Can high school programs solve the pilot shortage for airlines?

ADDISON — Cleo Vazquez traded her upbringing in a high school classroom for a view of the runway and planes taking off in Addison Airport just north of Dallas.

Between math, English and science, Vazquez, 14 spent the last three months at Rising Aviation High School study for a FAA Remote Pilot Certificate to fly drones and pass the certification test, even though he cannot officially get the license for nearly two years when he turns 16.

“Oh, it’s way better than school before,” said Vazquez, whose mother brings him every day from Arlington for classes. “I always wanted to fly.”

Vazquez was in the first class of seven students at Rising Aviation High School in Addison, a private charter school focused on preparing for careers in the aviation industry.

Amid a shortage of skilled aviation workers that is already strangling the travel industry, flight schools and airlines are pouring millions into programs to attract new student pilots, aircraft mechanics and other employees.

Rising Aviation is one of a handful of start-up flight schools across the country that hope to expose high school students early to jobs in the field, especially for airline pilots, who face a shortage of nearly 60,000 workers by the end of the decade.

Shortages of pilots and other workers are already jeopardizing airline expansion plans, said Kit Darby, an Atlanta-based pilot career consultant.

“Airlines are definitely going to run out of pilots and there is no short-term solution to the problem,” Darby said. “And even with all the money the airlines have spent on academies and training, the long-term problems, unfortunately, still exist.”

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The biggest hurdle, Darby said, is the $70,000 to $150,000 in tuition and expenses it takes would-be pilots to get through flight school and earn enough hours, now 1,500. , to obtain an air transport certificate to fly a commercial airliner.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines is offering prospective flight school pilots up to $165,000 in promised grants and bonuses for signing with the company as regional pilots and fly until they reach captain level at the primary carrier. Other carriers started similar recruitment programs in flight schools across the country.

However, Darby said, there simply aren’t enough students entering pilot training programs to meet the future demand for pilots, mainly because the costs are so high.

“There’s no shortage of people who want to be pilots,” Darby said. “If you’re going anywhere in the world, this ranks among the top career choices right behind astronauts and athletes.”

To pay for flight school, students typically have to invest large sums of money to pay off loans or have parents with considerable financial assets, Darby said. It also makes flight school more difficult for people of color who historically earn less money and have fewer assets such as home equity.

Still, exposing students early to flying and aviation careers is one way to address the pilot shortage, Darby said.

After pilots graduate, major US airlines pay pilots more than $250,000 a year on average, and salaries are expected to rise as pilots negotiate a new round of contracts this year. Pay is good in airlines for other jobs as well, including mechanics.

American Airlines’ median salary last year was $62,765, while Dallas-based Southwest Airlines’ median salary was $84,872, according to company regulatory filings. This is even with many workers opting to work part-time during the pandemic business recovery.

Public school systems, including those in North Texas, have spent more than a decade trying to train students for jobs in the aviation industry.

The Fort Worth Independent School District has an aviation lab at Dunbar High School where students can get a drone license and learn about jobs like aircraft maintenance, said Daphne Rickard, who heads the district’s vocational and technical training department.

“We’re seeing more and more students thinking of aviation as a career,” Rickard said. “We’ve always had great support from the industry, but even more so now. We get businesses saying they need more help.

American Airlines, as well as helicopter maker Bell, are among the companies contributing to the Fort Worth program, including sending industry professionals to schools to talk about career paths.

The challenge, Rickard said, is to get students as young as 16 or 17 to consider a career, no matter how lucrative.

Dallas Independent School District has a magnet program for ninth through twelfth graders that teaches a general aviation class in first grade and then focuses on aviation maintenance programs in grades 10 through 12.

A handful of aviation-focused secondary schools have been established across the country as demand for aviation jobs, especially pilots, has increased in recent years. There are schools in Seattle and New York. Auburn University has a flight program for students.

Rising Aviation High School was supposed to start two years ago in a former industrial building right next to Addison Airport, but the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the school’s opening.

It finally opened in April with seven students. Those in the school are guided through online courses for core subjects, with a full-time assistant principal assisting with lessons. There are also courses in piloting, such as instrument reading, meteorology, and flight operations. Students also have the chance to learn about aviation maintenance and related careers such as dispatch.

Vice Principal Kassandra Dene chats with Jackson Boothe as students work to create career portfolios on Google Classroom at Rising Aviation High School on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 in Addison, Texas. The school has 7 students.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Those 16 and older can start flying after obtaining a student license.

The school has a Diamond DA40 four-seat propeller plane for students in training that is parked in a shared hangar at Addison Airport, just off campus.

The non-profit school is not free. This year, students pay about $500 per month for tuition plus flight time with flight instructors.

CEO Scott Meehan, who is funding the school’s start-up, said tuition will likely need to rise and the school is seeking grants and assistance as it grows. He said the school is expected to have 20 students next year and could grow to as many as 50 at the current location.

By the time students complete the program, they should have up to 250 flight hours and a private pilot’s license, said school principal Brent Fitzgerald.

“They won’t be able to leave here to take up an airline pilot role, but it will give them flying experience and should allow them to determine if this is the right kind of career for them,” Fitzgerald said. , a certified flight instructor who considered becoming an airline pilot before going into teaching.

Rising Aviation held its first graduation ceremony with a single graduate, Nicolas Lopez, on May 26. The ceremony ended with Lopez flying with her brother Jose Lopez from Addison Airport. The senior graduate is heading for a job as a ramp agent with Southwest Airlines to gain experience in the industry before choosing a path.

“That’s the whole point,” Fitzgerald said. “There are a lot of jobs in aviation, from pilot or dispatcher to management work. We want to give them options and show them how to get there.

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