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Interview: United Aviate Academy CEO On Solving Challenges Facing Airlines and Pilots

A United Aviate Academy aircraft (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

The aviation industry has been plagued by several massive schedule disruptions in the past year, as airlines have been caught unprepared for a resurgence in travel demand across the world. After scaling back following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, airlines have said staffing shortages — not having enough pilots and flight attendants ready to fly — are to blame for many of the delays travelers have faced.

However, even looking at the years ahead, airlines are facing a relatively dire situation when it comes to pilots, as they try to ensure they will have enough trained professionals to fly all the aircraft the industry has now and the hundreds it will add in the years ahead.

In January, United Airlines — to help it and its regional partners with the future’s potential problems — opened the United Aviate Academy, an airline-run school that it hopes will help put hundreds of pilots each year on the path to flying for the airline. United Aviate Academy CEO Dana Donati sat down with AirlineGeeks to discuss some of the challenges facing pilots today and how the airline and the academy are looking to find solutions.

Tackling the Pilot Shortage

The aviation industry is facing one key problem when it comes to pilots: Airlines can’t find enough of them. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told ABC News that, while U.S. airlines are looking to bolster their ranks by adding approximately 13,000 pilots in 2022, the U.S. will only contribute 5,000-7,000 of that number.

That problem is not unique to the U.S., meaning airlines all over the world are likely to need to compete for qualified graduates in the years ahead.

United sees the problem most prominently at regional carriers, as large legacy airlines such as themselves and American Airlines and Delta Airlines, their competitors, are generally able to pull pilots from those smaller carriers to start flying larger aircraft for higher pay.

“The regional airlines have to then find pilots that then have 1,500 hours and a good training track record, so that’s where the shortage lies,” Donati said. “What we can do as an academy is to bring students in here to make sure that these students are going to be safe pilots and provide them the highest quality of training and get them prepared for that next step of the regional airlines which is going to really help that environment while they start to see pilots leave the regional airlines for the legacy carriers.”

In 2022, the United Aviate Academy plans to see 240 students graduate, many of whom will go on to join U.S. regional carriers. In the years ahead, Donati said that number should increase significantly, getting closer to 500 in 2023. As it continues to train more pilots in the coming years, the academy hopes to be a contributor to lessening the impact of the pilot shortage across the industry.

Managing Cost

Worldwide, the price of obtaining training to become a commercial pilot is cited as one of the factors that deters potential applicants from joining the profession. At the United Aviate Academy, the cost through graduation is $71,250, a fee that does not change based on the number of hours a student flies.

SR-20 aircraft at the United Aviate Academy (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

“It’s really hard to tell a student, when they’re being charged hourly, exactly how much they’re going to be charged for flight training,” Donati added. “So that a student doesn’t have to guess how much their flight training is going to cost is a pro. I’d say the con sometimes is trying to come up with the $71,250, because they have to pay that over the course of the year. That can be somewhat of a barrier for students, but when you look at all the training they’re receiving — seven certificates over the course of 12 months — if they were to do that in an hourly flight school, they would still pay more than that.”

The cost takes them from their instrument rating to their multi-engine instructor rating, meaning their private pilot license — commonly known as a PPL — is free.

“A lot of that is to ensure that this is the career for them, that this is the flight training environment for them,” Donati added. “Everybody learns differently, and we want to our applicants, who then become our students, to be in an environment that can make them successful.”

However, applicants must complete the written portion of the private pilot license test prior to their acceptance of the academy — a process that runs the gamut as far as length.

Searching for Opportunity

When the Academy opened in January, executives said it had welcomed a first class that was approximately 80% women and people of color, part of initiative that garnered ire from groups that said United was hiring based on the wrong criteria. In response, Donati said she would point to the medical industry as one that purposefully sought to diversify its ranks in a way that would broaden the profession’s representation without sacrificing the skillset required.

As Donati describes it, United Aviate Academy’s mission relies on finding both qualified and diverse classes to fill its ranks, a mandate it has had no trouble with so far. Moving forward, the group is accountable for having classes — beginning on a monthly basis — that hit 50% women or people of color, a mark it significantly surpassed in its first.

Despite the criticisms that the airline was hiring for diversity over qualifications, Donati said United Aviate Academy has seen a 98% pass rate on first-time check rides, meaning its cadet pilots are almost universally hitting the metrics they need to the first time out.

Donati attributes that high rate to the United training foundation the academy’s students receive, a part of the experience she says will continue to be a feature of the program’s offerings as it continues to expand. That will come with time, however, with the academy growing and shifting to fit both the needs of United and those of potential pilots in the years ahead.

Parker Davis


  • Parker Davis

    Parker joined AirlineGeeks as a writer and photographer in 2016, combining his longtime love for aviation with a newfound passion for journalism. Since then, he’s worked as a Senior Writer before becoming Editor-in-Chief of the site in 2020. Originally from Dallas and an American frequent flyer, he left behind the city’s rich aviation history to attend college in North Carolina, where he’s studying economics.

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