Kathi Durst (’88, WW) believes in keeping an open mind. She entered the U.S. Air Force Academy with intentions of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. She qualified for fighter pilot training but couldn’t participate because she was a woman. She earned a master’s degree to advance in the military but ended up leaving the service after seven years.
Now Durst is one of four chief pilots for American Airlines at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Airport—the airline’s largest crew base in the world. She also happens to be American’s first female chief pilot at DFW and the company’s only openly gay chief pilot. “Keep all doors open. Pursue all things,” Durst says.
On American Airlines
Before her recent promotion, Durst spent two years as American’s first female fleet manager (Boeing 737). In this role, she worked with pilots to develop training manuals and policies and procedures. She also interfaced with agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board and spent time with industry leaders to discuss aircraft design and development.
As a chief pilot, Durst is an advocate for the 3,000 pilots based at DFW. Her job is to listen to the pilots’ needs and try to help them in any way possible. She also serves as a liaison between the pilots and other internal departments. Durst has worked other jobs during her 26-year career at American—including check airman on the Airbus A300 and Boeing 737 fleets. And decades after her Air Force flight training, she still loves to fly—although her current position tends to keep her a little more “grounded” these days.
While serving in the Air Force, Durst earned her Master of Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle Worldwide. “I chose that degree because I wasn’t sure I was getting out of the military,” she says. In the military, a graduate degree was necessary for advancement.
Once she left the service, Durst didn’t initially see the correlation between her graduate studies and her work as a commercial pilot. It wasn’t until she became a fleet manager in 2012 that she fully appreciated her master’s degree and the management lessons she learned.
“Having that degree definitely helped me later in life,” she says. “You just never know.”
On Career Advice
“If you are a helpful, eager person, good things are going to come to you,” Durst says.
Experiences such as education, volunteerism and networking have contributed to her success. Many times, these experiences and personal attributes are just as important as a job candidate’s technical aptitude, she says.
Over the years, Durst served on the pilot recruitment board. She also mentored young pilots through Women in Aviation International. Durst is active in the industry and belongs to organizations such as the National Gay Pilots Association. In 2014, she was named a recipient of the Earl G. Graves Award for Leadership in Diversity. Honorees are recognized by American for their efforts as leaders in diversity, both at work and in the community.
“At this point in my life, I want to do whatever I can to help the next generation,” Durst says. “It’s my way of paying it forward in appreciation of women like the World War II Women Airforce Pilots who preceded me and paved the way for my career interests.”
Durst is honored by the attention her chief pilot promotion has drawn. At the same time, she’s also embarrassed by it. “Day to day, I don’t think about the fact that I’m a woman or gay,” she says. “All of my life, I’ve always tried to be a team player, work hard and put my nose to the grindstone .”