Republic's Lift Academy flight school getting high marks

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Lift Academy general manager Dana Donati talks about the program's merits at the school's hangar on the grounds of Indianapolis Airport.
Lift Academy general manager Dana Donati talks about the program's merits at the school's hangar on the grounds of Indianapolis Airport.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Chandler Prince, a 31-year-old resident here, knew that he wanted to change direction from his career as a sports marketer to become an airline pilot. He just didn't know where he would choose to go for flight-training school. 

So, in May 2018, when Prince saw an ad for the Lift Academy that was preparing to open on the grounds of Indianapolis Airport, he was intrigued.

The school, run by regional carrier Republic Airways, is the only one in the U.S. that is owned by an airline. Students are trained from the beginning to be Republic pilots using Republic operational procedures. And, provided that they excel during training and obtain their certifications, they are guaranteed a job at Republic.

More than that, Lift puts students on a fast track to the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate that is required to fly for a commercial airline. The school's goal is to help students achieve the licensure, including the required 1,500 hours of flying time, within 18 months.

And it does so for the comparatively inexpensive price of $65,000. That cost includes a $20,000 subsidy, the only one of its kind offered by a U.S. airline to flight-training candidates.

Prince went through the interview process and was sold. 

"I saw the vision and wanted to be part of the first class," he said as he sat in a small conference room at the academy on a recent Monday. "You compare it to other schools. For the price you can't beat it."

In September 2018, Prince was part of that first class. He's now a paid flight instructor at Lift and about halfway toward reaching his 1,500 hours of flight time. Prince expects to be employed by Republic before the end of next summer. 

As carriers throughout the U.S. work to ward off a pilot shortage that has already hurt the regional airline industry in particular, many have implemented pathway programs designed to provide a defined route from university and vocational pilot-training programs to jobs at airlines.

But Republic, which operates regional flights for United Express, Delta Connection and American Eagle, is the only carrier to establish its own academy or to offer subsidies to pilot candidates. Republic also offers $15,000 in loan assistance to Lift students, which doesn't have to be repaid if the individual stays employed with the carrier for at least five years.

Those are key factors in a profession for which training is often time-consuming and pricey. ATP Flight School, for example, offers a nine-month fast track for $81,000. Meanwhile, completing a four-year university program along with the flight hours required for an ATP certificate typically costs $150,000 to $200,000.

"Instead of us contracting out to another provider to train these pilots, we wanted to bring it in house," said Lift Academy general manager Dana Donati. "We wanted to make sure that we were training these pilots for 1,500 hours the way they are expected to fly at Republic."

This year, Republic will hire approximately 700 pilots. But fueled by the demands of a growing industry and by mandatory pilot retirements at age 65 in the commercial U.S. industry, the carrier expects to be hiring more than 900 pilots per year by 2023. 

Lift is currently maxed out at 200 students. But Donati said capacity will increase to 330 after the academy takes delivery of 20 additional Diamond single- and twin-propeller training aircraft early next year. 

Similar pilot-hiring arcs will be experienced by carriers across the country. This year, approximately 2,000 pilots at major airlines will reach retirement age, according to the 2016 University of North Dakota Pilot Supply Forecast. That figure will increase to approximately 3,000 annually from 2023 through 2026. 

"This problem is not shortsighted; it’s going to go on for another two decades at the very least," said Donati, who predicted that other airlines will eventually follow Republic's lead. 

Dan Akins, founder of the consulting firm Flightpath Economics, which researches the pilot shortage, has for years been calling for airlines to directly subsidize flight training. Republic and Lift, he said, are pushing the right buttons.

"They are controlling their own destiny, it appears, better than any of the regional competitors and appear to have a much better handle on both addressing entry-level pilot concerns and developing an interest in becoming a pilot," Akins said. 

Lift definitely pushed the right buttons for Sarah Hayward, 28, who moved to Indianapolis from Alabama last spring to attend the academy.

"What drew me in when I interviewed," she said, "was this is a flight school to train you for the airline, not a flight school to train you to fly a small plane and then you go to the airline."

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