Demand for pilots reaches new heights, impacting Arizona flight schools

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Apr. 25, 2022 at 10:37 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The demand for pilots has reached new highs.

Crew shortages have created turbulence in the airline industry.

Now companies are cutting flight schedules ahead of the busy summer travel season as they work to recruit pilots.

“In my entire career I’ve never seen it like it is today,” said Cochise College Aviation Programs Director Belinda Burnett.

Burnett said the demand for commercial pilots is unprecedented.

“Back when I started flying it was a 10 to 15 year time period before you could even think about the airlines after you finished training just because there was not that much movement,” Burnett said.

Burnett, a graduate of the program herself, said because of today’s demand, her students are on the fast-track to piloting passenger planes.

“We tell them if you just stay the course, do the work, you will be at a major airline in six years,” Burnett said.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott is also seeing an increase in enrollment.

“Embry-Riddle Prescott in the fall of 2018, we brought in 157 freshmen and at that time the program was about 480 students. This fall, we are expecting 320 freshmen and my program will be just over 900 students, so in a four-year span we have increased by more than 100 percent,” said Parker Northrup, Flight Department Chair at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Northrup is a retired USAF command pilot with more than three decades of experience in the aviation industry.

“This increase is among the largest we have seen in the modern age. And certainly, when you look at the global numbers, almost three quarters of a million pilots will be needed globally in the next five years and it’s not likely to let up anytime soon,” Northrup said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of airline and commercial pilots is projected to grow 13 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations. About 14,500 openings for airline and commercial pilots are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Future and Active Pilot Advisors reported from January to March 2022, 12 major airlines hired a total of 3,432 pilots.

According to FAPA, United Airlines led the pack with 779 hires, and announced plans to hire 10-thousand pilots by 2030.

American Airlines hired 623 pilots and projects it will hire more than 2,300 pilots this year.

Delta also hired 623 pilots.

To expedite the hiring process, some of these major airlines are turning to the regional airlines to find qualified candidates, leaving those companies scrambling to fill vacancies.

“The regional airlines, they are actually losing more pilots than they are hiring by almost half,” Burnett said.

To recruit pilots, these companies are offering sign-on bonuses, new and existing cadet programs, university and vocational flight school partnerships and more.

Burnett said Cochise College is working to expedite the aviation program to meet the demand.

“Normally our graduates would take two and a half to three years to acquire the time they need to get to the regional airline, we feel the need to accelerate those students faster to get the hours faster so they can get to the regional airline sooner,” Burnett said.

Even if hundreds of people signed up for an aviation program today, they wouldn’t be ready for about two years.

“This is not a problem that we can add water and instantly fix. This is a time problem,” Burnett said. “We can’t fast forward and get to the end quicker than what safety will allow us to do.”

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