Mesa flight schools help ease pilot shortage

Nov. 14—Outside a nondescript building along Sossaman Drive at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport last month, the sun shined while rain poured from an iron-gray sky inside the cavernous structure.

On a powerful flight simulator that cost more than a real airplane, a flight student checked his instruments as the image of a propeller on a large wraparound screen began to hammer away in the rain and he prepared to take a digital plane into the storm.

Behind him, a flight instructor scrutinized a computer monitor.

Scenes like this are typical at the University of North Dakota Aerospace flight school at Gateway Airport as instructors stay busy training aviators amid a shortage commercial plane pilots.

Americans' wallets are being hit with inflation pressures, but after the pandemic, they are still digging into their bank accounts and traveling with a passion.

The good news is that Mesa's numerous flight schools are seeing an increase in people interested in learning to fly.

The bad news is, it will take time — years probably — before today's newly certified pilots impact a travel industry hobbled by delays created by the pilot shortage.

Mesa's two airports began as facilities to train pilots for the U.S. and allies during World War II, and the tradition continues with at least 10 flight schools operating in the city today.

Local flight instructors say that even though the communities surrounding the airfields have transformed since World War II, the conditions that made Mesa good for training then still remain: there is wide-open airspace nearby, plenty of sunny days and lots of airports.

Rex Ginder, associate director of Phoenix flight operations for UND Aerospace, said the school's Mesa campus now has the highest enrollment it's ever had.

UND offers a six-semester collegiate program, and also recently added an accelerated 12-to-13-month program to meet the high demand for commercial pilot training.

The school also partners with Chandler-Gilbert Community College on an associate's degree program that enables students to complete their degree with a private pilot's license.

Matthew Johnston, president of California Aeronautical University, which operates a school at Mesa's Falcon Field, said CAU is also seeing elevated interest in training. He thinks even more students would be interested with greater awareness of the profession.

Pilot jobs are "plentiful, they're portable worldwide and they're profitable," he said. "It's a great industry to pursue."

Johnston also told career seekers not to ignore training for aviation mechanics, noting that a shortage of them is also grounding planes.

"When there's a problem with an aircraft, someone's got to look at it," he said.

Ginder agrees that jobs await students who stick with the programs.

He said UND currently has 100% job placement record with regional airlines for students who graduate and work as a flight instructor to help reach the required 1,500 hours of flight time to enter the pilot pool.

While flight schools are filling seats at a time when pilots are badly needed, Ginder and Johnston cautioned that alleviating the pilot and mechanic shortage is going to take many years.

Getting the commercial pilots license takes 250 hours of flight time, and that leaves a lot of flying left to reach the needed 1,500 hours.

Another bottleneck in the pilot pipeline is at the highest levels: the final classes pilots take with airlines to get checked out on specific aircraft and routes.

These sorts of final onboarding classes are generally taught by senior pilots, Ginder said, and the airlines lost a disproportionate number of these seasoned pilots during the pandemic, offering buyouts as travel restrictions grounded the industry.

Ginder sees evidence of the loss of trainers as airlines are hiring pilots but telling them to stay in their current jobs until space in an onboarding class opens up.

Consequently, travelers should buckle in for full flights for some time.

A side effect of the pilot shortage is the commercial airline industry has notched the highest "load factors" — the percentage of seats filled on the plane — in two decades in recent months.

Gateway Airport is no exception.

In August, the national average load factor nearly hit 90%, about 5% higher than a normal high of 85%.

Gateway President J. Brian O'Neill told the airport's board of directors that Mesa has seen load factors rise above 90% this year.

Fuller planes have helped Gateway maintain revenue and continue serving record numbers of passengers even though airlines reduced their number of flights out of Mesa this summer.

In August, Gateway served a record 119,403 passengers for the month on 13% fewer flights than the previous year.

But high load factors can become too much of a good thing.

"Ninety percent (load factor) is almost a disservice to the market because if there's ever a disruption because of a mechanical or because of weather related cancellations, you don't have any seats available to absorb those people and get them into the system," O'Neill said.

He said the airport is interested in working with the airlines to bring load factors down — for passenger experience and for meeting the airport's vision.

"Across the board, our ability to expand and offer new service certainly is hampered by a pilot shortage," Gateway spokesman Ryan Smith said.

Ginder predicts that the future will always be bright for aviators.

The swift return of air travel following restrictions has driven home that "Americans are in love with the ability to get on a flight to travel," he said. "So I think the training organizations like ours are going to continue to grow for the foreseeable future."