Chuck Weirauch looks at several Florida flight schools to get a glimpse at where they are headed in terms of enrollments, throughput, new training programs and directions as they aim to meet the needs of the aviation industry.

With a significant number of airline industry sources becoming more convinced of a pilot shortage in the near future, the health and welfare of flight schools is becoming ever more important as the critical element in the pilot supply pipeline. Florida has the largest concentration of flight schools in the world, more than two hundred, that serve as the training ground for airline student pilots from around the globe.

 International Focus

For most US flight schools, the increasing numbers of international students, primarily sponsored by airlines, has proven to be the lifeblood that has kept them healthy as the numbers of domestic students have declined, and that has proven to be true for the Florida flight schools queried as well. A sticking point for the flow of international students to US flight schools in the past has been the difficulty in obtaining visas to study in the country. However, none of the flight schools interviewed reported that this has been a major problem of late.

According to Spence Edwards, president of Phoenix East in Daytona Beach, 90 percent of his flight school's student population is from outside the country, a number which has grown the last year at the expense of the domestic student population, which largely cannot get funding for education. At FlightSafety Academy in Vero Beach, Academy manager Nancy Ritter said that from between 88 to 99 percent of its students are international, almost exclusively sponsored by international airlines. She pointed out that the Academy has a long list of potential domestic students who want to study there, but don't have the financial resources.

Paul Woessner, senior vice president of Aerosim Flight Academy in Sanford, said that enrollment is up to capacity of 380 students, nearly exclusively international. Currently nine Chinese airlines are represented in the student population, with new international business including 40 students from Air Astana in Kazakhstan. Aerosim also has agreements with six regional airlines, including GoJet Airlines.

According to Nick Frisch, director at F.I.T Aviation, the flight training affiliate of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, his flight school has also recently been training Air Astana students. He reported that F.I.T. is also training Turkish Airlines and Copa Airlines students, a reflection that most of its students "are probably going to be international rather than domestic," although student enrollment at the FIT College of Aviation is up in both categories.

Patrick Murphy, director of Training at Ormond Beach-based Sunrise Aviation, said that the flight school's students have been primarily international, and that this market is holding steady. However, Sunrise Aviation is the flight school training vendor for Jacksonville State College, and between 50 of the 80 domestic students there are engaged in flight training programs. He has found that student funding through the Veterans Administration provides the best means to address student funding. Sunrise has also recently signed an agreement with GoJet Airlines.

"We are looking to bid on other state college contracts because they are looking for an avenue to help resolve the obvious need for domestic pilots down the road," Murphy said. "This is one of the best places where domestic students are going to be trained."

New Curricula

In order to meet the new training demands of students and to help improve their performance and career opportunities, some of the flight schools CAT contacted are revamping their curricula and helping to provide career pathways for their students. Edwards pointed out that Phoenix East has implemented a mandatory single-cockpit risk management course for its students and is focused on providing newer training aircraft. Ritter cited the implementation of a new ATC Lab as a means to "enable students to really embrace the ATC environment." The lab has also significantly reduced training time at the Academy, she added.

Murphy stated that Sunrise Aviation is in the process of developing a new time-building program at a reasonable cost to help students meet the pending 1,500 hour-to-ATP requirement. The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 would require first officers to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, requiring 1,500 hours of pilot flight time. In a move that will help both graduates and airlines, Aerosim Flight Academy has recently become a part of the Boeing-Jeppesen Flight Academy Global Network, which features the Boeing Pilot Development Program. According to Woessner, Aerosim conducts the piston aircraft part of this training.

Tablet Technology

At Phoenix East, each student has recently been issued an iPad tablet to allow them to access their courseware and documents anywhere, and the flight school has designed its own in-house app in partnership with Jeppesen to enable the access and transfer of this data. According to Edwards, this program is going very well. Murphy stated that Sunrise Aviation is going completely with tablets by the end of this year, and that the flight school is now rewriting its curricula to accommodate that effort. The advantages of this move are reduced cost and improved student situational awareness, with students already taking advantage of this technology on their own, he added.

At FlightSafety Academy, since almost of its students are airline-sponsored, whether students incorporate tablet technology into their instruction or not is up to the discretion of the customer airline, Ritter reported. She sees movement towards the adoption of tablet technology, but the trend is not consistent through the Academy's customer base.

Corporate Pilot Careers?

Some of the Florida flight schools interviewed indicated that a number of their domestic students are looking at other pathways, primarily becoming a corporate pilot, rather than the traditional path to the right seat of regional airliner. Just how this trend may affect the regional pilot supply is uncertain, but a few schools are looking to help their students initially on to at least a more lucrative career as a business aircraft pilot, as the demand for such curricula develops.

Certainly there are signs that business aviation is making a recovery, with The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) citing a number of sources in 2012 that indicate a slow but steady growth in this aviation market. Last June, Bombardier Aerospace issued its annual 20-year forecast for the industry.

The company predicted that a sustained period of growth will begin in 2013, with roughly 24,000 business jet deliveries, valued at $648 billion, expected from 2012 to 2031. Most of this growth was predicted to take place in North America. Honeywell’s 21st Annual Business Aviation Forecast predicted that nearly 10,000 new business jets, valued at about $250 billion, will be delivered between 2012 and 2022.

According to Ritter, just about all of the domestic students at FlightSafety Academy are headed towards the goal of becoming a corporate pilot. At Sunrise, Murphy stated that they are seeing more of a concern with the airline lifestyle from their students, where they are not willing to sacrifice personal and family life in order to get launched into a career. They are looking around to see what else is available, and becoming a corporate pilot is one of those options, he explained.         

"A lot of our domestic students don't even want to go to the airlines," Woessner said. They want to go corporate. They are being approached for corporate jobs that pay a lot better. This is another path for our graduates. We are looking to develop a corporate pilot training program to help meet this trend."      

Frisch is definitely seeing a trend of students headed towards a corporate pilot career. "The obvious question is where the jobs are going to be for graduates," he said. "It is evident that a graduate of a university flight training program is not going to be suited for employment at a regional airline because of the Part 121 rule. I think that regionals are going to have to park airplanes. And when that happens, corporate aviation is going to blossom. The corporate operators are going to be able to fish upstream for pilots because they will be able to take them at lower times than the airlines. Corporate is going to grow really well. We are in the process of developing a corporate pilot training program and I think that everyone is going to do that, because that's where the jobs are."

Concerns, Predictions & Plans

All of the flight school leaders interviewed by CAT considered the reduction in the number of domestic student enrollments, the lack of interest in pursuing a career as a pilot and student funding as their primary concerns. However, they still foresee a solid future for flight training in the US.

"There has been more of a drop-off of domestic students than we have seen historically in the past, along with a decreasing interest in beginning flight training. Some of that is due to a lot of misinformation about the overall career of a pilot," Ritter said. "We are working here in Florida at the high school and college level to educate and discuss all training options."

“The trend is now with the student loan debacle," Woessner observed. "This is still the major hurdle. We are seeing that that the regionals are recognizing the pilot shortage problem, but the majors are not. It is trending for domestic students to get their 1500 hours with international airlines and then come back to the US."

"The industry is going to have to address the whole student funding issue," Murphy emphasized. "We also need to be recruiting domestic students and coming up with ways to energize them beyond providing funding. If we don't energize the next generation of pilots, they are not going to be there in the future. With fewer FBOs and the drop in enrollments, we are sizing up to have the perfect storm. In two years, the regionals are going to start to struggle."

"The regionals are not yet getting aggressive at this point in hiring our instructors, but I expect that they are going to be over the next 12 months," Frisch pointed out. "Regionals are a path for our instructors, but they are looking at other paths as well. What I think is going to happen is that the regionals are going to find themselves with a fairly dry well for qualified pilots."

"The main concern is domestic flight training," Edwards said. "We have kids applying, but they can't get financing. However, overall the demand for pilots is going to be unprecedented. The outlook is very rosy. We see a heck of a future, particularly for schools such as ours. The projections don't lie."