An editorial by President Roslyn Clark Artis featured in the HBCU Digest
HBCU campuses are typically as busy as most major airports. Classes are in full swing, food service is up and running, the bookstore is open, and the student center is thriving. Band, sports, chorales, and Greek life add color to the teeming campus, while Student Government Association, debate, academic clubs and honor societies add texture to the fabric of the HBCU experience.
People coming and going – a virtual hive of activity.
As far as analogies go, an airport is an apt reference. The Board of Trustees acts as air traffic control, governing our flight patterns and accreditors are the equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration. The President is the pilot and the students are the passengers. The staff and faculty work in various roles from gate agents, to grounds crews to flight attendants, deftly guiding students as they travel their respective intellectual journeys. All function in their various roles to ensure that our passengers get to their graduation destination. Some will have more than one connection, and some will be delayed, but all will travel toward the achievement of the credential that will be their ticket to the next leg of their personal or professional journeys.
The flight is often turbulent for HBCU communities. Some of the airplanes are dated and many are not equipped with charging stations and in-flight entertainment. Limited snack options are available to passengers and upgrades are rare. Despite these minor inconveniences, the ticket agents and attendants more than makeup for these limitations by delivering clear and caring instruction and going above and beyond to ensure that passengers are comfortable – intellectually and culturally.
When maintenance is required for the fleet, repairs often occur while planes are in the air as the limited fleet seldom afford pilots the benefit of grounding the planes for fixes. The aircraft are constantly in use and passengers must be served. That is, after all, our mission and our solemn commitment.
Over time, this exacts a toll on everyone – air traffic control (board); the President (pilot); the crew (the cabinet); the attendants and ticket agents (the faculty) the grounds crew (the staff); and the passengers (the students). There is precious little time to think strategically about more efficient processes; more direct routes, automated check-in and baggage processes, airplane upgrades and the fundamental long-term health of the airline.
Occasionally, a weather emergency interrupts air travel. Adjustments are made; flights are re-routed, passengers are delayed, and a few flights will be canceled, thereby causing minor inconvenience to the passengers whose plans are disrupted.
Seldom, if ever, has an airport been completely closed. COVID-19 has resulted in just that for colleges/universities (airlines) around the country. The smaller, less well-resourced HBCU airlines will feel the impact almost immediately and their passengers, often among the most vulnerable are left stranded.
The bright side of the industry-wide shutdown is that for perhaps the first time ever, pilots have an opportunity to consult with air traffic control in order to ascertain the best flight pattern for the planes when the airport re-opens. Similarly, the pilot and the crew can think and plan about the future of the airline. The ticketing agents and attendants have an opportunity to review the ticketing processes and safety protocols to ensure the currency and quality of the passenger experience.
The grounds crew and baggage handlers can focus on process improvements and streamlining of operations going forward. In short, there is time to plan strategically for the future of the airline while passengers are grounded. We must take advantage of this opportunity to service our planes and optimize our business plans for the HBCU airlines. In short, it will not be business as usual when the airports reopen. The successful airlines will be those who take advantage of this time to reimagine their futures.
However, the obvious barrier remains – the HBCU airlines are unable to improve planes, upgrade technologies, make good on ticket refunds and conduct training and support for its essential employees without investment on the part of the federal government. Like the automobile and banking industries that have received significant bailouts in the face of an impending threat to their survival, the HBCU airlines desperately need assistance to survive.
If we are sincere about saving and strengthening the small, regional HBCU Airlines, the federal government must act swiftly and aggressively to protect this critical, yet unusually fragile, sector of the academic airline sector. The travel plans of nearly 300,000 future engineers, scientists, teachers, lawyers and cybersecurity specialists of color are depending on your support.
The airport is closed; our planes are grounded, and our passengers are stranded. HBCU Airlines need swift approval of the emergency aid package designed to protect the most vulnerable industries in our country. Contact your Congressional Representatives today!
Our future and the future of our passengers depends on it.
Roslyn Clark Artis
Pilot/President – Benedict College