After COVID restrictions and fears of catching the virus dinged air travel for the past two summers, the summer of 2022 was anticipated to be the industry’s big comeback.
But pent-up demand for travel was tripped up by the consequences of too much pressure on beleaguered airlines struggling with staffing shortages, higher fuel costs and other challenges, resulting in long lines and flight delays or cancellations.
More than 2 million passengers passed through TSA security checkpoints across the country, with the peak this year on July 1, when about 2.5 million cleared checkpoints to board planes. On the same day in 2020, only 718,988 passed through those checkpoints.
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport recorded 6.8 passengers during June, up from 6.35 million in June 2021, according to an airport report.
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“There is a desperate need for more pilots, said Chad Weigand, flight department chair of Tarrant County College’s Erma C. Johnson Hadley Center for Aviation, Technology and Logistics at the Northwest Campus.
With more people traveling, technology advances and other changes, the demand for additional pilots and other trained staff will be ongoing, Weigand said.
Critical pilot shortages were identified as far back as 2008 but the problems worsened during the pandemic as flight instruction was curtailed by shutdowns and airlines offered early retirement packages to pilots and other employees as cost-cutting measures.
Meanwhile, the largest group of airline pilots falls within the age range of 50 to 64, rapidly approaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. Congress increased the retirement age from 60 in 2007 in an attempt to stave off a crisis.
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Congressional Republicans are again looking at proposed legislation to raise the pilot retirement age to 67. The Allied Pilots Association, representing 14,000 pilots of American Airlines, opposes the plan.
“It’s not at all clear that raising pilot retirement age would actually increase the pilot supply,” Capt. Eric Ferguson, president of the pilots association, said in a statement. “Moreover, while it might not be less safe, ‘might not’ must never be a rationale on which to base safety-sensitive decisions in our industry.
A new Boeing Co. report on the state of commercial air travel states that global demand for new airline personnel through 2041 is 602,000 pilots, 610,000 aircraft technicians and 899,000 cabin crew members. The North America need alone is 435,000 new employees.
Programs like TCC’s Center for Aviation, Technology and Logistics are trying to fill the void with professional pilot and aviation maintenance technician programs.
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“Personnel is a growing global issue so we at TCC are looking at how we can step up to the plate,” Weigand.
While there are many private flight schools that train pilots, collegiate programs such as TCC’s offer advantages that include an associate’s degree upon completion. And, TCC is the only school in North Texas that offers the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part-141 flight-training curriculum.
Another advantage is the opportunity for scholarships and veterans’ benefits to help with tuition costs that aren’t available at commercial flight schools.
But even with financial assistance, the cost of a degree program with airplane pilot certification can cost between $68,000 and $72,000, including the cost of fees for aircraft rental, insurance, tuition and other expenses. Training for prospective helicopter pilots, which TCC’s program offers, costs more than $100,000.
Despite the demand for more pilots and the desirability of this high-paying career, the expense of training and education has been a detriment.
“People who want to do this have to convince themselves that they are willing to take on the debt,” Weigand said. “Our program is rigorous but it provides a pathway to the pipeline of the airlines.”
Alternatives routes to becoming a pilot include training academies offered by some airlines, including American Airlines, but slots are limited and competition is stiff, Weigand said.
Even the military, which historically has been the ultimate training ground for airline pilots, offers no guarantees that enlistees will be selected for pilot training, according to Weigand, a former airline pilot. A military-trained pilot also must commit to up to 10 years in the service, with the possibility of flying combat missions.
TCC’s aviation maintenance technician program was founded in 1967 and has turned out hundreds of mechanics over the years. About 200 students are currently enrolled and 187 students graduated during the 2021-22 school year.
Introduced in 2014, the professional pilot training program has an enrollment of about 150 and graduated 51 students in 2021-22.
TCC’s program is one of only a handful of nonprofit flight programs in Texas. Its use of the FAA’s Part-141 flight training curriculum permits graduates to apply for Restricted Airline Transport Pilot Certification, an option that shortens the pathway to certification for those as young as age 21 and with slightly fewer flight hours of flight training time.
All the benefits of TCC’s program, including its status as one of the largest aviation training facilities in Texas with $3 million in training equipment, checked off every box for Anique Jonathan Fazal Din, a Fort Worth resident whose lifelong dream has been to become an airline pilot.
At age 38, Fazal Din is as excited to be en route to the career he wished for at age 18, when circumstances stood in his way.
A native of Pakistan, Fazal Din immigrated to the United States and arrived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area when he was about 13 years old. As he was looking toward graduation from Grand Prairie High School in 2002, he told a school guidance counselor of his career dream.
“I was told that was probably not a good idea,” he said. “A guy from Pakistan couldn’t become an airline pilot a year after the 9/11 attack.”
Although he enjoyed studying and learning, Fazal Din struggled to find direction. He tried college, but couldn’t stick with it. So he played drums in a band. Eventually, he got married and started a family.
Then he earned his U.S. citizenship and became a stockbroker for Fidelity.
But he never gave up on his dream.
In 2019, he attended an information meeting about TCC’s flight training program and decided that was what he would do. He quit his job at Fidelity and used retirement savings to cover the costs. Having a wife who could financially support the family also helped.
On July 5, he fulfilled his final requirements and graduated from TCC’s professional pilot program with an associate’s degree.
His next goal is a position as a flight instructor, where 95 percent of TCC’s flight program graduates begin their careers.
Most TCC graduates initially work for U.S. Aviation, a vendor of Envoy Air and a wholly owned subsidiary of American Airlines. Through TCC’s partnership with Envoy Air, graduates who start as Envoy flight instructors have the opportunity to advance through its pilot pipeline program to major U.S. airlines such as American, United, Delta and Southwest, according to TCC officials.
Fazal Din’s eventual goal is American Airlines.
“I’m ready, I’m thrilled,” he said. “It’s my dream come true.”
The starting salary for flight instructors is $24,000 annually but the median annual salary for all pilots was $134,630 in 2021. However, airline pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers earned a median annual salary $202,180 in 2021.
The median annual wage for aircraft mechanics and service technicians was $65,380 in 2021, according to the federal agency.
TCC soon will launch a new program with high schools in Tarrant County that will allows students to earn dual credit from their schools and TCC in flight and maintenance classroom instruction via distance learning.