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
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,"
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
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."