As air travel continues to soar from the lows early in the pandemic, airlines that laid off pilots or offered early retirement are now trying to rehire or recruit new staff. Metropolitan State University of Denver hopes to help rebuild the bench, thanks to new federal authorization intended to get graduates in the pilot’s seat more quickly.
Just before the current semester, the university was authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to offer students who want to be pilots the opportunity to earn a restricted airline transport pilot certificate. That means a person will need 1,000 hours of flying time rather than 1,500 hours to be a first officer, or copilot.
“This equates to about a year to year and a half time savings for the students to get into the airlines,” said Chad Kendall, an associate professor in MSU Denver’s Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science.
“Having a 500-hour reduction allows students to get that date of hire sooner, get into the pipeline,” Kendall added. “In the airline world, the date of hire and your seniority mean everything in the sense of your pay and your upgrade time to be a captain.”
Having more people in the pilot pipeline also benefits the airlines, Kendall said. “Flights are canceling because of staffing issues. United Airlines announced a reduction in their regional airline flights because regional airlines are having trouble staffing pilots.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines were facing a pilot shortage as global air travel increased, more pilots retired and the required hours of flight training were significantly boosted.
“We had a very severe shortage. The pandemic hit and now we’ve got an even worse shortage,” said Jeff Forrest, a professor and chairman of the university’s aviation and aerospace science department.
“That’s why you see the big three airlines announcing that by the end of next year, they need well over a thousand pilots each,” said Kendall, referring to United, Delta and American airlines.
When air travel plunged early in the pandemic, thousands of pilots retired or were laid off. Since then, traffic has taken off, nearing pre-pandemic levels over the Thanksgiving holiday. Denver International Airport reported that 425,000 travelers passed through security checkpoints Nov. 22-28, just 7% lower than the same week in 2019.
“I think the wild card in all that is the variants of the virus and what’s in the future,” Forrest said.
Boeing expects the demand for pilots to remain sky high. The aerospace company said in a recent report that an estimated 612,000 new pilots will be needed worldwide over the next two decades.
Declan Kreck, a sophomore at MSU Denver, wants to be a pilot. He flies Mondays and Wednesdays as part of his training, putting in about 2 and a half hours a week.
“It isn’t as much as I’d hoped, but with school and work you kind of have to fly when you can,” said Kreck.
The reduction from 1,500 to 1,000 hours of flying needed could cut as much as two years off the wait time fly for the airlines, Kreck said. “Five hundred hours less is massive.”
Students who earn the restrictive airline pilot transport certificate can move into the co-pilot’s chair and aim to earn their captain’s wings after reaching 1,500 hours in the air. Kreck said people typically work as flight instructors while building toward the goal.
“This allows you to move to the airlines instead of working at a lower salary position as a flight instructor,” Kreck said.
“I knew I didn’t want to end up with a desk job where I wouldn’t enjoy what I do,” Kreck said. “And I thought what better job to do than something where your desk is 36,000 feet in the air and you get to see the world. It’s travel and it’s exciting and something not everyone can do.”
Cleared for takeoff
Kendall worked with the FAA for about 20 months to secure the authorization the university needs to be part of the restrictive airline transport pilot certificate.
“The FAA, as part of the application process, had to vet our curriculum, had to look at our individual classes, our flight training providers,” Kendall said.
From the university’s perspective, the timing of the authorization was good. “It was right before the semester began. As soon as we rolled out our certification and our classes, we had 115 students enrolled,” Kendall said.
MSU Denver is Colorado’s only four-year, federally accredited aeronautical program approved by the FAA, Forrest said.
It hasn’t always taken 1,500 hours to become a first officer. In 2013, the FAA boosted the requirement sixfold from 250 to 1,500 hours. Congress directed the FAA to increase the hours after the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of a regional carrier near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground.
The change was controversial because it was made as baby boom-era pilots were retiring and demand for air travel was expanding. Exceptions and a restricted certificate are possible for aviation graduates of authorized four-year secondary schools with 1,000 hours; and graduates with associate degrees in aviation with 1,250 hours in the air.
“Speed helps when the pilot shortage is already disconnecting small communities, but the north star must always be safety and the important thing to know about structured training pathways is not that they produce more pilots, but that they produce pilots who are more proficient when they enter airline training,” Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association, said in an email.
Like others, Black stressed a pilot shortage existed before the pandemic. A major barrier to bringing more pilots onboard, she said, is the expense. There is a high return on investment for pilots who earn degrees and go through the training, but student loans don’t come close to covering the costs as for other careers that require special training, she added.
“(The Regional Airline Alliance) is backing legislation that would rightsize student loans to the real cost of pilot education and training to help make the training path more equitable and inclusive,” Black said.
When he was considering schools, Kreck, who grew up in Colorado Springs, said he chose MSU Denver because it’s close to home.
“And it’s a quarter of the cost of a lot of other schools with still high-quality instruction and they partner with the airlines,” Kreck said.
The university’s partnerships with Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely and with certain private flight-training providers have been held up as a model for schools seeking the FAA’s exception to the 1,500-hour rule, Forrest said. The previous thinking, he said, was that a school couldn’t qualify for the restrictive certificate unless it was a four-year institution, had its own aircraft and what’s called Part 141 training, curriculum and instruction approved by the FAA.
But under MSU Denver’s program, students can be enrolled concurrently at the university and Colorado Northwestern, which has airplanes. Students at the community college are eligible for the restrictive airline transport pilot certificate. And students can log hours with private flight-training providers with Part 141 certification.
“So we benefit them. They benefit us,” Forrest said. “It’s great for the university and it’s great for the students overall.