United recruits for new flying school as airlines resume hiring pilots to meet booming demand

Apr 6, 2021

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United Airlines announced Tuesday that it will begin recruiting the first class of future pilots to go through its new flight school.

The airline announced in February, 2020 that it would purchase the Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix, Arizona, and rebrand it as part of its Aviate pilot development program.

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United expects to train and hire at least 5,000 students through the end of the decade, spokesman Josh Earnest said during a media briefing. The airline said it would try to ensure that half of those pilots were women and people of color as part of an effort to diversify its pilot ranks, and would offer $1.2 million in scholarships, which would be matched by JP Morgan Chase. Currently, 7% of United pilots are women, and 13% are people of color.

When the purchase of the school was first announced, in the early days of COVID-19, United said it planned to take full control of the school in September, 2020, a date that was pushed back due to the airline industry’s struggles during the pandemic.

“The pandemic did set us back a period of months,” said Capt. Mary Ann Schaffer, the airline’s System Chief Pilot, “but the pilot needs predated the pandemic.”

FAA regulations, which mandate that commercial pilots retire by age 65, combined with seniority lists, help the airline get a sense of coming retirements.

More: United unveils 26 new point-to-point routes from Midwest, East Coast

“We’re talking about five years for people who want to enter the Aviate academy today and join us in the ranks of United Airlines flight decks in the future,” she added. “So we have quite a bit of planning to do to get those folks started now, so they can help us fill the seats as our pilots retire.”

The airline said it expects to need to hire at least 10,000 pilots by 2030, based on expected retirements over the decade and the number of pilots who took early retirements and buyouts at the height of the pandemic crisis.

The focus on future pilot recruitment and development comes as a sharp contrast after a year of airline industry downsizing and lobbying for financial aid amid the worst crisis to ever hit commercial aviation.

But it also aligned with more short-term needs as passenger counts and forward bookings skyrocket, an effect of expanding vaccination rates and eligibility in the U.S.

United said last week it was seeking to hire 300 pilots now as it scales back up to meet the growing demand, which is largely for domestic leisure travel — business and long-haul travel is expected to begin a more meaningful recovery in 2022.

More: Domestic leisure travel demand back to pre-pandemic levels, airline CEOs say

Delta has said it plans to bring all its pilots to active flying status, and last week announced an Advance Entitlement — an opportunity for a pilot to bid on vacancies — with more than 1,600 positions. The airline was forced to cancel nearly 100 flights last weekend due to a pilot shortage. Spirit, Sun Country, Allegiant, and Frontier all plan to hire pilots as well, according to an industry source.

Aviate, which was launched in 2019 as a recruitment and development program, offered candidates a direct track to a job flying at United. The program accepted applicants who were beginning their training from the beginning, as well as those with pilots licenses and varying amounts of experience. Students going through the new flight school will be considered part of the Aviate program; after graduating and building flight hours, Aviate participants are offered a job with a regional airline, and later, United mainline.

Featured image courtesy of United Airlines

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