Airlines

United Airlines buys flight-training academy to speed up hiring of 10,000 pilots

Key Points
  • United has said it expects to hire 10,000 pilots over the next decade.
  • The carrier and others are scrambling to fill their ranks as more pilots reach retirement age.
  • The airline is buying its own flight academy to help speed up training.
A United Airlines passenger aircraft prepares to leave its gate and taxi to the runway at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California.
Robert Alexander | Getty Images

United Airlines is buying a flight-training academy in an effort to speed up hiring of more than 10,000 pilots by the next decade as about half of its aviators approach the federally mandated retirement age of 65.

The Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix, which United plans to later rename, will produce 300 graduates in its first full year, the airline said Wednesday.

United, like rivals such as Delta and American, is racing to hire new pilots to fill its ranks in the coming years, offering low-interest loans, scholarships and other programs, as more and more airline pilots approach the FAA-mandated retirement age.

The cost of training to become a commercial airline pilot in the U.S. can top $80,000, a major barrier for candidates. Laws in the U.S. require airline pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time to work at a commercial airline, but there are exceptions for some students and military. United said it is planning scholarships to encourage women and minority candidates to apply because the pilot pool is currently "overwhelmingly" white and male, airline spokesman Charlie Hobart said. The carrier is also planning to provide low-cost loans to candidates.

United last year unveiled a program to recruit pilots early in their careers, offering them conditional job offers as they gain flying experience. Student pilots in the academy could start with zero flight experience to become fully rated commercial pilots, United said. They will eventually join the carrier's Aviate program after getting their private-pilot certification at around 40 hours of flight time, then build up their hours teaching and flying for smaller operators.

As aircraft become more automated, pilot training has drawn more scrutiny, particularly after two deadly crashes of Boeing's 737 Max. Pilots on those two flights had battled an automated flight-control system that was erroneously activated. Boeing has redeveloped that system to give pilots greater control but regulators have not yet signed off on the planes, which remain grounded since last March, after the second of the two crashes that killed 346 people.

Boeing last month recommended that pilots undergo simulator training before the 737 Max can return to commercial service, an about-face of its earlier stance.

United has a "keen interest" in pushing the limits in upset recovery training beyond FAA minimums and avoiding loss of control accidents and managing automation, said Curtis Brunjes, United's managing director of pilot strategy.

"Those are the things that we could be stressing in our curricula," he said.

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