Officials from Southwest Airlines landed at Texas Southern University recently, and came bearing gifts. They announced TSU as the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) to join the airline’s First Officer recruitment program – Destination 225°, so named because on a compass, 225° is the southwest directional heading.
The partnership will create a pathway for graduates of TSU’s Aviation Science and Technology program, which includes a Professional Pilot concentration, by leading aspiring Black and other minority pilots to Southwest Airlines.
Dr. Terence Fontaine, TSU’s Director of Aviation, played host at the official announcement ceremony held in the atrium lobby of TSU’s Science Building.
“Black male pilots represent less than 2.4% of all pilots that are flying commercially, while Black female pilots make up less than 0.3% of all pilots in the industry,” said Fontaine, while pointing out Southwest Airlines’ Destination 225° program as strategically placed to drastically improve those numbers, and get TSU students jobs in the aviation industry.
Representing Southwest Airlines was Captain Lee Kinnebrew IV, Southwest Airlines Vice President of Flight Operations; Captain Dave Retnam, Senior Manager of Flight Operations; Captain Cory Petit, Manager Pilot Recruitment and Onboarding; Captain Brad Monda, Manager of Pilot Pathway Program.
“Southwest Airlines appreciates being the employer of choice for pilots today, but we also recognize that our aircraft order book requires that we start developing a pipeline for future first officers, candidates such as those sitting in this building, with their knowledge and experience from TSU’s Aviation Science and Technology program,” said Kinnebrew.
He mentioned that as of February 3 Southwest Airlines has 418 firm orders for new sub 737 max aircraft, planes scheduled for delivery from this year through 2031 to support the fleet modernization and potential growth.
“As a result, Southwest Airlines plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots this year and thousands more over the next decade. Thus, our desire to partner with TSU is to identify, mentor and encourage high-potential aviators, and most importantly, to offer them jobs. To accomplish this goal, we created Destination 225°, a long-term talent pipeline to develop first officers, candidates for future opportunities. We wish to guide future pilots to Southwest (225° on a compass).
Kinnebrew voiced that Southwest Airlines is keenly aware of the shortage of Black pilots and other pilots of color, stating, “We’re especially committed to opening these pathways to candidates who have traditionally been under-represented in our workforce.
Several current TSU Aviation Program students were on hand, including Paul Griffin, a sophomore in the Professional Pilot Program.
“This TSU-Southwest Airlines Destination 225° partnership just goes to show that your school is trying to do something for you,” said Griffin. “To be an African American who has always wanted to become a pilot, it’s kind of nice to see that.”
Along with a host of TSU dignitaries, including TSU President Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young and Dr. Lillian Poats, TSU’s acting provost, also on hand was a brother who is living history—Louis Freeman, retired Southwest Airlines captain.
In 1980 Freeman became Southwest Airlines’ first Black pilot. Twelve years later he became the first Black chief pilot of a major United States airline. His last flight was June 8, 2017.
Southwest Airline’s investment in TSU meant something special to Freeman.
“To me personally, I’ve been on an Aviation Advisory Board with TSU for several years,” said Freeman. “Our goal at the time was to help the TSU Aviation Program to grow into the program that it can be. And with Dr. Fontaine leading it, it was something that you could see and picture, but to actually see what’s going on—wow.”
Freeman pointed out that when TSU’s Aviation Program started, it had zero planes.
“Now, TSU has five airplanes that they own. They are getting ready to buy a twin airplane. I mean, it was just a few years ago that with no airplanes, it was tough for the kids in the flight program to get flight hours and experience. Dr. Fontaine changed all that. Talk about Southwest Airlines being close to my heart, this program is close to my heart.”
Following the official partnership signing, Fontaine took Southwest Airlines representatives on a tour of TSU’s Flight Simulator lab, a huge feather in the cap of the program, along with the five planes it owns.
For Fontaine, who has overseen the exponential growth of TSU’s Aviation program, a program that just recently celebrated a new partnership with United Airlines, he is absolutely clear on the benefit of this new Southwest Airlines collaboration.
“It means jobs. Our pilots, pilots that we train and educate at Texas Southern University, have the opportunity to get into the right seat of a 737 at Southwest Airlines. We’re here to educate, and then make sure that if they don’t have continued education—going to get their graduate degree—that they’re going to get a job. That’s what Southwest Airlines is providing us through this partnership, and we appreciate it.”
*All photos by Aswad Walker