Training - Staying power

Despite the fallout after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Florida retains its status as one of the world's leading training centres

Florida's reputation as one of the world's favourite places to learn to fly was shattered when it was revealed that several of the 9/11 terrorists trained there. In 2001, the state had more than 200 flying schools - virtually one at every public airport - attracting thousands of trainees from outside the USA each year. Faltering domestic demand and stringent new regulations on foreign students saw a quarter of Florida's schools collapse after 9/11 as rivals sprung up in Australia, Asia, the Middle East and Europe to soak up demand for professional pilots in these regions.

However, at the top end of the market - type instruction on simulators - Florida has retained its status as a leading training provider, and has two of the USA's foremost organisations in that sector: Miami-based Pan Am International Flight Academy (PAIFA), a spin-off from the old airline, and its former sister company, Orlando-based Simcom, which specialises in business and general aviation training. Daytona Beach is also home to the world's biggest aeronautical university, Embry-Riddle, while FlightSafety International, one of the foremost training providers in the world, has an academy at Vero Beach.

Pan Am Simulator

A 2006 management buyout saw the PAIFA airline training business acquired from investment house JW Childs, which still owns Simcom. The company has 35 full-flight simulators - 14 at its 1,500m² Miami base and the rest in satellite sites in Cincinnati, Memphis, Minneapolis and Las Vegas where they are focused on "anchor customers" such as Allegiant Air and Mesaba. Its core customers are smaller airlines, which cannot justify their own training facility, says executive vice president Eric Freeman, with "overflow" outsourced training from bigger players such as Air Canada, Continental Airlines and Delta playing a part.

PAIFA's Miami location attracts a number of Latin American airlines: 30% of its clientele is from the region, while North America makes up the difference. European customers dropped to almost negligible amounts after 9/11, but the growth of new low-cost operators there has led Freeman to see signs of them returning, attracted partly by the low dollar.

PAIFA also offers cabin crew and air traffic training and has a tower simulator classroom and radar room. The shortage of English-speaking controllers means this is an area with "tremendous growth potential", says Freeman.

Under its new ownership, PAIFA is keen to "pursue strategic growth opportunities organically and via acquisition". There are plans to add simulators this year, while basic pilot training outside the USA offers another opening. "We will be significantly expanding our ab-initio training capabilities internationally over the next 12 months," it says.

The revival in the business and general aviation market has been good for PAIFA's former stablemate Simcom, which has just expanded into a former Lockheed Martin facility in Orlando, its second in the city. The company also has sites in Vero Beach (for Piper Aircraft) and in Arizona. The company operates 30 simulators, all manufactured in-house, covering an array of small to medium-size aircraft, from the obscure (Extra 400 and Mitsubishi Diamond) to current Cessna Citation, Hawker, Pilatus and Socata models.

At The value end

Established in 1989, and with 170 employees, the company's focus remains the owner-flown, single-turboprop market. The 7,000 pilots who pass through its doors each year are typically experienced pilots who are stepping up to larger aircraft or want a Simcom training certificate to validate their insurance. "We are at the value end of the market, personalised for the customer. That's our differential," says chief executive Wally David.

However, the company is looking at other markets. It recently began offering training on two niche regional aircraft: the Dornier 328Jet and BAe Jetstream 41 - housed at the former Lockheed Martin facility. Very light jets are another opportunity. It already operates seven business jet simulators and David believes VLJs such as the Eclipse 500, Cessna Mustang and Embraer Phenom 100 are a logical next step for many of the company's customers.

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Source: Flight International