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Springfield, MO

Want to be a pilot? Payout could yield dividends

Students weigh expensive training as opportunities arise in the Ozarks

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Flight school is an expensive venture, but it’s one Cole Vandersnick couldn’t resist.

He fell in love with the idea of piloting passenger aircraft during career day as a senior at Logan-Rogersville High School. Vandersnick’s now wrapping up his second semester of a new two-year aviation program at Ozarks Technical Community College.

And with company sign-on bonuses commonly topping $40,000 and the promise of skyward pay, Vandersnick could land in a position to recoup his educational costs with the stroke of a pen, nonetheless helping fill a global shortage of qualified pilots.

The Boeing Co., for instance, forecasts the need for some 637,000 commercial airline pilots worldwide, nearly 20 percent of them for aviator seats in the United States and Canada, according to a company outlook for pilots and technicians through 2036.

The road, however, will be long for the 19-year-old pilot in training to embark on his dream job.

Vandersnick said he first plans to become a certified flight instructor by accumulating 1,500 hours of federally required flight time in hopes of earning a co-pilot spot for a regional airline.

From there, he’ll need to clock thousands of more hours if he eventually decides to earn the rank of captain and pilot planes for a major airline, the top tier of the profession.

The lengthy process has caused a significant bottleneck for airlines to acquire much needed pilots, said Brian Weiler, director of aviation at Springfield-Branson National Airport.

“There was a slow pilot shortage three or four years ago, but it’s really ramped up here just in the last few years,” Weiler said, noting a Federal Aviation Administration ruling required the 1,500 flight hours for co-pilots.

Following an airline crash in New York that killed 50 passengers, the FAA in 2013 adopted the new flight-hours ruling. The agency previously required a commercial pilot certificate and a mere 250 hours of flight time.

The sharp increase eclipses experience gained even from a four-year degree.

Weiler said prominent four-year flight schools – such as the private Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida or stateside at the University of Central Missouri – are graduating pilots with just 400 flight hours.

As a result, Weiler said, “An airline is not going to pick you up. So what they end up doing is flying around the sky, building up hours. No one’s debating that a captain should have a minimum of 1,500 hours. It’s the co-pilot (requirement) that’s killing people.”

Achieving the flight time isn’t cheap.

Weiler highlighted local efforts by OTC to help fill the pilot shortage. The program started in August 2017 and quickly doubled in size to accommodate student interest, said Cindy Stephens, the interim program director.

OTC partnered with Premier Flight Center LLC and Springfield-Branson National Airport for the two-year associate degree, from which Stephens said graduates earn 250 flight hours and typically move on to complete their postsecondary studies.

Those couple hundred hours come at a total cost of about $67,000 for in-district students, she said, and it’s the most expensive program OTC offers.

Comparatively, the 63-credit-hour degree costs nearly double that of a typical four-year bachelor’s from Missouri State University, according to current tuition costs and fees listed by the university.

“Not everybody who wants to get in or qualifies to get in will be able to afford it,” Stephens said, adding the greater program costs come from students having to pay for fuel, aircraft rental, flight insurance and the flight instruction.

“We’d be a lot less expensive,” she added, “if we just advertised the price and didn’t include any of those consumables.”

An awardee of the Missouri Department of Higher Education A+ scholarship – typically a full ride to postsecondary school – Vandersnick said he still pays upwards of $15,000 per semester to complete the OTC program.

But there’s a definite upside for those who can follow through.

Stephens said annual pay for newly credentialed co-pilots comes to between $50,000 and $60,000-plus in the Springfield area.

As pegged by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, commercial and airline pilots in 2017 earned a median salary of nearly $112,000.

Airline companies, however, now are offering significant bonuses to attract new pilots.

American Airlines (Nasdaq: AAL) subsidiary Envoy Air, for example, touts a 2018 sign-on bonus of $45,000 at the date of hire for credentialed aviators, according to a company promotion.

Among others, St. Louis-based Trans States Airlines offers a similar one-time bonus this year, at $44,000, for incoming pilots who sign with the company.

For some, though, the incentives start even earlier. At UCM in Warrensburg, Tony Monetti said sophomores of the program are approached by the airlines.

“Without question, there’s a global pilot shortage,” said Monetti, who recently stepped down as assistant dean of aviation to run for U.S. Senate.

The required 1,500 hours of flight time is one issue, he said, but educational costs at the university – to the tune of $100,000 – tend to deter the average interested person from enrolling.

Enter the airlines.

Monetti said a handful of regional airlines, each tied to major companies, are offering employment to second-year UCM aviation students. The offers, he said, cover pilot licensing costs, as well free travel and medical benefits – not to mention up to $20,000 upon graduation.

“I’ll never forget, about three or four years ago, meeting with members from United and American [Airlines], and I’m literally pinching myself,” Monetti said. “I couldn’t believe how excited they were to partner with our university.”

Back in Springfield, Stephens said OTC isn’t yet seeing the same opportunities for its budding pilot school. Well aware of the prospects, pilot-to-be Vandersnick simply chuckled. The money is a plus, he said.

“There’s a lot of money to be made in this field, in general,” Vandersnick said. “It’s not like you just get it immediately.

“You have to work for it. And I like that.”

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