Never too young to fly: Can high school programs solve the pilot shortage for airlines?
May 30, 2022
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  • Cleo Vazquez has traded his education in a high school classroom for a view of the runway and planes taking off at Addison Airport just north of Dallas. 

    Between studying math, English and science, the 14-year-old Vazquez spent the last three months at Rising Aviation High School studying to get an FAA remote pilot certificate to fly drones and taking the certification test, even though he can’t officially get the license for almost two years when he turns 16. 

    “Oh, this is much better than school was before,” said Vazquez, whose mother brings him every day from Arlington for classes. “I’ve always wanted to fly.” 

    Vazquez was part of the first class of seven students at Rising Aviation High School in Addison, a private charter school focused on preparing for careers in the aviation industry. 

    Amid a shortage of skilled aviation workers that’s already throttling the travel industry, flight schools and airlines are dumping millions of dollars into programs to attract new student pilots, aircraft mechanics and other employees. 

    Rising Aviation is one of a handful of startup pilot schools across the country hoping to get high school students exposed early to jobs in the field, particularly for airline pilots, which faces a shortage of nearly 60,000 workers by the end of the decade. 

    The shortage of pilots and other workers is already crimping airline expansion plans, said Kit Darby, an Atlanta-based pilot career consultant. 

    “Certainly airlines are going to be short of pilots and there isn’t a short-term solution to the problem,” Darby said. “And even with all the money that airlines have spent on academies and training, the long-term problems, regrettably, still exist.” 

    The biggest barrier, Darby said, is the $70,000 to $150,000 in tuition and expenses that it takes for potential pilots to get through flight school and earn enough hours, now 1,500, to earn an air transport certificate to fly a commercial airliner. 

    Fort Worth-based American Airlines is giving potential pilots in flight schools up to $165,000 in promised grants and bonuses to sign on with the company as regional pilots and fly until they reach captain level at the mainline carrier. Other carriers have started similar recruitment programs at flight schools across the country. 

    However, Darby said, there simply aren’t enough students entering pilot training programs to fill the future demand for pilots, mostly because the costs are so high. 

    “There’s no lack of people that want to be pilots,” Darby said. “If you go anywhere in the world, it ranks as one of the top career choices right behind astronauts and athletes.” 

    To afford flight school, students usually need to put up large amounts of money to back loans or have parents with considerable financial assets, Darby said. That also makes flight school more difficult for people of color who historically make less money and have fewer assets such as home equity. 

    Still, getting students exposed to flying and aviation careers early is a way to address the pilot shortage, Darby said. 

    Once pilots make it through school, major airlines in the U.S. pay pilots on average more than $250,000 a year, and wages should go up as pilots negotiate a new round of contracts this year. Pay is good at airlines for other jobs, too, including mechanics. 

    American Airlines’ median pay last year was $62,765, while Dallas-based Southwest Airlines’ median was $84,872, according to company regulatory filings. That’s even with many workers opting to go part-time during the companies’ pandemic recovery. 

    Public school systems, including those in North Texas, have spent more than a decade trying to train students for jobs in the aviation industry. 

    Fort Worth Independent School District has an aviation lab at Dunbar High School where students can earn a drone license and get exposure to jobs such as aircraft maintenance, said Daphne Rickard, who heads the district’s career and technical education department. 

    “We are seeing more students think about aviation as a career,” Rickard said. “We’ve always had great industry support, but even more so right now. We are getting companies saying they need more help.” 

    American Airlines, along with helicopter manufacturer Bell, are among companies that contribute to Fort Worth’s program, including sending industry professionals to the schools to talk about career paths. 

    The challenge, Rickard said, is getting students as young as 16 or 17 thinking about a career, no matter how lucrative. 

    Dallas Independent School District has a magnet program for ninth through 12th graders that teaches a general aviation class in the first year and then focuses on aviation maintenance programs in 10th through 12th. 

    A handful of aviation-focused high schools have been started around the country as demand for aviation jobs, particularly pilots, has increased in recent years. There are schools in Seattle and New York. Auburn University has a flight program for college students. 

    Rising Aviation High School was supposed to start two years ago in a former industrial building just off Addison Airport, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the school’s opening. 

    It finally opened in April with seven students. Those at the school are guided through online classes for basic subjects, with a full-time assistant principal assisting with coursework. There are also courses on being a pilot such as reading instruments, meteorology and flying operations. Students also have the chance to learn about aviation maintenance and related careers such as dispatching. 

    Those 16 and older can start flying after getting a student license. 

    The school has a Diamond DA40, four-seat propeller aircraft for students for training that’s parked in a shared hangar at Addison Airport, right next to the campus. 

    The nonprofit school isn’t free. This year, students are charged about $500 a month for tuition plus flight time with flight instructors. 

    CEO Scott Meehan, who is funding the school’s startup, said tuition will likely have to increase and the school is looking for grants and assistance as it grows. He said the school should have 20 students next year and could grow to as many as 50 at the current location. 

    By the time students end the program, they should have up to 250 hours of flight time and a private pilot’s license, said Brent Fitzgerald, the school’s principal. 

    “They won’t be able to walk right out of here into a job flying for an airline, but it will give them experience flying and should let them figure out whether this is the right kind of career for them,” said Fitzgerald, a certified flight instructor who planned to become an airline pilot before going into teaching. 

    Rising Aviation held its first graduation ceremony with a single graduate, Nicolas Lopez, on May 26. The ceremony ended with Lopez taking a flight with his brother Jose Lopez from Addison Airport. The graduating senior is headed to a job as a ramp agent at Southwest Airlines to get experience in the industry before choosing a path. 

    “That’s the whole point,” Fitzgerald said. “There are a lot of jobs in aviation from being a pilot or a dispatcher to working in management. We want to give them options and show them how to get there.”