United offers a training program to address the pilot shortage. Its first graduating class was 80% women or minorities.
In response to the easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and the subsequent increase in travel demand, airlines hired nearly 50,000 employees last year. But the industry is struggling to find enough qualified pilots.
The pilot shortage has prompted United Airlines to take a new approach and organize its own training program for aspiring pilots.
United Airlines launched its Aviate Academy in 2022 to address the shortage and diversify a workforce that is overwhelmingly White and male. The academy’s first graduating class was 80% women or minorities.
“It looks nothing like the industry. But guess what it does look like. It does look like the demographic we serve. It looks like our passengers,” said Ricki Foster, an aspiring airline pilot who completed basic pilot training outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
By some estimates, airlines worldwide could be 60,000 pilots short by the end of the decade. United Airlines anticipates that major U.S. carriers will have demand for 10,000 new pilots this year alone, but that only about 6,600 qualified candidates will be available.
Despite the potential for a six-figure salary, the cost and years of training required to become an airline pilot discourage many people from pursuing the profession.
Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, said United is the first major U.S. carrier to start its own flight school, which offers opportunities for individuals who lack a military background or the financial resources needed for training.
“Basically, you either had to go through the military or you needed to have access to someone willing to give you a hundred, $150,000 to get through all the training,” he said. “It’s just a huge barrier to entry.”
Josh Azua left his job as a police officer in the Denver area to enroll at Aviate. He plans to work as a flight instructor, gain more flight experience and eventually join an airline.
The Aviate Academy won’t have an impact in the short-term, since aspiring airline pilots are still several years away from showing up for their first day in a United Airlines cockpit, Kirby said.
“But it is the right kind of long-term answer to … not just solving the pilot shortage, but creating good careers for people and giving people access to careers that can be life-changing for them, their families and their communities,” he said.