Greater diversity a focus for United as it prepares to open pilot school

United Aviate Academy will be the only pilot training school operated by a mainline U.S. carrier when it opens in the fall.
United Aviate Academy will be the only pilot training school operated by a mainline U.S. carrier when it opens in the fall. Photo Credit: United AIrlines

United Airlines is launching what will be the only flight training school run by a mainline U.S. airline for the fall academic year.

The carrier begin accepting applications for its new United Aviate Academy Tuesday. Its goal is that half of the 5,000 individuals it expects to graduate this decade will be either women, people of color or both.

To back that goal, United will provide $1.2 million in scholarships this year, with the carrier's credit card partner, JPMorgan Chase, also kicking in $1.2 million. United has also partnered with Sallie Mae on a private loan program. The carrier's goal, it said, is to make sure that no highly qualified applicants are turned away from Aviate because they can't afford to enroll.

• Related: United partners with university on pilot education

Currently, just 7% of United pilots are women, and approximately 13% are people of color, said Curtis Brunjes, managing director of Aviate Academy.

"This is not a charity effort," United chief communications officer Josh Earnest said. "We are confident that by tapping new reservoirs of talent we will continue to build a stronger airline. This isn't just the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do if you have ambitions of building a terrific airline."

The carrier said it will leverage relationships with the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Sisters of the Skies, the Latino Pilots Association and the Professional Asian Pilots Associations to help recruit a diverse group of candidates to the program.

The nearly one year of coursework and 250 flight hours that students will graduate Aviate with typically costs $100,000 in the flight training industry, Brunjes said, though United has not said specifically what the school will charge.

After graduation, the aspiring pilots can begin earning money while building flight hours as certified flight instructors. The graduates will also join United's Aviate pathway program, which points them on a direct line to an eventual job at United, generally with a stint at a regional airline first. Flight training school graduates in the U.S. must accrue 1,500 hours of flying time in order to obtain the air transport pilot certificate that entitles them to fly for a commercial airline.

The upcoming opening of Aviate Academy follows United's purchase of the former Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix last July. The carrier first announced plans to buy the flight school in February 2020 and went through with the purchase despite the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

• Related: Big 3 airlines take on the pilot shortage

At the time of that February announcement, United expected to hire more than 10,000 pilots by 2029 to keep up with growth, attrition and a wave of pilots who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 65.

On Monday, United chief pilot Mary Ann Schaffer said the hiring outlook hasn't appreciably changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The carrier still expects to hire 10,000 pilots by the end of the decade.

While Aviate Academy will be the lone pilot training program run by a mainline U.S. carrier, regional airline Republic Airways -- which operates flights for the United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection brands -- has been operating its Lift Academy flight training school since 2018.

United expects to enroll 100 people in Aviate Academy this year, with class sizes growing in subsequent years.


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