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Prepare for Takeoff: 'Extraordinary Demand' for Pilots Provides Lift to Aviation Students

  • Tom Banse

FILE - A Delta jet takes off in view of an Alaska Airlines plane that just landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington, Dec. 16, 2015.

FILE - A Delta jet takes off in view of an Alaska Airlines plane that just landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington, Dec. 16, 2015.

Tyler Holmen of Redmond, Washington, knows what he wants to do in life. The 18-year-old aviation student at Central Washington University wants to become a pilot.

"Flying has just always fascinated me," he said. "I kind of settled on it at an early age. It's kind of a dream come true here."

He and his classmates could hardly have picked a better time to become professional pilots. The Boeing Company is forecasting "extraordinary demand" worldwide for airline pilots and technicians. In a recent analysis, the jet maker said the world's airlines will need 617,000 new pilots during the next 20 years. Boeing expects the greatest demand will come from Asia and North America, because of economic expansion and swelling airline fleets.

From college to cockpit

Gage Geist graduated from Central Washington earlier this year. The 22-year-old is now giving flight lessons to undergrads in the program, which helps him accumulate the flight hours he needs to qualify for an airline job.

Central Washington University Professor Teresa Sloan sits in the aviation program's CRJ-200 turbojet flight simulator. (T. Banse/VOA)

Central Washington University Professor Teresa Sloan sits in the aviation program's CRJ-200 turbojet flight simulator. (T. Banse/VOA)

A first officer, or copilot, slot awaits him at his chosen Horizon Air as soon as he logs 1,000 hours at the controls.

"By the time I graduated, I had three conditional job offers," he said. He estimates his starting pay would be in the $30,000-$35,000 range. A few years ago, a freshly minted copilot at a regional U.S. airline might have earned less than $25,000 per year to start. As cockpit crew members gain experience and move up the career ladder, their pay soars into the six figures.

The stepped-up recruiting by various airlines led local union official Mark Niles to observe, "It's almost a game of one-upmanship right now." Niles, a veteran Horizon pilot, said he had heard of rivals offering bonuses in excess of $20,000 to get new pilots in the door. Job offers can include a combination of signing bonus, a later retention bonus and advancement preferences to command bigger jets.

Geist says that's a big change from just a few years ago. "When I first started off, it was once in a blue moon we would have a recruiter come by, maybe once every other month. Now, it's almost every other week."

Trends behind the shortage

Inside the training center at Ellensburg's airport, where instructors and students rotate through five flight simulators and a fleet of single-engine Cessnas, a bulletin board is covered with recruiting posters and ads from regional U.S. airlines.

Students in Central Washington University's Aviation Department learn to fly in Cessna 172s at Ellensburg's Bowers Field. (T. Banse/VOA)

Students in Central Washington University's Aviation Department learn to fly in Cessna 172s at Ellensburg's Bowers Field. (T. Banse/VOA)

The competition for pilots "is a perfect coming together of growth within the industry," according to LaMar Haugaard, director of pilot development and recruiting at Horizon Air in Portland, Oregon. He points to the beginnings of an anticipated wave of mandatory retirements from the major airlines as pilots turn 65. In addition, military cutbacks and the rise of drones mean air forces no longer produce as many pilots as they used to.

"Marry that up with fewer and fewer people getting into the industry, mainly due to becoming cost-prohibitive on the training side, you have a shortage that will come from that,” he said. “And we are certainly seeing that now."

So now Horizon and other regional carriers are making deals with university aviation programs to ramp up pilot development. A recently signed pilot development deal between Horizon Air and Central Washington University included one-time $7,500 "stipends" for up to 17 aviation students per year. In addition, Horizon donated a $10,000 desktop flight simulator.

Another regional carrier, SkyWest, signed a deal this fall with Southern Utah University that offers $10,000 tuition reimbursement. In exchange, those students commit to fly with a certain carrier for at least two years once they're qualified.

Universities from Florida to Alaska foresee major enrollment growth in aeronautics to meet industry demand. Sundaram Nataraja, who used to work for Emirates airline in Dubai, now chairs the aviation department at Central Washington University.

The University of Alaska Anchorage's new aviation director said his department has capacity to grow enrollment. (Photo Courtesy of UAA Aviation)

The University of Alaska Anchorage's new aviation director said his department has capacity to grow enrollment. (Photo Courtesy of UAA Aviation)

"We want to grow this to a bigger level,” he said. “In five years down the road, we want to have a total of 1,000 students in the aviation department. Currently we have 200."

Perks for students

Nataraja says parents still get wide-eyed when he explains the cost of a professional pilot education. It runs $80,000 to $100,000 over four years, chiefly because of fees for one-on-one flight training. That's not quite as much as it costs to become a doctor, but it's close. A typical student may graduate with considerable debt. But thanks to the newfound, stiff competition for aviation graduates, entry-level pay at regional airlines has risen significantly over the past year.

And hundreds of foreign novice pilots at private flight academies across America have a debt-free pathway to the skies. International airlines, mainly those in China, are paying for all of their pilot training. But that deal comes with an expectation of committing to the sponsoring airline for the duration of their career.

Aviation economist Dan Akins of the consulting firm Flightpath Economics described the regional airline sector as "the tip of the spear" for feeling the pilot shortage.

"There aren't enough pilots being supplied to the industry to sustain it," Akins said in an interview. He contended that smaller cities risk losing air service unless the current trajectory changes. "I think we are in the very early stages of a really hard landing for the industry."

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