Schools to become a pilot

An unprecedented pilot shortage is looming, and that has enrollment taking off at about 25 local flight schools.

About 35, 000 pilots are projected to retire within the next six years, the result of captains and first officers facing mandatory retirement at age 65, even as jetliner fleets continue to grow.

"It's unlike anything the industry has ever seen before, " said Andrew Henley, head of the American Flyers flight school at Pompano Beach Airpark. "They're looking to us to help fill that pilot shortage."

South Florida is one of nation's busiest training hubs because of its year-round good weather.

The most critical need is at regional airlines because their best pilots are often taken by the large carriers, which offer significantly better pay and benefits.

"Several regional airlines have had to cancel flights or not offer as many flights because they don't have enough pilots, " said Jan Shakespeare, who oversees the professional pilot program at Broward College. "We're definitely trying to gear up for it."

Shakespeare said her program currently has more than 200 students, a slight increase over last year's enrollment. But she said the number of inquiries has increased markedly.

"The major stumbling block for anyone interested in becoming a pilot is the funds required, " she said, noting it costs about $50, 000 to graduate from that college's aviation program – plus another $6, 000 to $7, 000 to earn a two-year associate degree in professional pilot technology.

Broward College partners with Silver Airways, a Fort Lauderdale-based regional airline. That puts school graduates at the front of the line when the carrier considers prospective pilot candidates.

Jeff Johnson, dean of aeronautics at Lynn University in Boca Raton, said three regional airlines – Commuter Air, Envoy Air and Atlantic Southeast Airlines – have asked to partner with the school in hopes of corralling more pilot candidates.

"That's never happened before, " he said. "It shows they're really kind of hurting."

About 55 students are enrolled in Lynn's program, up about 25 percent from last year. Most likely will be regional airline pilots shortly after graduating, Johnson said.

"It's a pretty sure bet that if someone actually makes it through the training and meets all the requirements of the airlines, they'll be hired, " he said. "I've never seen anything like this."

Randee Morris, 24, is a flight instructor with Palm Beach Flight Training in Lantana, which partners with Palm Beach State College to offer an associate degree in aeronautical science.

She hopes to fly for a major carrier, where entry level first officers generally are paid about $70, 000 per year. But she knows she'll first have to work for a regional airline, where the starting pay is about $22, 000.

"It comes with the territory, " she said.

Nova Southeastern University has partnered with American Flyers to offer a four-year college degree that includes two years of pilot training. The three-year-old program has gained between six and 15 students per year and now has a total of 63 enrolled, said Kimberly Durham, dean of NSU's Institute for Human Service, Health and Justice.

Students who work their way up to a major airline can expect to be well paid as they gain seniority. The most experienced captains on international flights make as much as $600, 000 per year, said Dan Ramirez, a regional airline captain and an adjunct professor in the NSU aviation program.

"But you have to remember, these are 25, 000-hour pilots with a lot of experience, " he said. "Only about five to 10 percent of pilots are paid top dollar."

Those who remain at a regional airline also can earn a good living, as captains generally are paid $95, 000 to $170, 000, he said. All airline pilots must meet high proficiency standards and have at least 1, 500 hours of flight time.

Pelican Flight Training at North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines has seen an increase in foreign students from Latin America, Russia and China because several international airlines face pilot shortages too, particularly in Asia, said Brian King, the school's general manager.

Students in that program pay $80, 000 to $100, 000 on flight training but usually complete it in about a year.

"That allows them to go into work force quicker, that's one of our pitches, " he said. "But the cold reality is they're not going to jump into a six-figure job right out of the gate."

Not all flight school students are looking for a career.

Freddy Antolinez, owner of Endeavor Flight Training, a school at Opa-locka Executive Airport, said few of his student pilots want to fly for U.S carriers. That's because the starting pay is so low, the result of the airlines not fully recovering from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.

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Source: www.sun-sentinel.com