Big 3 airlines take on shortage of pilots with career-path help

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Madison Wolf, a senior aviation student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, operates a flight simulator at the United Airlines Flight Training Center.
Madison Wolf, a senior aviation student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, operates a flight simulator at the United Airlines Flight Training Center.

Spurred by the pilot shortage that has already plagued many regional airlines, legacy U.S. carriers United, American and Delta since February have each announced plans to begin pilot career-path programs. 

All are designed to ease entry into the cockpit of a major airline, a process that can easily take close to a decade or more. But it remains to be seen if the programs will do enough to motivate people to become commercial pilots, which requires logging between 1,000 and 1,500 hours of flight time to earn certification and can cost $200,000. 

"The biggest problem here isn't the path. It's financing," said Dan Akins, founder of the consulting firm Flightpath Economics, which researches the pilot shortage. 

Last month, Delta became the third of the Big 3 legacy airlines to unveil a pilot career-path program when it announced Delta Propel. Initially, the effort will partner with eight university programs to interview candidates.

Students who are selected will receive a qualified job offer that lays out a defined path and an accelerated timeline for becoming a Delta pilot. Propel participants will be mentored by Delta pilots, and once they log their 1,000 to 1,500 hours of flight time and earn a commercial airline license, they'll have a choice of either working for Delta Private Jets, a Delta partner regional airline or the Air National Guard. In either case, the understanding is that they'll be piloting Delta mainline flights no more than 42 months later. 

"The strength of the program is that the 42 months more or less is defined," Delta first officer Brent Knoblauch, Delta's pilot outreach manager for campus programs, said in an interview. "It removes the variability of mainline career progression so long as somebody is meeting the expectations of the program."

While details differ, Propel is in many ways similar to the pilot program unveiled last winter by United. 

Under its Career Pathway Program, United is selecting participants from candidates at the University of North Dakota and Metropolitan State University of Denver. After the aspiring pilots graduate and obtain the requisite flight hours, they are routed through United regional partners, then on to United. 

Meanwhile, the American Airlines Cadet Program, which the carrier announced in April, routes participants through its wholly-owned regional subsidiaries Envoy, Piedmont and PSA. 

However, American is working solely with flight schools rather than with universities, meaning that participants won't have some of the borrowing opportunities that university students enjoy through federal student loan programs. Instead, American is partnering with Discover Card's student loan division to offer no-fee loans at competitive rates as well as repayment deferrals of up to three and a half years. 

The initiatives from United, American and Delta come as the U.S. faces a looming shortage of 3,500 commercial pilots by 2020, according to the University of North Dakota's 2016 Pilot Supply Forecast. Boeing forecasted last month that North American airlines would need to employ 206,000 commercial pilots over the next 20 years. 

The pilot shortage has already led to operational cutbacks, bankruptcies and outright closures at regional U.S. airlines. It also caused regionals, which historically had offered entry-level wages that amounted to as little $20,000 per year, to institute a spate of substantial pay raises and signing bonuses beginning in 2015.

With pay scales that are still well below that of their mainline counterparts, where pilots often earn six-figure salaries, regional airlines were the first to be impacted by the pilot shortage. As such, they've also acted faster, and more dramatically, to boost pilot recruitment. 

For example, 12 regional airlines are partnering with ATP Flight School, which has 40 locations around the country. Under those programs, the regionals offer up to $11,000 in tuition reimbursement. And in May, regional carrier Republic Airways announced that it would open its own flight-training academy in Indianapolis. 

Some foreign carriers have been taking similar measures. Notably, Lufthansa runs flight-training schools in various locations in Europe as well as one in Phoenix and defers payment until after trainees begin making a living as a commercial pilot for one of the Lufthansa Group airlines. 

Flightpath Economics' Akins said mainline U.S. airlines need to take similar steps.

The new pathway programs of the Big 3 carriers, he said, do not lock cadets into the airline, so there's nothing to stop someone, for example, from taking advantage of Delta Propel, then accepting a job with Federal Express. Further, Akins said, programs that provide a clear pathway to a major carrier just aren't as valuable as they would have been when jobs at major airlines were scarce.

"What they have to understand is they have to have some hooks, some financial skin in the game," Akins said of the U.S. majors. 

In its announcement of the Propel program, Delta said it was exploring financing opportunities, but Knoblauch declined to address the issue during a phone interview. 

He confirmed Akin's assessment that Propel program participants will have the choice of taking jobs at airlines other than Delta.

"Yes, that's an opportunity for them, but we believe this program provides a unique proposition for those students to consider," he said. 

Administrators at schools that are partnering with the Big 3's pilot pathway programs take a similar view.

"There is a level of comfort that goes with knowing I'm in this program, and knowing that if I do what I'm supposed to do, in 42 months I can achieve my dream of being a pilot with a legacy carrier," said Bill Hutto, the director of Auburn University's Aviation Center, which is partnering with Delta. 

Kevin Kuhlmann, associate chairman of the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metropolitan State, said the school's new partnership with United has spurred recruitment. Program participants, he said, will have a clearer and less stressful path to a lucrative pilot career than they've had in the past. 

Still, Kuhlmann said the time could come when major airlines begin to assist aspiring pilots financially. 

"If the shortage gets bad enough I think the major airlines will start to kick in," Kuhlmann said. "Right now, it is the regionals kicking in."

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