Utah Flight Programs Increase Fleets, Partner with Airlines to Meet 'Insatiable' Demand for Pilots
Bracing for a potential surge of aviation students, Southern Utah University this year spent about $3.8 million on 10 new Cirrus airplanes.
Utah State University officials, feeling the strain of burgeoning flight enrollment a year earlier, paid about $806,000 for four gently used planes.
The investments are examples of how Utah universities are responding to the growing demand for pilot training — a positive trend in an industry that anticipates needing 617,000 commercial airline pilots by 2035, according to worldwide aircraft manufacturing giant Boeing.
"This is a very exciting time; airplane pilot demand is insatiable," said Mike Mower, executive director of SUU's aviation program.
Boeing's 2016 Pilot and Technician Outlook report attributes the increased demand to economic expansion across the globe, with airlines growing their fleets and flight schedules to accommodate it.
Though most pilots will be needed in the Asia Pacific region, the U.S. also is preparing for a shortage.
"Meeting this demand will require innovative solutions — focused on educational outreach and career pipeline programs — to inspire the next generation of pilots, technicians, and cabin crew," the report states.
Growing the fleet • In the four years that SUU has operated an aviation program, Mower has watched the popularity of the university's flight school steadily increase, he said.
The school has always leased planes for student use and last semester had three.
But when school officials realized fall semester enrollment for the whole program could increase 50 percent compared to spring — to nearly 300 students from about 200 — Mower said it became clear they needed to grow their fleet.
The leased planes were costly to maintain and needed frequent repairs, said Ellen Treanor, university spokeswoman. They also did not have advanced safety features — such as on-board, deployable parachutes and cockpit airbags — the school desired, she said.
A lease agreement obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune showed that, for at least one of the planes leased last school year, officials were required to pay $250 each month, plus $50 per hour of use. The school must pay for a minimum of 50 hours each month regardless of usage, the agreement states, and cover all maintenance and insurance costs.
Officials opted to purchase 10 new planes at about $385,000 each, for a total of about $3.8 million, according to the purchasing contract.
The school aims to have 10 students assigned to one airplane, Treanor said, and the new planes will help them reach that ratio in the fall.
Utah State's aviation program also is facing an increase in students — with fall semester enrollment expected to reach 400.
This growth, in part, prompted USU officials to purchase four planes in 2016 — bringing their total fleet to 19, said Andreas Wesemann, the pilot program director.
But the school opted to purchase used planes that had clocked low air time, Wesemann said,
In total, those planes cost about $806,000, according to the school.
"They fit our needs well ... we got them cheaper than new, but got a good value," he said.
Partnering with airlines • Chip Childs, president and CEO of Utah-based SkyWest, in March described to Congress a scenario in which two-thirds of the U.S. regional airline fleet could be grounded.
It could happen, Childs told a U.S. House of Representatives panel, if airlines don't figure out how to bring in 18,000 new pilots in the next three years.
It's a trend that leaves officials with SkyWest and other airlines concerned.
Part of the problem, Childs added, is that pilot programs have historically been very expensive. Though flight lab fees at SUU can vary, Mower said students can expect to pay $15,000 each semester, on top of tuition.
Aviation students at Westminster College, a private Salt Lake City school, can spend $100,000 to $150,000 on their flight training, said Gail Avendano, director of aviation student support .
Some airlines, such as SkyWest, offer scholarships to promising students and have bridge programs with schools, including SUU, USU, Westminster and Utah Valley University.
In SkyWest's program, students enter mentorships and can receive enhanced seniority and benefits when they are hired by the airline, said Marissa Snow, spokeswoman for the airline.
"It's a clear path for aspiring pilots to come to SkyWest," Snow said.
SkyWest also has a tuition reimbursement program set up with SUU, she added.
These partnerships are making programs more enticing to students, Avendano said, and Westminster has seen that reflected in its enrollment. Last semester, 85 students trained in Westminster's 12 planes, but Avendano said the school is expecting even more fall semester.
The school can accept 125 students, so Avendano said it has not yet needed to create a wait list.
UVU already has a waiting list for fall semester, said Ryan Tanner, coordinator for aviation recruiting at Utah Valley.
With its 23 planes, UVU can accept up to 200 students. Students applying now are being told they can't start flying until spring 2018, he added.
Officials do not plan to purchase more planes. Instead, Tanner said, the school is discussing making it more difficult to get into the program, such as increasing the grade point average requirement.
Dealing with this kind of a problem is new in the nearly 30 years of UVU's program.
"We have a lot of airlines approaching us — that's never happened before," Tanner said. "They're asking, 'What can we do to make ourselves more attractive to your graduates?' "