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updated: 2/5/2020 11:46 AM

United buys flight school to meet rising demand for pilots

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  • A United Airlines aircraft sits at a gate at O'Hare International Airport. The Chicago-based airline is buying a flight-training school to help increase the supply of future pilots.

    A United Airlines aircraft sits at a gate at O'Hare International Airport. The Chicago-based airline is buying a flight-training school to help increase the supply of future pilots.
    Daniel Acker/ Bloomberg photo

 
By Justin Bachman
Bloomberg News

Chicago-based United Airlines Holdings is purchasing a flight-training school to help increase the supply of future pilots and is exploring ways to boost financing programs to help pay for aviators' education.

The agreement to buy Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix is designed to churn out pilots for United Express regional carriers, which have struggled to fill jobs known for demanding schedules and entry-level pay. About 56% of United's daily departures are flown by the regional airlines, which include ExpressJet Airlines, SkyWest Inc. and Mesa Air Group Inc.

Increasingly, those companies also train the bulk of pilots who eventually work for major U.S. carriers such as United and Delta Air Lines.

United expects 300 students to graduate from the renamed United Aviate Academy in 2021, its first full year of operation. The company is planning to expand to 500 annual graduates over time, given the demand for pilots in the regional industry, said Curtis Brunjes, a United 787 captain and the carrier's managing director of pilot strategy.

"The long-term goal is for this to be the predominant path for United [pilot] hires," he said.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

United started a new pilot-recruitment program under the Aviate name in October. The Chicago-based airline expects to hire more than 10,000 pilots by 2029.

The airline is exploring student financing options that will help new pilots afford the high cost of training, including flexible repayment schedules and competitive interest rates. Aspiring aviators can spend more than $100,000 on schooling and to accumulate the minimum 1,500 flight hours required to work for a regional carrier. That financial barrier has thinned pilot ranks and forced regional airlines to boost pay and signing bonuses. The shortage of regional pilots, in turn, has increased costs for the major carriers.

Owning a flight school will also help United increase the number of women and minorities in its pilot ranks, which today is "overwhelmingly male, it's overwhelmingly white," spokesman Charles Hobart said. Controlling its own training will allow the carrier to "make the pilot group better reflect United as a whole," he said.