frustrated with another career.

Denver International Airport’s leaders hope to spark their interest — and they’re betting roughly $40 million on a project that will establish what they call a first-of-its-kind outpost at a U.S. airport for outreach, talent development and innovation in the aviation industry.

Construction is set to begin late this year on DIA’s new Center of Equity and Excellence in Aviation, a small component of the ongoing $2.1 billion Great Hall terminal renovation project. It will occupy most of 66,000 square feet of unused space on a lower level of the Westin hotel and transit center, which opened next to the terminal eight years ago.

The center will do more than try to interest middle-schoolers in aviation careers, though airport CEO Phil Washington — the initiative’s driving force — hopes to put DIA on the national map by helping to solve the industry’s long-term worker shortages. Those include not only the need for a more robust pipeline but also recruitment of women and people of color to fill still-gargantuan equity gaps in many industry jobs, especially among pilots.

He and the initiative’s leader hope to tap communities that, with fewer aviation role models, might not see the field as a viable career path.

The project’s existence — along with its equity focus — got caught in the political crossfire after Washington was nominated for a presidential appointment to head the Federal Aviation Administration. Republican senators characterized the center as a waste of money during his March confirmation hearing, a few weeks before Washington withdrew from consideration amid unrelated concerns about his qualifications for the job.

“I think one of the pressing issues is to make sure that we have a qualified workforce for years to come,” Washington told one senator in defense of the project.

DIA’s largest airlines and some industry observers have welcomed the equity center.

“You’re looking at an airport spending money for a revamped terminal and all that — (so) $40 million is really peanuts,” said Mike Boyd, an Evergreen-based aviation consultant. “But I think the impact will be global or at least national, and that’s going to raise the profile of Denver International Airport. There’s no downside.”

The recent 20-year labor forecast, produced by airplane maker Boeing based on industry trends, estimates a need for 2.3 million new aviation workers worldwide — 429,000 of them in North America — to keep up with retirements and growth in air travel. Those figures include pilots, technicians and cabin crew members.

Since the pandemic, the problem has been more acute, with some airlines struggling at times to staff flights.

“It’s all hands on deck, because we need to cast a wide net and make people understand the needs within this industry,” said Kevin Kuhlmann, a professor and associate chair of the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Aviation and Aerospace Science Department. For its part, MSU Denver is now a partner with United Airlines in a pilot-development program that puts some students on a track for first-officer positions with the carrier early in their careers.

He agreed with the need for more focus on expanding the industry’s diversity, too.

Roughly 5% of airline pilots are women, according to the group Women in Aviation International. When it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that last year, just 2.6% of all aircraft pilots were Black, 1.6% were Asian and 9.7% were Hispanic or Latino — all significantly below those groups’ shares of the overall U.S. workforce.

The disparities were similar for Black and female employees in mechanic and service technician jobs. There is more racial parity among attendants, though that job skews heavily toward women.

Without a space, center’s programs are growing

Airport officials refer to the Center of Equity and Excellence in Aviation as the CEEA, pronounced “see-yah.” With construction expected to take about two years, the center’s opening is expected in late 2025 or early 2026.

The CEEA’s mission is broad: Its leaders aim to help some of the more than 30,000 workers based at DIA explore different career pathways. It’s also for children and teenagers to see the possibilities in aviation’s many high-paying jobs. And it’s for small businesses, too — including those considered “disadvantaged” based on their ownership by women, minorities or military veterans — to learn how to bid and work in an airport environment.

“We are still ramping up that programming, but we’re not waiting for the center to be built,” said Stephanie A. Burke, the CEEA’s director. “We’re doing it right now.”

She detailed several youth outreach programs already underway as she leads an eight-person team. They’ve put on industry events at two schools as well as a three-week summer “DEN Academy” program, in addition to the airport’s hosting of a longstanding internship program. Burke’s team is working on plans for workshops at schools in the new school year.

“We focus on showing kids that there are a lot of different careers within the aviation industry,” she said, pointing also to jobs on the ground and inside airports that appeal to people with an interest in aviation who may not want to pilot or work on planes.

The CEEA’s Business Development Training Academy has taught more than two dozen small businesses the basics of navigating airport contracting, Burke said — with two graduates of the program going on to successfully bid for contracts at DIA. The CEEA team also is exploring new partnerships with local universities for an airport and aviation innovation component.

The new center will have lecture halls, training rooms and meeting spaces, with its main venue set to be dubbed “the Hall of Equity.”

DIA leaders have high hopes for the center.

“We are the Rocky Mountain region’s biggest international airport, and so I would see us being that really key player in the industry — and having that space so people can come and learn and grow” in their career trajectories, Burke said.

For Washington, the center’s varying components all center on opportunity. He told a Denver City Council committee during an airport briefing in August that he hoped the CEEA would “set the standard for the aviation industry.”

CEO added project to Great Hall expansion plans

The CEEA idea was born as Washington, a longtime transit executive appointed CEO by former Mayor Michael Hancock in mid-2021, figured out how to salvage key components of the Great Hall project. It had been scaled back after the airport fired the original contractors in 2019 amid exploding costs.

He began the job by making clear he wanted to address equity gaps in the aviation sector. And when he proposed the Great Hall project’s “completion phase” in late 2021, the CEEA was a notable addition. To oversee its programs, the airport brought on Burke, who previously worked on workforce development programs at L.A. Metro in Los Angeles, where Washington was CEO for several years.

Some of the CEEA’s wide-ranging components exist in some other U.S. airports, including workforce development programs for current employees and a research and innovation lab intended to allow testing of new technology in a working airport.

What’s new is DIA’s ambition to house them all under one program and to look outward toward engaging young people who may not even be thinking about their career paths yet — especially those from underrepresented groups.

Washington has rejected the suggestion the CEEA is a “pet project.”

“I think it’s right in the scope of what we ought to be doing,” Washington said during an early project media briefing. “We have worker shortages in the aviation industry. We have worker shortages here. We have pilot shortages. We have maintenance shortages. … We have to grow our own.”

Boyd, the aviation consultant, credited the airport’s show of leadership in creating the center when “you’ve got the space, you’ve got the money, you’ve got the intent and you’ve got the means.”

The project budget for the CEEA project is still being finalized, a project spokeswoman said, but remains in the ballpark of $40 million. It will be constructed by Sky Blue Builders and is being designed by Studio Completiva, both minority-owned contractors.

Whether Washington will oversee its completion is up to new Mayor Mike Johnston, who is now weighing whom he wants in the airport CEO job.

Airlines, aviation experts praise project

United and Southwest Airlines, DIA’s top two carriers by market share, praised the CEEA project in statements to The Denver Post while noting their own recent initiatives that aim to create new pathways for people to become pilots or technicians.

Both have partnerships with university aviation programs, and United has owned a flight school, called Aviate Academy, in Arizona since late 2021, with a focus on training underrepresented pilots.

“We applaud DEN’s vision for (the CEEA) and believe it’ll complement our own efforts to create more awareness and opportunity about the myriad of possible aviation careers,” United spokesman Russell Carlton wrote in an email.

The CEEA project also has been drawing more praise from outside Colorado.

“It’s an unusual thing to see an airport step up like this,” said Robert Fowler Jr., an assistant professor in the Aerospace Department at Middle Tennessee State University, a well-regarded aviation program near Nashville that educates and trains many future commercial pilots.

He was unfamiliar with the CEEA project until The Post reached out, but he said it’s one he’s excited to follow. His research has focused on how to improve the diversity of the aviation workforce, especially among pilots and technicians.

Fowler co-authored a report earlier this year that characterized the growth in the shares of women and people of color in aviation jobs over the last 20 years as “sluggish” — and unlikely to accelerate in the coming decade without stepped-up recruitment from underrepresented groups.

“There are a lot of organizations that the Denver airport could work with to try to increase the number of women and minorities in aviation careers,” Fowler said, whether in jobs with the airlines or at airports, including leadership positions. “This is a good model for airports around the country.”

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