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Prepare For Takeoff: Pilot Shortage Provides Lift To Aviation Students

Piloting a jetliner was once a glamorous profession. Then came the 9/11 terror attacks, airline bankruptcies and pension cuts. Entry-level pilots worked for peanuts.

But now the pendulum is swinging back. Regional airlines across America -- including the Northwest's Horizon Air -- are grappling with a looming pilot shortage.

Horizon currently has about 650 pilots on staff. "We're looking for roughly 100 to 120 pilots per year that we need to keep adding in for growth as well as to cover attrition," said LaMar Haugaard, director of pilot development and recruiting at Horizon Air in Portland.

Horizon Air is part of Seattle-based Alaska Air Group, the parent company of Alaska Airlines as well. They are just one player in a global industry, which the Boeing Company estimated in July will need 617,000 commercial airline pilots over the next 20 years.

Aviation economist Dan Akins of the consulting firm Flightpath Economics described the regional airline sector as "the tip of the spear" for feeling the pilot shortage.

"There aren't enough pilots being supplied to the industry to sustain it," Akins said in an interview. He contended that smaller cities risk losing air service unless the current trajectory changes.

"I think we are in the very early stages of a really hard landing for the industry," Akins said.

The big shortage

So how did airline pilots get in short supply?

"It really is a perfect coming together of growth within the industry,” Haugaard said, combined with the beginnings of an anticipated wave of retirements from the major airlines. The majors then backfill by plucking pilots from regional carriers. The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airline pilots to retire at age 65.

Then add to that, a big increase in the training requirements needed to get an air transport pilot license. That came from the FAA in 2013 in the wake of a commuter airline crash in upstate New York.

A lot of commercial airline pilots used to come over from the Air Force too, but Haugaard said the military does not train as many pilots as it used to.

"Marry that up with fewer and fewer people getting into the industry -- mainly due to becoming cost-prohibitive on the training side -- you have shortage that will come from that,” Haugaard said. “And we are certainly seeing that now."

Perks for the aspiring pilot

So now Horizon and its peers are inking deals with university aviation programs to ramp up pilot development. The arrangements include tuition reimbursement or a big signing bonus for aspiring pilots. In exchange, those students commit to fly with a certain carrier for at least two years once they're qualified.

The stepped-up recruiting by various airlines led Teamsters Local 1224 Vice President Mark Niles to observe, "It's almost a game of one-upmanship right now."

The veteran Horizon pilot said he had heard of rivals offering bonuses in excess of $20,000 to get new pilots in the door. Job offers can include a combination of signing bonus, a later retention bonus and advancement preferences to command bigger jets.

Horizon management and its pilots union are currently in talks about how to sweeten the airline’s offerings to stay competitive.

A recently signed pilot development dealbetween Horizon Air and Central Washington University included one-time $7,500 "stipends" for up to 17 aviation students per year. In addition, Horizon donated a $10,000 desktop flight simulator.

Central Washington University Aviation Chair Sundaram Nataraja foresees major enrollment growth in his department to fill the pipeline.

"We want to grow this to a bigger level,” Nataraja said. “In five years down the road, we want to have a total of 1,000 students in the aviation department. Currently we have 200."

Nataraja said parents still get wide-eyed when he explains the cost of a professional pilot education. It runs $80,000-$100,000 over four years, chiefly due to the fees for one-on-one flight training. A typical student may graduate with considerable debt. But thanks to the newfound, stiff competition for aviation graduates, entry level pay at regional airlines has risen significantly over the past year.

Student instructors with a first officer job awaiting them estimated their starting pay would be in the $30,000-$35,000 range. A few years ago, a freshly minted co-pilot at a regional airline might have earned less than $25,000 per year to start. As cockpit crew members gain experience and move up the career ladder, their pay soars into the six figures.

‘A dream come true’ in Ellensburg

18-year-old Tyler Holmen of Redmond, Washington, knows what he wants to do in life.

"Flying has just always fascinated me,” Holmen said. “I kind of settled on it at an early age. It's kind of a dream come true here."

Holmen and fellow aviation students at Central Washington could hardly have picked a better time to become professional pilots.

Flight instructor Gage Geist, 22, graduated from CWU in late spring. He's now giving flight lessons to undergrads, which helps Geist rack up the flight hours needed to qualify for an airline job. A first officer slot awaits him at his chosen Horizon Air as soon as he logs 1,000 flight hours.

"By the time I graduated, I had three conditional job offers,” Geist said.

He said that's a big change from even just a few years ago.

"When I first started off, it was once in a blue moon we would have a recruiter come by -- maybe once every other month,” Geist said. “Now it's almost every other week."

It takes a dispatcher to manage the waves of instructors and students rotating through five flight simulators and a fleet of single engine Cessnas used as flight trainers at Ellensburg’s Bowers Field.

New training programs

Inside the training center, a bulletin board is covered with recruiting posters and ads from regional airlines such as Horizon Air, SkyWest and Mesa Airlines. You may know these better flying under their alternate identities as Alaska Airlines, Delta Connection or United Express.

The competing airlines gush about being the place where "your career takes off" and how quickly you can "upgrade" to a parent company's mainline jets.

Until this year, CWU was the only public university in the Pacific Northwest offering a four-year bachelor's degree as a professional pilot. A bunch of community colleges in Oregon and Washington have two-year pilot training programs with transfer options to meet the airlines' preference for a bachelor's degree.

Earlier this year, Green River College in Auburn, Washington, introduced a four-year bachelor's degree track. The program's enrollment filled right away according to Aviation Department Chair George Comollo.

Comollo said his department was in talks to set up a direct recruitment pathway with Horizon that would include the one-time $7,500 stipend and a guaranteed cockpit job for selected students. He said SkyWest Airlines might be the next partner to seek clearance to land on campus.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.