Pilot shortage? How students in flight school are stepping up to fill pandemic turbulence


DENVER (NewsNation Now) — The pandemic sent the airline industry into a full frenzy. Travel restrictions led to fewer flights and companies turned to furloughs as financial losses mounted.

Now, some experts say they feel a shortage of pilots is coming.

One of the top programs for aviation in the U.S. is at Metropolitan State University in Denver. NewsNation went for an inside look at the flight school to see the future of aviation.

Students and staff tell NewsNation it’s been a turbulent year, but there is much hope for the industry.

Laura Braunschmidt is an aviation instructor at MSU, a campus is nestled right in the heart of downtown Denver.

On the day NewsNation visited, she was in the sim lab teaching flight instrument simulation.

“So flying via only instruments — not having any visual reference to outside,” Braunschmidt said.

On a fog-filled, snowy Colorado day like the day NewsNation visited, you can see how instrument flying, or “IFR,” is really a pilot’s only option.

Twenty-six Frasca simulators fill one room alone—it’s the most for any single program in the country. It’s a big appeal for students worldwide and hometown kids like Sareina Corvid, who caught her bug for flying in the classroom.

More than 25 Frasca International flight simulators fill a classroom at Metropolitan State University in Denver.

“I’d never flown a plane, but here are these sims. I think I might like aviation. So I tried it,” Corvid said.

She’s now a sophomore with dreams of becoming a pilot for United Airlines, but when the pandemic hit her freshman year, many courses except sim labs went online. Aviation is a tough field to teach from afar.

“With the simulation classes, you have to be there. They can’t take all that information and turn it into an online class. They can try, but you’re not going to learn nearly as much.”

The past 12 months have been devastating for major U.S. carriers. With the six biggest airlines collectively losing $34 billion. Southwest Airlines reported its first full-year loss since Richard Nixon was president and a third of the world’s air routes have been lost due to COVID-19. The detrimental domino effect resulted in furloughs and early retirements for thousands of experienced pilots.

“There’s projections out there that say within the next 10 years, even with what we have to supply pilots, there could be a 65,000 pilot shortage,” said MSU Aviation’s associate chair Kevin Kuhlmann.

Although pilot shortages in the past and what he said will be the future, Kuhlmann said the country is experiencing a temporary surplus.

Laura Braunschmidt is an aviation instructor at Metropolitan State University in Denver teaches student in flight simulator.

“So the pandemic caused a log jam of all different natures,” he said. “There’s a large number of pilots that retired prior to age 65, and there were some regional carriers that did go out of business. So, now you’ve got their whole pilot cadre—they’re looking for work.”

Not to mention a year’s worth of students ready to become flight instructors and flight instructors ready to join those regional carriers.

Breeze Airways — a startup airline, set to launch later this year out of Salt Lake City — just posted 85 pilot jobs. More than 4,000 applied.

“Initially, there’s going to be a surplus, but it’s going to go right back to where it was before with a shortage of pilots, and it’s going to be a little worse than before because they let so many pilots retire early,” said Kuhlmann.

Experts predict that shortage to strike again in late 2022. So, current students keep plowing ahead.

NewsNation’s Markie Martin, a licensed pilot herself, hopped into the Cessna Mustang business jet simulator with Steven. They took off from airports like Denver International and Aspen, which doubled as studying for an upcoming test before the student pilot graduates in May.

NewsNation’s Markie Martin joins a pilot-in-training in flight simulator at Metropolitan State University in Denver.

Professors agreed the conditions are ripe for graduating students.

“You do see now the hiring process has started to accelerate, and there’s going to be a need coming up, and the students are very excited—they’re in a great position at a great time,” Braunschmidt said.

America’s future pilots say with the COVID-19 hiring spree and the future shortage, the sky’s the limit when it comes to opportunity.

“There’s so many places right now that are hiring. I want to get my hours as quickly as possible, get all my ratings as quickly as possible and just see what’s out there,” Corvid said.

Professor Kuhlmann said he predicts airlines to be back up and running at full-route capacity later this year.

He encouraged aviation hopefuls to stick with it, despite the holding pattern they’ve been in.

He said with an eventual shortage will likely come to a big payout. It won’t take long for young pilots to earn seniority within the airline of their choosing.

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