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University of Dayton aviation historian Janet Bednarek featured in ‘Wall Street Journal,’ ‘Rolling Stone’ and other outlets for expertise

By Bridgett Dillenburger ’23

Media outlets including the History Channel, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone magazine are flocking to University of Dayton history professor Janet Bednarek for her expertise on aviation history.

In recent months, she shared her scholarship on such topics as airport security and passenger traffic related to 9/11 and COVID-19, as well as women in aviation and the “billionaire space race.”

Originally trained as an urban historian, Bednarek joined the University faculty in 1992 after working for three years as a historian with the United States Air Force at Bolling Air Force Base, the Pentagon and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton.

Her current research combines her professional and on-the-job training by examining the relationship between airports and city planning. This summer, she was featured in a three-part History Channel series, The Machines that Built America. Bednarek was interviewed about the U.S. airline industry and aviation history. 

In recent months, media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal sought her expertise related to the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Bednarek discussed the night-and-day change in airport security measures after 9/11. She said airports were reluctant to adopt security measures before 9/11 in an effort to decrease public fear, as they did not want to emphasize the risks of flying. 

After the attacks, massive levels of security were required to ensure and convince passengers of their safety, Bednarek said These procedures have only increased over time. Airports today are being redesigned to make security an organic part of the commercial flight experience. 

“Now when people go to the airport, they expect security,” Bednarek said. “It does seem to be a rather permanent part of what it will be like to fly in the United States for the foreseeable future.”

Some procedures, such as full-body scans, have faced pushback, but most people were quick to adjust and willing to take every required step to ensure safety on their flight. Bednarek points out that while passengers were quiet about adapting to these new safety procedures, today many have been highly vocal about wearing masks on planes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The unpredictable nature of COVID has really stymied a recovery in the airline industry,” Bednarek said. “They’re in this precarious economic condition where they want to get back to flying but they don’t want to ramp up only to have another wave of COVID come through and push everything back down again.”

The pandemic took commercial flight traffic to low levels, forcing airlines to lay off workers including pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. Bednarek said that before airports can return to normal operations, staff will need to be retrained and recertified. 

Bednarek noted the imbalance of women in the aviation field. Women were not hired as pilots until as late as the 1970s and still only account for 6% of licensed pilots in America. She said women pilots could help the industry rebound.

“This is a challenge as we’re going forward with a pilot shortage,” Bednarek said. “The aviation industry cannot ignore the talents and abilities of half your population.” 

Rolling Stone magazine reported on female astronaut and aviation pioneer Wally Funk, who in July set the record for being the oldest woman to go into space after she was invited aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The article included Bednarek’s perspective on Funk as well as the billionaire space race.

“It’s interesting that people of the generation of Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and others — what they want to reach for that’s going to set them apart from everybody else has been space travel,” Bednarek said. “There’s been a race to be first.” 

Bednarek said that if Funk going into space, even for a moment, was a way to recognize her trailblazing, then it was a well-deserved trip. She views Funk as someone who paved the way for women in aviation, and hopes more women follow suit.

“Aviation and space has remained stubbornly masculine, particularly in the United States and that is something that still needs to be worked on a lot going forward,” she said. “I am often the only woman in the room.”

Bednarek holds a doctoral degree in history from the University of Pittsburgh, where she focused on urban planning under a Mellon fellowship.

Bednarek said sharing the stories of people who have not been at the forefront of textbooks enriches her students. Many of her classes involve issues of equality and bring race, class and gender into the classroom, especially in connection to urban and city planning history. 

“Over the years I have become far more conscious about emphasizing issues of diversity and social justice and bringing stories of marginalized people into the classroom,” Bednarek said. “I have found students are very responsive to that, as well, to learn the stories that they didn’t learn about where they grew up.” 

Christopher Agnew, associate professor and department of history chair, praised Bednarek for her numerous publications and continued devotion to the department through her advising and service. 

“Dr. Bednarek is an outstanding scholar and teacher who has devoted years of labor and service to our department and university,” Agnew said. “As a former chair herself, Dr. Bednarek has impressed upon me the importance of faculty governance and engagement, and I admire her ability to so well embody the teacher-scholar model we all seek to emulate here at UD.”

For more information, visit the Department of History website.

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