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United Airlines buys flight training school to build pipeline for 10,000 new pilots over the next decade

United Airlines pilots listen as President Scott Kirby speaks at a press conference at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. United announced Thursday it is buying a flight school in Arizona as part of its plan to hire 10,000 pilots in the next decade. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune/TNS)

United Airlines is buying an Arizona-based flight training academy to help train the more than 10,000 pilots the airline expects to hire within a decade.

The academy, currently operating as Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix, will be part of a recruiting program United announced last year, called Aviate, that lets pilots join a pipeline to United with a conditional job offer early in their careers rather than waiting until they rise through the ranks at regional carriers or complete military service.

Aspiring pilots will be able to enter the full-time academy with no flight experience and apply to join the Aviate program after earning a private pilot certification, United said. Students would graduate with the credentials needed to progress to the next stage in their career, working as a flight instructor, in nine to 12 months, the airline said.

Pilot jobs were scarce when the airline industry struggled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and during the recession. Hiring has picked up as demand for travel has grown, and airlines have been bolstering recruiting programs in an effort to build up a pool of aspiring pilots before a wave of upcoming retirements leaves them shorthanded.

United said last year it expects nearly half of its 12,500 pilots to retire within a decade, and over the next 20 years, Boeing estimates that airlines will need to recruit about 131,000 commercial pilots in North America and 514,000 more throughout the rest of the world.

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United isn’t feeling a shortage now but wants to make sure the regional airlines that operate its United Express flights continue to have enough pilots, said Curtis Brunjes, United’s managing director of pilot strategy. Regional airlines are facing “a lot of competition for talent” and have been offering potential hires signing bonuses, he said.

United said the academy, which will be renamed United Aviate Academy in September, will initially produce about 300 graduates each year, but it hopes to expand that to 500. Graduates would be able to work as instructors at flight schools United has partnered with to rack up hours of flying time required to qualify for entry-level jobs with regional carriers, such as ExpressJet, Air Wisconsin or Mesa Airlines. Pilots in the Aviate program hired by the regional carriers would be then eligible for jobs with United.

Operating its own flight training academy will also give the airline more control over training. Brunjes said United’s curriculum could place extra emphasis on skills like managing automated systems or avoiding loss of control accidents. Training required for commercial pilots is “fairly modest when it comes to upset recovery and could be innovated,” he said.

United has not determined the cost of training but Brunjes said it would be comparable with other flight schools, which can cost $80,000 to $90,000 to complete. The airline said it is working with financial institutions and hopes to offer financing options. United also said it wants to broaden the pool of candidates by offering a scholarship program for women and minority applicants.

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© 2020 the Chicago Tribune