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Front of the Cabin

Latinas fly the friendly skies

By Patricia Guadalupe

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The next time you fly the friendly skies, you may be one of the lucky ones to meet the smiling captain, Claudia Zapata-Cardone. 

The Elizabeth, New Jersey, native got the flying bug early, visiting her dad at the airport in nearby Newark, where he worked in one of the hangars. A native of Colombia, her father wasn’t a fan of cafeteria food, so the future pilot and her mother would bring him dinner and she would watch the planes come and go while he ate. 

“I was in 8th or 9th grade when I told my guidance counselor it would be a cool idea to be a pilot and she laughed at me and said to get my head out of the clouds,” Zapata-Cardone tells LATINO Magazine.

Ironically, that’s exactly where she ended up, starting her aviation career with flight school and further training in Orlando and Atlanta before joining United in 2015.

“There’s a perception that women can’t do the job, and that is a hurtful stereotype. The airplane doesn’t care whether you’re male or female. All it cares about is skills, and we have the skills. Many times, Latinas have to go above and beyond to show that we deserve to be in the front of the cabin.”  

The Latina captain is also president of the Latino Pilot Association (LPA), a national organization founded in 2015 to help increase the number of Latinos and Latinas in the aviation industry: “Pilots, mechanics, engineers, there are so many careers in the aerospace and aviation industries and we are working on building up those mentorship and development programs.”

LPA also provides scholarships. Planning is currently underway for a program next year for high school students – the Academy for Latins in Aviation Sciences (ALAS, or wings in Spanish), a four-day camp that takes students through the different areas of the aviation industry. In 2021, United became the only major airline in the United States to own a flight school when it opened United Aviate Academy, creating additional pathways to the flight deck for aspiring aviators.

“Representation matters. People don’t know they can do the job unless they see someone who looks like them. I wish I had seen that a long time ago. I mentor many and you end up being that guiding light for others,” says Zapata-Cardone.

As far as representation goes, the percentage of Hispanics at United – 17% -- is almost equal to the overall Hispanic population in the U.S. The number of Hispanic employees at the airline is up from 14% just three years ago, and Crain’s Chicago Business reports that even while the pandemic hit the airline industry hard, United ramped up its staff by nearly a third in just the last three years alone. The company wants its leadership team to reflect its broader workforce, and Zapata-Cardone certainly does, along with her colleague Elizabeth Lopez, Sr. Managing Counselor - Global Compliance & Alliances and Chief of Staff to the President.

Lopez grew up in Chicago and is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University Law School, joining United in 2016 after a stint at a law firm. “After eight years as a trial attorney, I wanted to work with one client and be on one team. United is a marquee Chicago company and being an airline attorney is exciting and intellectually challenging. I’m never bored. United is a huge company with so many opportunities. I’m doing things here I never dreamed I would be doing. There is a place here for everyone.”

López manages anti-trust and alliance legal issues, as well as provides legal support to United’s operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.  She is also involved with UNITE, the company’s multicultural business resource group, leading the Latino/Hispanic committee: “We do a lot with the community and actively support the business all year. For instance, we launched a Latino mentoring program to support our younger team members; represent United at corporate and community events; partner with industry groups, including the Latino Pilots Association, to engage aspiring aviators and future aviation leaders; and host food drives in support of local and national partners. We are here for each other and for the company.”

   Lopez says it’s a way for her to give back and help others. “It’s not lost on me that my abuelito in Mexico signed his name with his thumbprint and my dad only finished fifth grade. It’s incumbent upon us to pull people up, to open doors. I wouldn’t be where I am if people hadn’t opened doors for me, and I want to do the same for others.” 

Another Latina opening doors at United is Felisha Mitchell, Managing Director - Financial Planning & Analysis. Mitchell has been with United for 18 years – it’ll be 19 next April. “It’s a great career and a lot of fun,” she says. 

Mitchell grew up in Eunice, New Mexico, a small New Mexico town with less than 3,000 residents, and credits a scholarship to a nearby college with helping her achieve her goals. She is a graduate of the University of the Southwest and Angelo State University. Mitchell worked in public accounting before moving to corporate accounting for a construction firm in Dallas where she learned to use her voice in a male-dominated field. “I learned how to hold my own.” 

In addition to being involved with UNITE, Mitchell supports a program she helped develop at United – the Accelerate program – to bring more talent to the finance arm of the company.

“There’s not a lot of people that look like me that join such a large company’s finance organization. The program is designed not only to recruit people, but to help them accelerate their knowledge of the airline industry and ensure they develop the leadership skills needed to succeed at United,” she says, adding, “We don’t just teach them about finance; we bring leaders from all across the enterprise to teach them about other functions, such as operations, marketing, loyalty program, and others; there’s a lot of education upfront to help them be successful.”

This is the fifth cohort since the program started and Mitchell says 100% of the cohort participants are still with the company: “We feel this is a good program that’s helping us bring top talent into the finance organization. I do a lot of mentoring through the program helping participants navigate their United career as much as I can. Some early career advice I generally give is to ask questions and network as much as possible. When I first started my career, I quickly learned the importance of these two habits. There’s so much out there that if you’re not engaging and meeting people, you never learn of the myriad of opportunities.” 

There’s no denying that one of the perks of working at United is the opportunity to travel just about anywhere in the world. “I love to travel,” says Mitchell, adding that Asia is her favorite place – Bali and Thailand in particular. 

But Zapata-Cardone says hands down it’s Italy: “I love Italy, the food is amazing! The history is amazing! I really enjoy visiting as much as I can.” 

One of her favorite trips was to Istanbul, Turkey. “It was fantastic. The people, the history, the culture. I look forward to exploring more of the beautiful country,” she says.

You can find her leading from the front of the cabin!

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