Traverse City News and Events

NMC's Aviation Program, Grads Flying High Amidst Record Pilot Demand

By Craig Manning | Nov. 17, 2021

When Bryan Linck decided to switch careers in 2018 and enroll in the Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) aviation program, it looked like a sure bet. Thanks to an aging base of pilots, the aviation industry was in desperate need of new blood. Outlook for future job availability, salary, career advancement opportunity, and job security could hardly have been better. Then March 2020 rolled around and the entire passenger airline industry cratered.

20 months later, air travel is a roaring once more, and airlines – which encouraged many older pilots to take early retirements to downsize – are paying handsomely to bring a new generation of talent to the cockpit. NMC’s aviation program and its recent graduates – Linck included – are well-positioned to take advantage of the boom.

According to the Wall Street Journal, airlines are “poised for their busiest year of pilot hiring in more than three decades.” That phenomenon is the result of several factors, including an aging workforce, the pandemic, and the faster-than-expected rebound of airline travel.

Even before COVID-19, there was already a pilot shortage. Per a Pilot Institute report published in February 2020, more than 30 percent of “for-hire” pilots in the United States were between the ages of 50 and 64. Given that the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots in the U.S. is 65, the Pilot Institute concluded that nearly one-third of U.S. pilots would retire by 2035.

The pandemic rendered that prediction a conservative one. Airlines, desperate to reduce operating expenses, made big early retirement offers to scores of aging pilots. According to Forbes, some of those retirement offers paid out “as much as $982,000” – a costly maneuver that airlines nevertheless saw as a way to stave off bankruptcy. Estimates say that some 5,000 U.S. pilots took early retirements during the pandemic.

The strategy may have helped airlines stay afloat in 2020, but it backfired in 2021 as air travel rebounded with unexpected speed. Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport, for instance, is in the midst of what will likely be its biggest year on record, and national projections indicate that next week’s Thanksgiving travel rush could match or exceed pre-pandemic levels.

While the need to hire new pilots – and fast – is a stumbling block for airlines, it’s good news for those just getting into the industry. According to Alex Bloye, director and academic chair of the NMC aviation division, the program has gotten a lot of attention over the past five years as the pilot shortage has become more of a nationwide talking point.

“Beginning in 2017, our program saw a surge in demand stemming from the global pilot shortage,” Bloye tells The Ticker. “As the shortage grew, so did the compensation packages, sign-on bonuses, and work-life balance.  Ever since, we have had a waitlist to enter the program, and as of today, our waitlist extends into 2023.”

NMC admits 50 students per year into its aviation program, which typically takes two years for students to complete. Bloye says there are currently 130 students enrolled. Following completion of the program, many students stay on at NMC as flight instructors, earning the 1,500 flight hours that are required to work for airlines.

“Our graduates, Instructors, and flight staff are aggressively recruited by airlines and other operators,” Bloye adds. “For anyone willing to put in the hard work of becoming a professional pilot, the career outlook is extremely attractive. It is an exciting and historic time to be in aviation, and we are fortunate to be able to serve NMC students on that track. Graduates of NMC’s aviation program can expect an almost 100 percent job placement rate, with starting salaries and bonuses exceeding $70,000.”

It was the promise of good pay and career stability that drew Linck to the program in 2018. He left behind a background in education and a job running a nonprofit for an on opportunity to take to the skies. The pandemic grounded those hopes – but only briefly.

“Once I got to the point where I was ready to start looking for a job, the pandemic hit, and the industry kind of collapsed for a while,” Linck says. “We didn't really know what that was going to look like and how it was going to affect hiring. It got to be kind of scary, because I have a family and two middle school daughters, and all the other responsibilities that come with that.”

Now things are looking up. This past summer, Linck was hired as a first officer (more commonly known as “co-pilot”) for the regional airline Republic Airways. He started training in August, finished the process last week, and is now officially piloting Republic flights out of Indianapolis.

Leanne Fessler, who started at NMC in 2015 and who has spent multiple years as a certified flight instructor, also recently also took a job with Republic – with a $17,000 signing bonus to sweeten the deal. She leaves December 7 to start her training.

Linck and Fessler expect that the pandemic and the pilot shortage will accelerate their career progressions. In the past, it typically took 5-7 years of experience as a first officer before a pilot could “upgrade” to captain. “But now because of the pilot shortage, people are upgrading in 12-18 months,” Linck explains. “And the benefit of that is, it’s double your pay.”

Leveling up doesn’t just mean moving from first officer to captain, either. On the contrary, pilots have also been graduating beyond regional airlines more quickly, to majors like Delta or United.

“Those major airlines definitely need pilots,” Linck says. “Which means all the regional airlines now are losing pilots, which leads to upgrade times decreasing. Things are moving a lot more quickly than we could have expected, especially with the pandemic.”

And there’s another benefit to the hiring boom, too: a more diverse aviation industry.

“This new reality for our industry has had a great impact on diversifying our community of pilots,” Bloye says. “For example, today, women make up around 30 percent of NMC’s Aviation program, as opposed to less than five percent just a few years ago.”

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