Maintaining the Highest Safety Standards

Keeping the Piloting Profession Strong and Accessible through Higher Education

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

The safest period of air transportation didn’t happen by accident or overnight. It’s resulted from the analysis of accident and incident trends and precursors and by building and maintaining high training and qualification standards for airline pilots.

In 2013, the current regulations that govern the basic qualifications for FAR Part 121 pilots in the United States went into effect, and ALPA continues to be a steadfast supporter of these minimum first officer qualification (FOQ) requirements. These training, qualification, and minimum flight experience requirements have made a direct and positive impact on aviation safety.

Seeking to lower the standards required for airline pilots is counterintuitive to safety. However, it’s recently been suggested by some special-interest groups that the requirement that federal student loan access associated with accredited two- or four-year college or university degree-earning programs be removed or changed to “any accredited” flight training program, even those not associated with aviation colleges or universities.

This modification sounds a safety alarm as some flight training programs could have very little, if any, classroom “academic” training outside the required ground schools for pilot certificates and would dilute the value of degree programs earned in parallel with pilot certificates.

While major airlines usually require pilots to hold a four-year degree, some smaller regional airlines may not. Removing the accredited degree-earning requirement, and therefore the requirement for academic learning, for federal funding would be counter to maintaining the safer skies that experienced and well-qualified airline pilots have worked to help achieve. Furthermore, it would lessen the opportunity for an educated and multitalented workforce of airline pilots to progress in their careers to mainline carriers.

The Importance of Accreditation

Accreditation is the public recognition awarded to colleges, universities, and programs that meet established educational standards. Accreditation ensures that teaching, student achievement, curricula, academic support, and other criteria meet certain levels of excellence and quality. In addition, accredited schools and programs maintain a level of performance and integrity that instills confidence in the educational community and public they serve.

Most colleges, universities, and institutions of higher learning are accredited by one of six regional commissions that, in turn, are accredited by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). When FOQs were implemented in 2013 under FAR Part 61, legislators, government regulators, and industry stakeholders affirmed that the combination of varying types of aeronautical experience, written and practical exams, and formal academic instruction found in collegiate settings would make an individual eligible for employment as a Part 121 airline pilot with restricted privileges.

The FAA applied these requirements to what became the basis of a separate institutional authority to allow for the graduates of FAA-approved and DOE-accredited two- and four-year degree programs to be eligible to receive a restricted airline transport pilot (R-ATP) certificate.

Today, about 100 DOE-accredited colleges and universities have received institutional authority from the FAA to issue R-ATP certificates. To include noncollegiate training programs in any federal accreditation could confuse its meaning and dilute the overall value of accreditation and current qualification requirements in aviation.

Accessibility for All

While becoming an airline pilot is a rewarding experience, it can be a costly one, and finding ways to finance it can be challenging. Military service and experience continue to be a pathway to an airline pilot career. But in recent years, more pilots have turned to financial loans to pay for their flight training while pursuing a collegiate degree before receiving their first officer stripes.

Because ALPA has been extremely committed to ensuring a robust pipeline of qualified airline pilots, it has repeatedly expressed support for greater loan access for potential pilots to two- and four-year academic degree programs, in addition to other initiatives. Unlike graduate students who can apply for additional student loans to support their professional studies and certifications, individuals enrolled in flight education and training programs are capped at an undergraduate student loan ceiling of $57,500 for an independent student and $31,000 for a dependent student.

“Our union is calling for government and industry action that includes improved accessibility of aviation education to underrepresented groups and enhancing first-year pilot compensation and benefits at fee-for-departure airlines,” said Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president.

Earlier this year, DePete sent a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, sharing the Association’s belief that action in several critical areas would allow the United States to break down barriers to foster a more diverse and inclusive aviation workforce that reflects the communities and customers the industry serves.

“ALPA believes we can, and must, do more as a nation to open the doors of opportunity for those currently underrepresented in the piloting profession and maintain the highest safety standards in the world,” the letter stated. To maintain the high experience and training requirements needed to become an airline pilot while improving accessibility to the career, ALPA recommends that Congress align federal funding support for the education required to become an airline pilot with that of other highly skilled professions.

In July, Capt. Claudia Zapata-Cardone (United), a member of the ALPA President’s Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation representing the Latino Pilots Association. She outlined four actions that, if implemented, would make significant advances in opening the airline piloting profession to more individuals. These steps include

  • authorizing and increasing federal educational aid programs such as the Pell Grant Program to help provide financial assistance to students following two- and four-year degree programs at postsecondary higher education institutions to cover the costs of aviation flight training.
  • expanding opportunities for those who fought for the United States to use their GI Bill to help cover the cost of two- and four-year flight training degree programs.
  • considering student loan cancellation programs that would allow airline pilots to work for a specific period in exchange for loan forgiveness.
  • reviewing government guidelines to increase the number and amounts of subsidized loans available to students for flight training and to ensure that students who receive unsubsidized loans don’t accrue interest on the loans while in school.

“Currently, there are severe economic disincentives for pilots considering employment at regional airlines, which serve as a main avenue for individuals to enter the profession,” Zapata-Cardone observed. “It’s important that we improve this career entry point while maintaining the first officer qualification requirements that have helped make U.S. air transportation the safest mode of transportation in the world.”


More Access, More Pilots

Increasing the ability to borrow and fund flight training would help attract more students to these types of programs, as do student engagement and mentoring programs like those ALPA provides at 13 university campuses.

ALPA’s “Cleared to Dream” initiative focuses on outreach activities geared to future aviators at the college and university level as well as to students at the primary and secondary level. Pilot volunteers across the country participate in education, community, and industry events throughout the year to encourage students of all ages to consider careers as airline pilots.

Clearedtodream.org contains information and engaging activities for students in grade school through college, including aviation-themed flashcards, stories from line pilots, steps for becoming a pilot, scholarship information, job leads, and more. To learn more about ALPA’s Cleared to Dream initiative, including on-campus, student-led Aviation Collegiate Education Clubs and ALPA pilot outreach visits, visit clearedtodream.org or talk with your master executive council’s Education Committee.

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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