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United Airlines opens its own flight school to help attract pilots

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The airline industry is trying to navigate through some turbulence right now. Across the country, companies say they just don't have enough pilots. And some have even had to park jets and cut service because of the shortage. Looking for innovative ways to recruit and retain, one major airline is set to open its own flight school. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: To an airline, well-trained pilots are as essential as planes and fuel. But right now, pilots are in very short supply.

FAYE MALARKEY BLACK: The entire airline industry has been facing a pilot shortage for the last decade.

SCHAPER: That's Faye Malarkey Black, CEO of the Regional Airlines Association, a group representing smaller carriers, like Endeavor, Envoy, GoJet and SkyWest, which fly passengers for the major airlines branded as Delta Connection, American Eagle and United Express. Black says with the wave of baby boomers nearing retirement age, the industry was already facing a pilot shortage. And the pandemic made it much worse, as major airlines offered incentives for many veteran pilots to take early retirement, while the FAA's issuance of new pilot certificates nearly ground to a halt. So when air travel demand recovered much more quickly than anticipated, Black says the big airlines hired a lot of pilots away from their smaller regional partners.

BLACK: You know, that propensity for a major airline to hire from a regional airline has always been the case. And that is the natural career order. We don't want to stop that. But the issue we have to respect and appreciate is that that is now happening on steroids.

SCHAPER: So to recruit more pilots, the usually low-paying regional airlines are now sharply increasing pay. Starting salaries that were in the $25,000 to $40,000-a-year range can now top 50K or more. Once at the mainline airlines, pilots average six figures-plus. But long before being able to make that kind of money, pilots must have 1,500 hours of flight time and significant training, which can be expensive and take years.

ALLISON MCKAY: Cost is a huge factor.

SCHAPER: Allison McKay heads up Women in Aviation International. And she says pilot training could cost $80,000 to $100,000 or more. That's an amount that traditional student aid and loan programs don't come close to covering.

MCKAY: Scholarships are out there, and money is available, but it's still very expensive.

SCHAPER: Some airlines are helping defray those costs while recruiting and training a new generation of pilots.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE STARTING)

SCHAPER: And United Airlines has gone so far as to open its own flight school. It's called United Aviate Academy, here at Phoenix Goodyear Airport just outside of Phoenix, Ariz., where the school has 25 of these small Cirrus TRAC SR20 training airplanes and is buying 25 more.

Captain Curtis Brunjes is a United pilot and Aviate's managing director. He explains why the airline wants its own flight school.

CURTIS BRUNJES: There's two reasons. One is supply and demand, making sure there's an adequate supply of pilots for United. And the second is we think we can make some real inroads in the quality of training.

SCHAPER: On the quality side, Brunjes says, the Aviate Academy will better focus on the technical skills needed to pilot commercial jetliners.

BRUNJES: One example of that is that we'll be doing upset recovery - so very, very advanced kind of acrobatic training with our pilots. It's something that professional flight-training organizations don't do. It's not mandated by the FAA. It represents United innovating and doing something above and beyond the minimum.

SCHAPER: Brunjes says he became a pilot because his father was one. And his path was traditional, going through a university aviation program before joining the military to gain flight hours and experience. But that route doesn't produce nearly as many pilots as it used to. So to help bring nontraditional candidates in, Brunjes says the airline is picking up a critical cost for pilots accepted into its program.

BRUNJES: United is paying for the private pilot certification for 100% of our students. So the first part of the training United is sponsoring. We're paying for it.

SCHAPER: That's significant, right?

BRUNJES: That's significant. It's $17,000.

SCHAPER: In addition, United is helping make loans available to cover the rest of the $70,000 cost of flight school and training by guaranteeing student pilots a job once they complete it.

BRUNJES: By granting this private pilot certification, the loan provider doesn't need to provide the loan until we've already certified the pilot and offered them a job at United Airlines. So when they apply for the loan, the loan provider understands that this is someone who has a conditional job offer at United already.

RICKI FOSTER: Thank you. All right, she looks ready to go.

SCHAPER: It's that kind of assistance that helped close the deal for Ricki Foster. With her flight instructor next to her, starts up this small, propeller-driven plane and guides it toward the runway.

FOSTER: ...Foxtrot ready for takeoff.

SCHAPER: The 38-year-old Black woman, who was born and raised in Jamaica, never dreamed flying could be her career.

FOSTER: Me - it seemed so unlikely and impossible because I didn't see any woman look like me being a pilot.

SCHAPER: Foster is one of 30 pilot candidates in United's first class out of 7,000 initial applicants. Eighty percent percent of this class is women and people of color. The academy's goal is to eventually produce 500 new airline pilots a year.

David Schaper, NPR News, Goodyear, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOFFER MOE DITLEVSEN'S "THE GUIDING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.