United Airlines buys flight school to boost pilot recruitment

Feb 5, 2020

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United Airlines is opening a new pipeline for pilots, purchasing a flight school to fill out its hiring pool.

The future United Aviate Academy is currently known as the Westwind School of Aeronautics and is located in Phoenix. United will take full control of the school in the coming months, with the airline expecting about 300 pilots to graduate in the first year after that transition.

Ultimately, United said it hopes about 500 students will go through the academy each year. While there, students will accrue about 250 flight hours and will leave the school with flight instructor certification and the qualifications to fly as charter pilots, United said.

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The students at the Aviate Academy also will be part of United’s Aviate program, which guarantees a spot as a mainline United pilot once they have the proper qualifications.

Commercial pilots in the U.S. are required to have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours, with a few exceptions for those who participate in certain certified training programs. After graduating from the academy, students will bridge the gap to 1,500 hours by working as flight instructors or at charter outfits. Then, they have to be hired independently by a United Express affiliate. After two years — or about 2,000 more flight hours — at one of the regional carriers, they will be eligible to become a mainline pilot at United “without further interviews,” according to Curtis Brunjes, United’s managing director of pilot strategy.

(Photo courtesy of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport)
United Airlines planes at DCA. (Photo courtesy of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport)

Brunjes said that acquiring a flight school gives United more control over its pilots’ early training. As an example, he said, “upset recovery training is a very key interest and focus of ours both in the military and at the airline, and it would be in training too.”

Upset recovery training teaches pilots how to resume normal flight when their plane winds up in a physical position that is not in its normal operating envelope, like a steep bank angle or an unusually sharp ascent or descent.

While other airlines like JetBlue and American have partnerships with flight schools that allow students easier access to their pilot ranks, United is the first major carrier in the U.S. to run its own such facility.

“It’s definitely a bold move, and it’s interesting to see where airlines are looking to invest extra cash,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research. “Delta is making investments in airlines, and United is investing in a flight school.”

Related:The 10 longest (and 10 shortest) United Airlines flights

United plans to hire about 1,000 pilots each year in in the 2020s, and Brunjes said that the airline expects its Aviate program to become a primary pipeline for new flight deck employees.

There has been ongoing speculation that airlines are facing a pilot shortage, but Brunjes insisted that it’s not a problem for United, and that the airline’s purchase of a flight school isn’t a move to head off future recruitment troubles.

“We at United Airlines would say that we don’t have a pilot shortage and probably never would, however there is a lot of competition at United Express carriers for talent,” he said. “The signing bonuses reflect that the regional carriers are competing over a less-than-robust pool of pilots relative to their needs.”

More: What it’s like flying United’s new CRJ550, possibly the most comfortable regional jet in the US

A United Express Bombardier CRJ 550 is seen in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after its first flight for the airline. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
A United Express Bombardier CRJ 550 is seen in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after its first flight for the airline. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Bebe O’Neil, United’s managing director of Aviate, said the program and the academy will also help make United’s pilot pool more diverse.

“Launching our own academy provides us with the unique opportunity to not only ensure we maintain the ideal number of quality candidates within our pilot pipeline, but also play a significant role in recruiting, developing and welcoming those with diverse backgrounds to the United family,” she said in a statement.

The airline is also working with lenders to help provide low-interest loans for students in the academy.

While the aviation industry is currently grappling with coronavirus-related flight cuts — on Tuesday, United announced further cuts to its schedule to Asia — Harteveldt said the airline’s investment in its training and recruitment is a positive sign for the industry’s long-term outlook.

“This is United saying ‘we are making an investment in our future as an airline,’ so I’m glad to see that they are not postponing the announcement of this just in light of the other actions that are happening.”

Related: How United Airlines’ Denver hub got to 700 flights

Featured Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

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