“Opening the door for many people”

(CBS news)

Airlines can’t go anywhere without pilots and some struggle to find enough. Next year they expect a shortage of more than 12,000 pilots.

United Airlines has launched a program to train the next generation of pilots, including encouraging other employees to fill those vacancies.

Ricki Foster is at the helm, learning the ropes with her flight instructor. She is a mother of two and a former flight attendant. She told CBS News’ Errol Barnett that she was inspired to upgrade her wings.

‘Show me an excuse and I’ll show you how to overcome that, you know you’re too old? Well, I’m 38 and there’s someone in my class a little older than me. So we’re just getting started. We’ll get it done,” she said

Foster is one of 59 first-class students at the United Airlines Aviate Academy in Goodyear, Arizona.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says this is their effort to combat the ongoing staff shortage in the cockpit, which has led to route reductions.

“We have more than 100 regional jets that basically don’t fly because there aren’t enough pilots to fly them,” Kirby said.

Under FAA regulations, pilots must retire at age 65, and it’s estimated that nearly half will retire within 15 years.

Pair that with the Covid pandemic, slowing the number of new pilots taking to the skies, and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the open seats.

“One of the biggest sources for airlines was the military. The problem today is that there aren’t that many pilots in the military. There are a lot of drone pilots — that doesn’t really help bring people in,” said CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg.

United expects that 50% of their pilots will come from this program, and half of those will be women and people of color.

The airline offers some scholarships and priority to family members of its staff – which helped former University of San Diego football player Aiden Mack follow his father’s flight path.

“They’re trying to break down some of those financial barriers and it really just opens the door for a lot of people. So I’m trying to show them how cool aviation is and that anyone can do it,” Mack said.

For Foster, who is originally from Jamaica, this journey is also about how her 17-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter see her.

“My name tag was there and he looked so proud, you know. I didn’t mean to cry. Oh, you should’ve seen his face,” Foster said. “He was so proud of the photo of, ‘This is my mom, you know?'”

Foster tells us that the pride she feels in her family is the fuel that keeps her going, so she wants others to consider this career.

Kirby acknowledges that it will be a few more years for these new drivers to make their way into the regional competitions, and even longer before they join United.

In the meantime, this shortage does mean higher costs and fewer options for those living in small towns, as major airlines downsize service.

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