A year-and-a-half into the start of the recovery from the pandemic, US airlines are facing a growing pilot shortage. With recruitment from traditional sources – general aviation, the military, commuter airlines – all drying up for various reasons, more and more carriers are taking steps to address the problem with training and other incentive schemes to help aspiring aviators achieve their dream job.
Southwest Airlines launched a career programme in August 2019 called Destination 225° which provides pathways to becoming first officer. The need is clear because, as of 3 February 2022, the airline had 418 firm orders for new Boeing 737 Max aircraft scheduled for delivery from 2022 through to 2031. As a result, Southwest plans to hire over 1,000 pilots in 2022 and thousands more over the next decade.
As part of the Destination 225° initiative (named after the position of southwest on a compass), the Texas-based airline has joined with industry partners who provide participants with training and flight experience to reinforce "The Southwest Way" of flying.
The programme has four distinct gateways or “Pathways” into the profession: Cadet, University, Military and Employee. The first of these is an ab initio route, which takes novices through a multi-year training programme in partnership with CAE. The classroom and flight training take place at CAE’s Phoenix facility. The programme aims to qualify candidates so they can apply for positions with business aviation partners such as XOJet Aviation or Jet Linx, where they can gain the flying experience necessary to eventually become a Southwest first officer.
The University Pathway is for collegiate aviators who attend a Southwest partner university or complete a Southwest Campus Reach Internship. Again, the option uses flying partners to help build hours before the chance to move into the right-hand seat at Southwest.
The Military Pathway enables active military pilots to meet the minimums required to be an airline pilot. Southwest offers this transition training in partnership with Bell Murray Aviation, an FAA 142 training centre. Here too, flying partners help to build the necessary flying experience.
Finally, the Employee Pathway – a partnership with CAE and US Aviation Academy – provides a route for non-pilot employees to pursue a career in the flight deck.
Dave Retnam, the carrier’s senior manager, flight operations, highlights the dichotomy of there being a pilot shortage versus the challenge of training people quickly enough. “Southwest Airlines experiences strong interest for first officer positions. In fact, Southwest received approximately 3,000 applications for the 120 positions hired in December 2021,” he says.
“We recognize the potential for a decrease in first officer candidates in the future. [That’s why] Destination 225° was created as a long-term talent pipeline, supplementing Southwest’s traditional, open-market candidate pool,” Retnam adds.
The cost of training to become a pilot has long been a hurdle for many enthusiastic, talented candidates, particularly from less well-off backgrounds. But airlines of every size are stepping up to assist where possible, not least because of a parallel desire to increase diversity in the cockpit.
Cameron Withrow, director of pilot industry relations and sourcing at Cape Air, notes that the airline has partnered with major carriers since 2008 to give aspiring pilots a clearly defined path through its Career Pathway Programs. “These programmes establish formal relationships with some of the best aviation universities in the country and provide the opportunity for student pilots to earn conditional job offers with Cape Air and Part 121 airlines as they continue their education,” he says. “While these do not initially do much to lower the cost of training, they put students on a path to securing a high paying job so their student loans are not a financial burden.”
The carrier’s most recent workforce development programme was launched with Republic Airways. Participants receive a significantly reduced cost of primary flight training in return for a two- to two-and-a-half-year commitment at Cape Air, before transitioning to Republic Airways after serving as a captain for one year on the Cessna- and Tecnam-based Cape Air fleet. “This strategic relationship creates the opportunity for talented individuals to realize their professional goals and earn airline-style flight training from the very start,” Withrow adds.
Lauren Gaudion is director of corporate communications and PR for both Republic Airways and its LIFT Academy subsidiary. She recalls that the latter – “the first airline-launched flight academy” – began its work in 2018 to “vertically integrate talent into our Republic Airways cockpit” and then later expanded to offer aircraft maintenance apprenticeships.
“We offer among the most affordable flight training for Part 141 training on new, technologically-advanced aircraft (Diamond DA40 NG and DA42VI with Garmin G1000 Avionics) and subsidise students’ tuition with $15,000 for a total cost of $75,000 for the student,” Gaudion says. “They have a job waiting as a Republic first officer after successful completion of the programme and they commit to five years flying for the airline.”
She adds: “While our training is rigorous and demanding, we have resources to help motivated students succeed – student advisors assigned to each student to monitor and assist them through course progression and mentors from the airline who provide advice and guidance and motivation as the students work towards achieving their ATP.”
These programmes, of course, have to help newly-qualified pilots attain the 1,500 flight hours required by the FAA. “We provide airline-ready training and a defined pathway to a first officer position at Republic,” Gaudion says. “Once students complete their training through private, instrument, commercial and multi-engine ratings, they can either flight instruct at LIFT or they can join our partnership with Cape Air where they fly as a Cape Air pilot to time build and gain valuable PIC (pilot-in-charge) experience before transitioning to Republic Airways.”
Withrow explains Cape Air’s several other pathway programmes: “Our Internal Gateway Programme is an excellent opportunity available to all Cape Air employees. After one year of experience in any department of the airline, employees can apply for this programme with just their private pilot and instrument certificates. Cape Air provides a forgivable loan to assist with the funding for the candidates commercial multi-engine certificate,” he says.
“Qualified candidates will begin training as a first officer after earning their commercial multi-engine certificate. After roughly 18 months, they will complete the ATP upgrade at 1,500 hours and become a captain. This programme significantly lowers the financial hurdle for lower income individuals,” he adds.
“Our first officer hiring minimums outside of our Internal Gateway Programme are 500 hours total time plus commercial multi-engine and instrument certificates. First Officers fly an average of 70 hours per month and upgrade to captain upon reaching unrestricted ATP minimums. Pilots then serve a minimum of 12 months as a captain.”
A major incentive to entice candidates to Cape Air, whatever their current level of expertise, is the quality of life they can enjoy. “The pilots work a schedule of four days on and three or four days off. Most pilots get to take a lunch box to work instead of an overnight bag, as they return to their base each night,” says Withrow.Helping to build careers was crucial to Republic opening its academy. “LIFT began with the mission to make airline careers more attainable, diverse and affordable. We are achieving that each day by bringing students from all over the US, from various backgrounds, closer to realizing their dreams. To date, we’ve seen nearly 50 LIFT alumni already join Republic as first officers,” Gaudion says.
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