United is starting its own flight school to help recruit 10,000 new pilots amid global shortage

United Airlines Express CRJ-550
United Airlines Express CRJ-550


United Airlines is launching a new program to recruit, train, and hire pilot candidates, taking a major step to address the looming pilot shortage.

The airline announced on Wednesday that it had signed an agreement to purchase the Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix, Arizona, and would integrate it as a key extension of its Aviate pilot development program.

The Aviate program was launched in 2019 as a recruitment and development program, offering a direct track to a job with the mainline airline for pilots in training. Aviate accepts applicants who are starting from the beginning, as well as those with private pilots' licenses working on obtaining flight hours, and those flying for a regional airline.

Students at the flight school, which will be rebranded as a United facility around September, will be considered part of the Aviate program, meaning they'll have a pathway to a job at one of United's regional carriers, and eventually at the mainline United airline, after graduating and accumulating flight hours. Captain Curtis Brunjes, United's managing director of pilot strategy, said that the school's current staff would be retained.

"This is a primary training flight academy, it takes people with zero hours and builds them all teh way up to the professional pilot credentials that are required to become an instructor, and eventually, an airline pilot," Brunjes said. "And during the course of that training, they get seven FAA certifications."

United said it also plans to begin offering financing options to help new pilots afford initial training, a major hindrance to a commercial aviation career. The airline said it was working with financial institutions "with the goal of making attractive financing terms – such as industry-tailored grace periods and competitive interest rates – available to qualified individuals."

A spokesperson for the airline said that the United flight academy program would also help increase diversity within its pilot corps.

The specter of a worldwide shortage of trained and qualified commercial pilots has loomed in recent years, with a large contingent of pilots — many of whom began flying in the military — near retirement age.

Mainline air carriers like United remain attractive and will likely always have a large pool of applicants, but smaller regional airlines, which build substantial portions of the larger airlines' domestic and short-range feeder networks, are more likely to encounter difficulties.

"At United, we don't have a pilot shortage, and we probably never would. But there is a lot of competetion for talent at the United Express carriers," or the regional carriers in United's network, Brunjes said. "We believe that we'll hire 10,000 pilots in the next ten years, and our regionals will hire maybe double that amount."

"We think that this program will alleviate any shortage that we would have had. And that's its purpose," he added.

The cost of earning a commercial pilot's license, which requires 250 hours of experience flying an airplane, can cost around $90,000. Building the additional experience required to work for an airline, typically 1,500 total flight hours, can be daunting, especially when a new pilot is looking at fierce competition for a mainline job, or relatively low pay and suboptimal work schedules at a regional carrier. New commercial pilots often work for low pay as flight instructors to reach the 1,500 hours.

The risk of the shortage also comes as the airline industry continues a sharp upward trajectory, with growing markets in India and Asia fueling the demand.

United expects to graduate 300 students per year to start, with plans to grow to 500 within a few years.

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