Facing pilot shortage, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air are latest to launch an academy

Mar 9, 2022

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Becoming a pilot for Alaska Airlines and the regional airline it owns just got easier, even for those with no flight experience.

Facing a pilot shortage, Alaska and its regional airline, Horizon Air, are launching the Ascend Pilot Academy in partnership with the Hillsboro Aero Academy in Oregon. The program, announced on Wednesday, focuses on students with little to no flying time, who might not be considering a career in aviation.

“We’re hoping to reach the population that might think flying is not for them,” Carlos Zendejas, Horizon’s vice president of flight operations, said in an interview with TPG. “‘How do you get started?’ seems to be a bit of a barrier.”

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Students accepted into Ascend Pilot Academy will also receive a contingent job offer to become first officers at Horizon, which operates the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 and the Embraer 175. Students will earn their ratings from private pilot up to commercial pilot and will receive a $25,000 stipend to pay for the commercial license. After graduating from the program with a commercial license, students can become flight instructors at Hillsboro to earn the hours required to obtain the airline transport pilot certificate needed to fly for Horizon. Once obtaining the required 1,500 flight hours, students are placed in a new-hire class at Horizon.

To get hired at Alaska Airlines, Ascend Pilot Academy graduates who reach Horizon’s flight decks must apply for quarterly openings with the airline’s pathway program and go through an interview process. Zendejas noted that the majority of Horizon pilots who interview for pilot jobs at Alaska are successful.

More: How a pilot shortage could leave travelers with higher fares and fewer options

Alaska and Horizon are just the latest airlines to focus on recruiting and training pilots with no experience. United Airlines owns and operates the United Aviate Academy near Phoenix, while regional Republic Airways owns and operates the LIFT Academy. Other airlines, including Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Avelo Airlines, partner with flight-training giant ATP Flight School to offer a similar experience.

Hillsboro was an attractive partner because of its location near the Alaska’s hub at Portland International Airport (PDX) and its ability to train students from day one to Horizon’s standards, Zendejas said. The program is also less expensive than some other programs, with estimated training costs somewhere between $65,000 and $80,000, before the stipend. Other programs can cost upwards of $100,000. As is typical with these programs, low-interest loans will be available to students to help them finance the costs of their flight training. Zendejas noted that Alaska and Horizon have pushed the federal government to allow for federal student loans to be used for flight training costs.

More: United Airlines officially opens its new flight school as it tries to tackle pilot shortage

Alaska and Horizon hope to train 250 students a year through Ascend Pilot Academy, with classes of 20 to 30 students starting monthly, possibly as soon as April, Zendejas said.

Alaska and Horizon hope that graduates from the program will help the airlines combat the pilot shortage that is significantly impacting the industry. Horizon is particularly hit hard: In May, the airline will fly 28.4% less capacity than it did in May 2021, according to Cirium schedules data. Alaska and Horizon say they’ll need 2,000 new pilots by 2025.

Featured photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.

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