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

Jan 28, 2022

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From the flight line of the United Aviate Academy at the Phoenix Goodyear Airport (GYR) in Goodyear, Arizona, flight students can easily catch a glimpse of their future.

Stored in the distance are two United Airlines Boeing 767s — among the aircraft that these students hope to someday fly as United pilots.

United has been training pilots for as long as as the carrier has existed — all major airlines do.

But with the United Aviate Academy, which formally opened its doors on Thursday after nearly two months in operation, it’s entering uncharted territory among its peers. As of last month, students can enter United’s pilot pipeline with zero flight hours and receive training from the airline and its instructors.

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The academy, a flight school the airline purchased in 2020 and rebranded as its own, is part of United’s longer-term answer to the ongoing pilot shortage. By one estimate, the U.S. will be short 12,000 pilots by the end of next year.

United CEO Scott Kirby sees the Aviate Academy as an opportunity to increase access to pilot careers among groups that are underrepresented as pilots. Currently, 19% of United’s pilots are women and/or people of color.

“It creates an opportunity for people to get a private pilot’s license who were never going to have the opportunity before,” Kirby told TPG in an interview in front of one of the academy’s planes. “That’s the biggest thing. That gives people opportunity — 80% of our first two classes are women or people of color, people that have never had access to great careers like this.”

One such student is Ricki Foster. Foster, 38, is a mother of two and a former flight attendant. She was hooked on becoming a pilot when one of the pilots she was flying with offered to take her for an introductory flight in a small plane one day.

“Ever since, I’ve wanted to pursue becoming a pilot, didn’t know how or have the finances or anything like that, but United made it possible,” she said.

United Aviate Academy student Ricki Foster. (Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

In the U.S., flight training is notoriously expensive. United and J.P. Morgan Chase are completely funding the cost of students’ private pilot’s licenses, the first of seven ratings or add-ons that students earn before graduating from the academy. With the private license covered, the other ratings cost students $71,250, which can be covered with Sallie Mae or other student loans. While still pricey, this makes cost of training at the Aviate Academy relatively less expensive than some other flight training options, which can easily top $100,000.

Kirby, who has previously called on the government to divert funds from the nation’s essential air service program to help pay for flight training, reiterated his call for increased federal funding.

More: United CEO Scott Kirby: We’ve grounded nearly 100 regional jets due to pilot shortage

“I do think there’s a real opportunity to use federal funding programs,” he said. “And this fits right into what [Commerce] Secretary Raimondo has money available from the infrastructure bill to work on programs just like this, to give people opportunity because the economic barrier for training is what prevents people.”

United CEO Scott Kirby in front of one of the United Aviate Academy’s Cirrus SR-20 aircraft. (Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

Like any other aspiring airline pilot, Aviate Academy students have a long pathway before they begin can fully begin their careers. Once completing their private pilot licenses, they must interview to join United’s Aviate program, which is a broader pathway program from United to incorporate hires from multiple aviation backgrounds. If accepted, they’ll finish at the Aviate Academy with a multi-engine instructor rating and approximately 300 flight hours. These later ratings are important, as they allow pilots to begin to earn money and more quickly accrue flight hours, either by flight instructing or flying for what’s known as a Part 135 operator – typically airlines that fly passenger or cargo flights with smaller aircraft.

Once Aviate students hit 1,500 flight hours, they’ll earn their airline transport pilot rating and fly with one of four United Express operators. They’ll stay there for a target time of 24 months, before earning a spot as a first officer for United.

United does not expect pilots to spend longer than 24 months at the regionals, United System Chief Pilot Capt. Mary Ann Schaffer told TPG in an interview.

“I don’t expect it to be longer,” she said.

Schaffer oversees the Aviate Academy with Capt. Curtis Brunjes, United’s managing director of pilot strategy. An overarching theme for United at Thursday’s event was to make it clear the carrier owns and operates this flight school — that it was not merely a franchise using United’s name. Along with Kirby, United President Brett Hart, Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Roitman, Senior Vice President of Flight Operations Bryan Quigley joined other senior executives were in attendance, along with local and federal dignitaries, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Deputy FAA Administrator Bradley Mims.

“FAA will support this program as we go forward,” Mims said. “But we’re going to support not only the training of pilots, we’re looking to train women and people of color and people of underrepresented areas for things that are going to happen in the entire aerospace industry.”

United Capt. Curtis Brunjes speaks at the United Aviate Academy grand opening event. (Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

Currently, the Aviate Academy has 59 students enrolled across two classes, with a new class monthly, Schaffer said. It plans to grow to a 500-person student body. The Aviate Academy has seen huge demand, and the first classes of students were chosen from among 9,600 applicants.

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

The academy operates a fleet of 25 Cirrus SR-20 aircraft with modern avionics that it leases from fellow Star Alliance member Lufthansa’s Arizona-based training operation.

On multiple occasions, Kirby, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, noted that the SR-20 allows for very high-quality, military-style training, including upset recovery training —or learning how handle an aircraft in an unstable or unusual flight condition.

“You’re going to get a level of training at the United Aviate Academy, both in the classroom and in the skies, that really doesn’t exist almost anywhere outside of the military.”

Featured photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy.

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