Lift Academy Flight School
Courtesy Lift Academy

Flight Training for the Airlines

The pilot shortage is causing the airlines to get creative about how they teach a new generation of professional aviators.

Pete Daniels flies Boeing 787s for one of the world’s largest airlines. He makes $380,000 a year and works an average of nine days per month.

He has been flying commercially for more than 30 years. He is one of scores of airline pilots who will reach the FAA’s mandatory retirement age, 65, within the next decade.

Fortunately for those looking to one day find themselves in Pete’s seat and income bracket, it’s a buyer’s market right now. Boeing predicts a global need for some 790,000 new pilots over the next two decades, with more than 200,000 of those positions needing to be filled in the United States.

Airlines are so concerned about current and future cockpit vacancies that virtually all have partnered with prominent flight academies or, in the case of some, launched academies of their own. Republic Airline, which launched a school last year, operates flights as United Express, Delta Connection and American Eagle. "We started the Lift Academy because Republic needs some 700 new pilots each year," explains academy general manager Dana Donati. "We can graduate 330 students per year, so our partnerships with other schools remain important to fill that gap."

The Lift business model is simple: Train students to become pilots first, then flight instructors. Hire them as certified flight instructors to train other students while they log the 1,500 hours total flight time the FAA requires for an airline transport pilot certificate, which is required to fly larger passenger aircraft. Then, hire them as copilots for Republic.

In fact, this business model is fairly standard for other academies, too. Unique to Lift is that the school guarantees students jobs as CFIs, and then further guarantees positions with Republic, once students have completed their training and successfully earned ATPs.

Therein lies the challenge to keep those student pipelines stocked: Today’s student is tomorrow’s instructor, and next year’s airline pilot.

During training, the student works to obtain a private-pilot certificate, an instrument rating add-on, a commercial certificate and multi-engine rating.

For virtually all academy students, these primary certificates can be had within 300 hours of training and flight time. The trick is logging the extra thousand or so hours before the pilot can apply for an ATP certificate. Flight time is not cheap, so acting as a CFI enables an airline-bound pilot to log hours on the dime of another student. Also not cheap is the cost of completing one of these programs. Academy websites estimate costs between $75,000 and $100,000. On the other hand, one could spend this much or more on a university degree, with no promise of employment.

One advantage to aspiring airline pilots in 2019 is that airlines are reconsidering college-degree requirements.

“American no longer requires a degree; United only prefers one; Delta still requires them, but that will probably change,” says Robert Luthy, director of the L3 Airline Academy, of Sanford, Florida.

This is good news, with regard to reduced time and expense to get to the airlines, but there is a risk. A college degree follows a person forever. And while pilot certificates do, too, they are of little use to those who decide aviation isn’t the profession for them.

Luthy cites another risk. “There is no switching to another major within a flight academy,” he says. “If you’re here, and you decide flying isn’t for you, you have wasted considerable time and money.” To avoid such situations, the schools have application processes designed to weed out those likely to wash out. Though it might seem that failure wouldn’t be a concern for a for-profit academy, graduation and placement statistics can be great marketing tools.

Each academy has a different screening process. Some use proprietary tests, while others outsource testing to established testing centers and protocols.

Well-known professional pilot flight schools such as ATP, with locations around the country, and FlightSafety Academy, with its headquarters in Vero Beach, Florida, are attractive to students because they offer a career path that can mean landing a right-seat job with many regional carriers as soon as the magic 1,500 hours of flight time is obtained.

Airline pilots walking in airport terminal
A wave of airline pilot retirements and the requirement for new pilots to gain 1,500 hours of flight time before they can be hired is causing a pilot shortage.Courtesy Lift Academy

For the schools that funnel pilots to one airline, making sure an applicant will fit in is important to identify before training even starts. “In addition to needing to know if the student has the scholastic aptitude we require of our pilots, we need to make sure there’s a good cultural fit,” Donati explains. “We are guaranteeing careers with our airline, so this is very important to us.”

Others agree.

“Student attitude is our No. 1 reason for rejecting applicants,” Luthy says. “In addition to making sure they are up for the challenges of airline careers, we need to make sure they are motivated — that they really want to do this.”

In some cases, he points out, it’s clear that family pressure brought the applicant to the academy. By fine-tuning their acceptance testing, he says their graduation rate has increased from 53 percent to 74 percent.

With regard to applicants, an overwhelming majority are male. L3 and Lift both claim they are making specific efforts to appeal more to young women. The schools admit, however, that only about 10 percent of their students are women. This dismally low figure is representative of the number of women in professional aviation at the moment. At FlightSafety Academy, as one positive example, the number of female students has been on the upswing.

April Gafford owns JATO Aviation, a multi-location flight school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gafford, who has an ATP certificate herself, sees the gender gap holding steady.

“For whatever reason, young women still don’t see themselves in commercial cockpits,” she says. Though she and her CFIs have seen hundreds of women attain private-pilot certificates, she says it’s far more often to find younger men who are focused on airline careers.

Luthy sees a cultural problem.

“Young school girls are still not encouraged to fly airplanes,” he says. “Until there is a more coordinated effort to effect change at the primary-education level, I don’t think we’ll see many improvements there.”

Though financing, tuition assistance and scholarships are available to students across economic backgrounds, Luthy says a whopping 70 percent of his students pay cash for their training. Also of note is that 80 percent of his students have family members working in aviation.

Republic Airways training academy
Republic Airways launched the Lift Flight Training Academy last year to funnel new pilots to the right seats of its regional jets.Courtesy Lift Academy

So, besides knowing that most applicants are male, one can derive from these numbers that most applicants are from affluent families and that, perhaps, careers in aviation are to credit for much of that affluence.

Still, while the return on investment for flight academy training can be significant over time, becoming an airline pilot is hardly a get-rich-quick scheme.

Many low-time commercial pilots report low earnings, long hours and, in some cases, jobs in locations they don’t like.

Republic starts pilots at $45 per hour, Donati says, increasing that by $5 per hour for year two.

“Pilots are guaranteed a minimum of 75 hours per month, but most average more,” she says. “Our average first-year salary is $60,000.”

When compared to the cost and time required for a conventional college education, and the resulting job market, these numbers don’t seem too bad. Republic, after all, guarantees employment.

But there’s a catch.

The airline subsidizes $20,000 of the pilot’s training in return for a promise of five years’ worth of employment. If the pilot leaves the company’s employ for any reason before that commitment is fulfilled, that $20,000 becomes due in full.

Keep this in mind when reviewing the academy’s pricing. What appears to be a total cost of, say, $75,000, becomes $95,000, if the commitment isn’t met.

The concern here for Republic is that virtually all students who follow this career path plan to work for a major airline one day. So long as the pilot shortage remains critical, prosperous job opportunities at major air carriers will likely present themselves long before the end of that five-year period.

“A pilot who leaves early will be liable for the $20,000,” Donati says, “but some airlines offer sign-on bonuses that can reduce or eliminate this cost to the pilot.”

Even if a sign-on bonus isn’t offered, a pilot might decide it’s better to pay this fee and get in on the seniority ladder of a major airline, rather than wait until the obligation to the regional is met.

Meanwhile, Republic will be refilling its pilot pipeline through the recruitment of new Lift students. L3 will be doing the same, as will virtually all other flight academies: The student becomes the pilot; the pilot becomes the instructor; the instructor becomes the copilot at a regional carrier — on and on.

What does this say about the caliber of pilots who will be flying jets in the coming years? Will tomorrow’s airline travel become less safe after today’s experienced pilots are replaced with “assembly line” aviators? “Our CFIs — whether we hire graduating students or someone from outside the academy — are put through 41 days of additional training to make sure they can instruct well, in accordance with our policies and procedures,” Luthy says.

JATO Aviation takes pride in offering students a staff of flight instructors who, in many cases, have decades’ worth of flight time and experience. One would assume Gafford would oppose the CFI-for-now approach her larger academy competitors take, but that’s not the case.

ATP Flight School
ATP Flight School, one of the largest professional-pilot academies in the country, offers an accelerated program for a faster path to the airlines.Courtesy ATP

“Aviation safety is largely about adherence to standard operating procedures,” she explains. “The goal is to teach student pilots to follow checklists, policy and standard operating procedures. The better academies do just this. In some cases, the training students get at a local airport does not.”

Gafford refers to two sections of the Federal Aviation Regulations that govern pilot training. Part 141 of the regulations, which is used by most academies, was designed to govern the education of airline-bound pilots.

Part 61 is the section of regulations that most often governs the training of those who learn to fly for fun.

“Part 141 training not only better prepares students for careers with airlines,” according to Gafford, “it can get them there in less time and, in some cases, less overall cost.”

Taking into account these points, consider a few assumptions about Part 61 pilot training:

An airplane rents for $130 per hour.

A CFI charges $85 per hour.

The FAA requires 40 hours of flight time before student pilots can take the test to get the private-pilot certificate. Many sources estimate 70 hours as a more realistic national average, with that number increasing further in areas of complex airspace.

Assuming 70 hours, that’s $9,100 in aircraft rental. Assume approximately the same number of hours for the instructor, whether in the cockpit or ground instruction, for another $5,950.

This puts student pilots at just over $15,000, without the cost of books, various other training aids and exam fees. Add another $500 for those. At $15,500, student pilots now hold private-pilot certificates and only 70 hours of flying time.

Next comes the instrument rating add-on. The FAA requires pilots to have at least 50 hours of cross-country flight time logged (more than 50 miles from the home airport), a total of 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time (reduced visibility flight conditions) and at least 15 hours of instrument flight training from a CFI.

Lift Academy Flight School Diamond Training Aircraft
Lift Academy operates a fleet of new glass-cockpit-equipped Diamond single- and twin-engine training aircraft.Courtesy Lift Academy

While some of that required cross-country flight time might have come during primary training, assume an additional 30 hours is needed. In this case, an instructor is not required, so pilots pay only for the aircraft rental: $3,900.

The instrument flight time will require an instructor, though some of this can be done in a simulator, which is cheaper to rent than an airplane. Let’s assume 30 hours of simulator time at $50, plus 10 hours of airplane time, which equals $2,800. Add the CFI to the mix for another 20 hours, and it totals $4,500. Add another few hundred for the exams, and the instrument rating adds up to $8,600.

With the primary certificate and instrument add-on, the student is at $24,100. Next comes the commercial certificate, which requires 250 hours of logged flight experience, and training in a more expensive airplane at perhaps $200 per hour.

After that, the multi-engine rating will require an aircraft that rents for about $300 per hour. When students have completed all of that, they will still need to log additional time and get more training to reach the 1,500 hours the FAA requires before they can apply for the airline-transport-pilot certificate.

Like their Part 141 counterparts, most Part 61 student pilots build flight time through jobs as flight instructors. However, must find those jobs on their own.

It’s not easy to calculate exact costs of Part 61 primary-to-ATP pilot training because students differ. Suffice to say, Part 61 training isn’t always a shortcut to the airlines in terms of money or time.

Unlike Lift, L3 and FlightSafety Academy, ATP Flight School, one of the country’s largest academies, is a Part 61 school, and the majority of JATO Aviation’s training is Part 61 as well, although Gafford recommends what’s best for each student.

“If someone comes to us with the goal of an airline career, I’m going to make sure that student knows that Part 61 may not be the best choice,” she says. ATP Flight School, meanwhile, tailors its approach so that Part 61 works perfectly well for career-minded aviators.

It’s not a must to attend a big academy or a university with an aviation program, but it can help. “In some cases, our students get jobs with airlines before their time here is complete,” Luthy says. “Envoy [Airlines] has hired former students who are serving here as flight instructors, even before they have the required hours to get their ATPs. They get their seniority established, and it saves them from hunting for jobs.”

Airline recruiters visit the L3 campus monthly, he says. Unlike Lift, which is tied to Republic, L3 partners with 14 different air carriers — including Republic. So, while L3 students aren’t guaranteed jobs, as Lift promises its students, they have access to a number of different options. And, one would presume, when the airlines are hungry, there are jobs enough for everyone who qualifies.

Gafford, Luthy and Donati all agree there are ways in which prospective student pilots can prepare for careers with the airlines — good grades in school, reasonable health and avoidance of drug or DUI charges and entanglements with the law. The airlines might be reevaluating requirements with regard to college degrees, but they remain pretty insistent that their pilots are law-abiding and reliable, in addition to being skilled aviators.

“When we consider applications, we’re considering the intangibles, too,” Donati says. “Does this person have what it takes to be a pilot?”

Gafford concludes, “We try to increase the diversity of backgrounds of those who come into aviation, but I think the essence of what makes a good pilot a successful one will remain consistent. It’s not always something you can test for, or measure; it’s confidence and decency of character.”