United buys Arizona flight academy to feed pilot pipeline

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By Tracy Rucinski

CHICAGO, Feb 5 (Reuters) – United Airlines Holdings Inc announced on Wednesday an agreement to purchase a flight training academy in Phoenix in a move aimed at bolstering its pilot pipeline as the industry faces a global shortage.

To address a tight U.S. labor market created by years of slow pilot hiring, a wave of pending retirements and new rules that in 2013 increased the number of required training hours, U.S. airlines have been taking steps to attract young aviators.

Chicago-based United, which is looking to hire more than 10,000 pilots by 2029, will be the first major U.S. carrier to run its own academy.

“We think this program will alleviate any shortage we would have had and that's its purpose,” Curtis Brunjes, United's managing director of pilot strategy, told reporters.

The school, currently operating as Westwind School of Aeronautics, will be renamed United Aviate Academy in September.

United expects approximately 300 graduates in 2021 and wants to expand capacity to accommodate 500 graduates per year, Brunjes said, noting that the academy is among the airline's most aggressive steps on pilot hiring since the 1960s.

One area of focus at the school will be training for loss of control incidents, a leading cause of plane disasters, that goes beyond the current U.S. Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

Some of the enrollees will come from Aviate, a recruitment program that United launched last year offering students and pilots from 15 schools and regional carriers a path to a job at the major.

American Airlines Group Inc and Delta Air lines Inc have similar career programs.

United – which plans to design the academy's curriculum in concert with the Air Line Pilots Association, International – is offering financing options for training and will also launch a scholarship program focused on women and minorities.

It did not disclose financial details of the purchase, with Brunjes saying only that the company paid “more than asset value, but not hugely more.”

The financial benefit down the line will be ensuring that regional carriers, which operate a significant amount of U.S. airlines' domestic capacity at a lower cost, have enough pilots to fly the routes that United wants to contract.

In recent years, regional carriers have had to double salaries and offer sign-on bonuses to attract pilots to the field, driving up costs.

Boeing Co expects 800,000 new pilots will be needed over the next 20 years to meet growing demand for air travel. (Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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