Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire announced last week that it was closing its pilot training program. This is sad news for all in aviation, particularly students, faculty and alum of DWC. But it also sends an important signal — again — that the pilot education system and the pilot job future are out of whack.
DWC was founded as a private aviation college in 1965 so pilot training is at its core, not something added on to a standard list of academic programs. Over the years, the college expanded the number of degree programs it offered, but the concentration remains on aviation. For example, even the MBA course is designed to prepare graduates for management jobs in aviation.
The reasons for DWC dropping the flight training program are multi-layered, including a change in ownership of the school, but the bottom line, is well, the bottom line. The cost of properly training a person for a career as a professional pilot is soaring, but the reimbursement for that pilot's career is plummeting. Why would a young person — or more importantly that person's parents — pay way north of $100,000 to train for a job that pays less than $20,000 at a regional airline. And that new pilot has little hope that — with airline bankruptcies, consolidations and no way to raise ticket prices - top pilot pays will ever return the training investment. Schools like DWC have to make a profit to stay in business and if they can't charge enough for pilot training to be profitable, the program will go away.
Shrinking pay for physicians has been one of the many contentious elements of the healthcare debate that has wracked the nation for so long and I think there are direct parallels in the aviation world. With doctor pay level, or shrinking for many, the fear is that young people, and certainly not the best and brightest young people, will choose the field of medicine. Becoming a professional pilot does not require the 10 year or more slog through classrooms and hospital training that doctors must invest, but like new doctors, new pilots move through the chairs to decent pay slowly. If the promise of above-average pay is not out there for either new doctors or new pilots, will people continue to make the huge investment in money and time? I don't think so.
Daniel Webster and its top notch pilot training program will be missed. The decisions made there are apparently the coldest of economic calculations with no regard for the school's history and traditions in pilot training. But in the end, economics will win every time whether it be in pilot training, or pilot pay. When there is no promise of a decent paying job at the end of a long and very expensive training period, people will stop paying for the training. When premier flight schools can't stay in business, a pilot shortage must certainly follow.