United Airlines will train 5,000 new pilots in the next ten years through its “Aviate” pilot recruiting programme, with at least half of those to be women and people of colour.
The Chicago-based carrier also says on 6 April that it and JP Morgan Chase will each provide $1.2 million in scholarships this year to help finance pilot training for candidates that might otherwise struggle to afford the education. Additionally, United will partner with financial institutions to give Aviate’s students access to loans for flight training, which can cost $100,000 or more.
The programme is designed to provide United with a solid pilot pipeline in the coming years, as the industry works to head off an expected shortage of cockpit crew.
“We had a pilot shortage before the pandemic. After the pandemic we will still need qualified, exceptional people on our flight decks, and this is a way to get them there faster,” says Carole Hopson, a first officer at United, and a woman of colour. She adds that the programme gives diverse candidates a “career pathway that’s visible”.
Last week, United made news with plans to resume pilot hiring. The airline intends to take on 300 pilots who either had a new-hire class date that was cancelled, or who had received a conditional job offer that was rescinded as a result of the precipitous drop in passenger demand last year.
Other US airlines have since revealed plans to bring back pilots – moves intended to meet an expected bump in passenger demand.
United launched its “Aviate” pilot training programme in 2019, aiming to train up to 10,000 new pilots in ten years as mandatory retirements are set to thin the airline’s cockpit crew ranks. In February 2020, the carrier bought a flight school in Phoenix, which it has renamed United Aviate Academy, where pilot training is to take place.
At the time, airlines had been warning of a severe pilot shortage in the coming decades. “Aviate” had been United’s answer to the depleted pilot pipeline.
The coronavirus crisis and near-shutdown of the industry in 2020 threw those plans off track, as carriers slashed networks, sent aircraft into long-term storage and trimmed staff.
Some industry participants have estimated the airline sector’s recovery might take five or more years. But that recovery is now gaining speed, and numerous passenger carriers are scrambling to reactivate crew and aircraft.
United’s commitment to ensure half of pilot candidates are female or minority is notable. Only about 5% of all commercial pilot certificate holders in the USA are female, while non-white pilots compose a sliver of the ranks.
“My path [to aviation] was circuitous,” says Hopson, for whom aviation is a third career. She began pilot training when she was 36 years old. ”I don’t want the next generation of people who look like me to wait that long.”
United wants to ensure it taps into a “deep talent pool”, not excluding candidates who have the aptitude and desire to become commercial pilots. The airline seeks to “open the door to a lucrative career as an airline pilot” to a more-diverse group of candidates. It will partner with historically black colleges and universities, and with high schools, to identify and recruit top talent early, it says.
“We need to make sure the talented, motivated men and women and people of colour who are interested in this career have the opportunity to access this career,” the company says.
The Academy plans to begin training a class of 20 students in the third quarter, with graduations in the first half of 2022. United expects to enroll 100 students in the programme this year.
Prior to the global health crisis, airlines had long been warning of a looming pilot shortage, while encouraging more young people to enter the field. The lengthy, arduous and expensive journey to a commercial certificate has put the career out of reach for many.
The path to becoming an airline pilot in the USA became more rigorous following a 2013 rule that, in most cases, requires commercial pilots have – in addition to their certificates – at least 1,500h of total flight time before they are eligible to join a passenger or cargo carrier, up from 250h previously. Recurring training is also required to keep that certificate valid.
Pilot training – including private and commercial certificates – can cost $100,000. That sum takes the candidate through the initial training phases to about 250h of total flight time. Then, many candidates earn instructor certificates and teach for two to three years, during which they can log enough hours to qualify for an airline role.
Amid the industry’s ongoing slump, hundreds of pilots have left airlines, perhaps not to return. Indeed, for the first few months of the pandemic, some airlines and pilot unions encouraged aspiring aviators to pursue other careers, warning of the sector’s uncertainty and instability.
The mandatory retirement age of 65 will also whittle pilot ranks in the coming decades.
In November, with the crisis far from over, Canadian training and simulator provider CAE raised eyebrows when it said the industry would need as many as 264,000 pilots worldwide in the next ten years.
Though that figure spurred pushback from the pilot community, the same general view is supported by a recent study published by management consultancy Oliver Wyman, which said that a looming shortage – even if delayed by the pandemic – might be felt as early as this year.
CAE said that by 2029 airlines will employ a total 426,000 pilots, while Oliver Wyman’s estimate is about 417,000.
“The most important question is not whether a pilot shortage will re-emerge, but when it will occur and how large the gap will be between supply and demand. Based on a modest recovery scenario, we believe a global pilot shortage will emerge in certain regions no later than 2023 and most probably before,” the consultancy says.
Oliver Wyman says the global gap between supply and demand will be at least 34,000 pilots by 2025, and possibly 50,000. Most of those jobs will be in Asia Pacific, North America and the Middle East.
“Eventually, the impact of furloughs, retirements and defections will create very real challenges for even some of the biggest carriers,” it adds.