United Airlines recently announced that it has purchased a flight school in order to train its own future pilots. This isn’t a new concept. Lufthansa has been doing this for years in Arizona, and Comair, the since-shuttered Delta Connection carrier, ran its own Academy in Florida for well over a decade. It was incredibly successful. An overwhelming majority of Comair pilots came from the Academy, which was sold a few years after Delta purchased the airline.
Is United’s move the beginning of a trend? It’s too soon to say, but it’s an idea that shouldn’t be ignored. While part of the goal is obviously to make money, the main motivator is for the airline to be able to exercise quality control over pilot trainees while introducing them to the airlines’ way of operation. When the Comair Academy was in existence, the manuals, checklists, procedures, et cetera, all mimicked the airline, and common sense says that the same will happen again. From day one, students will get used to using an airline dispatch process, maintenance write-up procedures, and the like. While a number of large schools already do this, in this case, it will be done to mirror the mother ship.
Getting their eyes on students from the beginning allows the airline to study their progression in both skill and maturity, as well as to try and determine if the student is cut out of the airline lifestyle. Bad habits can be avoided, good habits instilled, and solid decision-making skills developed. Those that show promise will be noticed, and may find themselves with an inside track to more desirable job openings at the airline in management, training, or other departments.
Other major aviation colleges and universities are working with airline partners to tailor curricula to suit the needs of their partner companies. The risk for the airlines in these partnerships is that the student may opt for a different carrier because of myriad reasons. When an airline owns its own school, it has a chance to choose the students and also embed them in the culture of the parent brand, thus making a defection much less likely, though a few will undoubtedly occur.
I can’t say for certain that this will be the beginning of a trend, but I would be more surprised if it doesn’t. The market for pilots is tight, and all of the airlines are competing for the same individuals. The sooner that a carrier can get that individual under their umbrella, the better. It becomes one less position that needs to be filled later, and being able to program that individual from the beginning is a huge advantage.—Chip Wright