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How important is a four-year college degree for today's future airline pilots?

By Peter Forman
August 20, 2019

Not long ago, becoming a pilot with one of America’s largest airlines pretty much demanded a four-year college degree. However, the industry’s ongoing reduced pilot supply changed the equations of what some airlines were looking for and the ease with which pilots can build flying time. Because of these changes, some pilots have successfully completed the climb to the majors through strategies that detour around traditional academic training.

Take A.J. LoSasso, for example. In high school, A.J. was quite good at golf, and a number of colleges offered him a chance to take his game to a whole new level. A leisurely four years of college with plenty of golf thrown in looked like an attractive next step.

.J.’s father is an airline pilot and understood the importance of securing a seniority number as quickly as possible. The two agreed that if A.J. was going to embark upon the expensive journey of obtaining flight credentials, he should do so swiftly and with a very serious beeline to getting hired with an attractive airline.

His first step was obtaining certificates and ratings with ATP Flight School. Four months after completing the training, Transair, a cargo airline in Hawaii, hired A.J. as first officer. By the time he reached 21 — the minimum age for a restricted ATP— A.J. had logged the certificate’s required 1,500 hours. For his next move, A.J. accepted employment with Mesa Airlines (with eyes on returning to Arizona) and on his 21st birthday took both the ATP written test and the orals for the Bombardier CRJ. After two years of building experience and seniority in the right seat of a regional jet, A.J. upgraded to captain at age 23 on the Embraer 175.

Five months after upgrading, A.J. received a call for an interview with Virgin America. The airline did not require a college degree and was in the process of merging into Alaska Air. A.J. was hired and ultimately became a pilot with Alaska Air. Not long thereafter, Alaska changed its policy by dropping the college requirement and instead listed it as preferred.

“At the time, I was the youngest pilot to be hired by Alaska, and I will be number one someday,” A.J. said. If I hadn’t taken the route I took, it would have set me back at least four years.”

The recent pilot pipeline might encourage a similar lean and fast approach to winning a seniority number. Three regional airlines supply pilots to American Airlines through a positive flow-through agreement. None of these regionals required a degree, however, and pilots migrate to American based upon seniority at their regional and the hiring rate at the destination airline. As long as the need for pilots at such flow-through regionals remained strong, a college degree didn’t give an immediate advantage.

Of course a pilot can often obtain a seniority number with an attractive large airline more quickly than via a flow-through program. To speed up the process of acquiring both a degree and flight qualifications, a collegiate flight program is a faster route to an airline job than time spent at a traditional college followed by commercial flight training. Subtract up to 500 hours of the required time to reach the restricted ATP minimums, and this approach holds plenty of merit.

James Birdsong, Program Coordinator of Auburn University’s Department of Aviation, sees additional benefits of earning a degree while building flight qualifications at a collegiate flight program. The accreditation process means that peers from other flight programs visit colleges to ensure that each program is delivering what it promises. Plus there’s substantial cross-talk between institutions, which results in shared quality of training improvements by various collegiate flight programs.

“A college degree is so important for pilots who lose their medical or wish to transition into a management position at their airline,” said Birdsong. “Although, in the past, many airlines didn’t list a college degree as a requirement, look at their hiring record and you’ll see it’s primarily college graduates. If two candidates have equal flight qualifications but one has a degree, the one with the degree usually gets the job.”

Beau Schraeder, Vice President of Flight Operations at Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, adds, “A degree also gives you upward mobility for your job within the airline industry and offers operational opportunities beyond.”

According to Todd Cellini, Chief Academic and Operations Officer at Spartan, a student earns flight qualifications through flight instructor in the degree program and then typically begins building flight time as an instructor. After 1,250 hours of flight time, that pilot has now met the minimum time eligibility for the restricted ATP certificate.

Has a bachelor’s degree lost its relevance in the career path to an airline pilot’s job? Looking at how various pilots are pursuing the career these days and the recognized value of a degree, the answer would be no. In some recent cases, though, before COVID, the race to get a seniority number with a destination airline had taken priority over the degree.

A.J. LoSasso, the pilot who earned his Alaska Airlines seniority number at such a young age, plans to acquire a degree as he works as an airline pilot. He recognizes the potential benefits in the long run. As for the Spartan students who begin flight instructing after the 17-month associate’s program is completed, they can opt for a bridge program with the school that will lead to a bachelor’s degree. All the Spartan bridge program courses are online, allowing the pilot to continue building hours while earning the degree, even after moving to a regional airline. One factor increasing the value of a college degree is holding a competitive edge when the industry turns down and pilot hiring slows. The degree would likely be a criteria for eliminating those applicants without it.

The tug of war between “the need for speed” and the benefits of earning a college degree continues as hiring for airline pilots hangs in the balance. Students are finding unique solutions to address both needs.

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