United Airlines has an answer to the pilot shortage: Its own flight school

“I am very excited for it,” student pilot Adela Gallegos told CNN. The 23-year-old studied business administration in college and had no previous flying experience up until last month. “Because I just started thinking of it in the last year — this career has changed the way I’ve seen how my entire life is going to go.”

United says its in-house flight training operation is the first for any major airline in the United States. Consulting firm Oliver Wyman says airlines worldwide need an estimated 34,000 new pilots by 2025 to meet growing demand and keep up with retirements, and United CEO Scott Kirby said the traditional models are not adequately feeding the demand.

“The pilot shortage is real, but it’s really real at the regional airlines,” Kirby told CNN. “If it’s a crisis, it’s a crisis for small communities.”

Traditionally, airlines looked to the military to provide a steady stream of qualified candidates. Civilian pilots had to come to the table with thousands of flying hours cobbled together on their own — the Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 1,500 hours of piloting experience to earn an Airline Transport Pilot certificate.

“This is the model really about creating that economic opportunity to let people come in who don’t have $100,000 to spend on their certification, but have great potential, great ability — to let them get through the whole process of becoming a commercial airline pilot Kirby said.

United says its academy costs $71,250, with scholarships available. Delta Air Lines recently dropped its requirement that pilot applicants have a four-year college degree, too. While the industry average pay for pilots is more than $190,000, according to the Labor Department, entry-level pay is notoriously low and training costs are high, frequently exceeding the limits of federal student loans. A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office found cost to be one of the largest recruitment challenges for flight schools.

Airlines that cut costs by asking veteran flight crews to take early retirement packages during the depths of the pandemic are now staffing up. American Airlines wants to hire 2,000 pilots this year. Delta anticipates adding between 100 and 200 pilots to its ranks each month this year. United expects to train 500 pilots through the Aviate Academy every year over the decade.

The aggressive hiring puts pressure on the regional airlines, which operate smaller planes branded United Express, American Eagle, and Delta Connection that also serve as career feeders to the mainline carriers.

Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association, said the shortage is a top priority for its members.

“This is a problem that’s real, it’s present, it’s already affected air service and it’s going to get worse if we don’t intervene now and give people a real path into this career,” she said.

The problem, industry officials say, materializes in several ways. There are fewer pilots on standby when unexpected weather delays push a team into federal on-duty time limits. Several airlines canceled flights when crewmembers called out sick with the coronavirus. Those issues led airlines to cancel more than 18,800 flights around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

In some places, Black said, “small communities are losing air service” when airlines decide where to — and not to — fly.

“This is a real problem where the career path has effectively been reserved for the wealthy and if we want to fix the pilot shortage, if we want to bring more diversity to this population, we’ve got to fix that,” she said.

Changing the faces in the cockpit

Piloting was not Gallegos’ dream career growing up.

But there also are not many pilots who look like her. About 94% of the field is white men, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“Even though my grandpa was a fighter pilot, I never even considered a civilian woman could be a pilot,” Gallegos said, a story she wrote in an essay that won her a training scholarship from the Latino Pilots Association. “We definitely need more people of color — more women in the industry.”

In United’s inaugural Aviate Academy class, 80% are women or non-white — disproportionate to United’s current pilot corps of which only 19% are not white men.

“Our class is super diverse,” she said. “We have everyone from all different backgrounds — people from all over the world and it’s really cool to hear everyone’s stories.”

The first step is the 10-month Aviate academy, where students graduate with multiple credentials. The dormitory is on campus near the Cirrus SR-20 single-engine planes the students fly.

Kirby, the United CEO, said the training draws from the programs military pilots complete.

“We’re going to give all these students Upset Recovery Training,” he said. “For example, where they’ll be thrown into stalls and airplanes that flipped upside down and learn to recover — the kind of training that normally you get in a simulator, but [they’re] doing it in the skies.”

After graduation, United points trainees toward jobs at partner companies, such as flight schools, where they can build the necessary hours. Then participants fly regional jets for a United partner, and two years later, have top priority to be a first officer, or co-pilot, at United.

Marcel Kimbrel, an instructor at the Aviate academy, said becoming a pilot was a career change.

“I started my career in aviation as a flight attendant 16 years ago with United,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a pilot ever since I was a little kid.”

“If I can do it, you can too,” he said. “You really just have to step out of there and really take a chance on your dreams.”

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