Central Washington University Plans To Address Pilot Shortage

Central Washington University Plans To Address Pilot Shortage
Central Washington University is asking the legislature to budget for its aviation program expansion to meet incoming pilot needs over the next two decades. The additional funding would provide for additional classrooms and a hanger to support more Washington graduates in the aviation field. Photo: John Crowley

Central Washington University (CWU) is looking to expand its aviation program to meet increasing demand for pilots in the state. The university is asking $9.9 million in capital budget funds to add five classrooms and its own hangar. Proponents say it would help prepare more Washington residents to take on these job openings, especially as more and more experienced pilots are expected to retire in coming years. HB 1325 might expedite that process, as it requires public four-year institutions to better detail their proposed capital budget projects, to assist lawmakers in making their decision on whether or not to budget for the request.

CWU sports the only fully accredited public university aviation program in the Pacific Northwest, awarding Bachelor of Science degrees in Aviation Management and Professional Pilot. Currently, the classes operate out of a single classroom, forcing the students to commute back and forth from the Ellensburg Bowers Field Airport to campus.

The university plans to add 240 students within the next five years, but more space is needed for that to happen. Currently, CWU’s expansion request ranks among the highest for requested major higher ed growth projects, as ranked by the Office of Financial Management (OFM).

Airline Pilots Needed

The expansion would come at an opportune time. Boeing is predicting 617,000 air pilot-need worldwide over the next 20 years. Also, reinstating flight lines to Cuba will require 112,000 new pilots in North America.

According to Employment Security Department estimates, Washington will have filled 2,607 airline pilot, copilot and flight engineer jobs, and 1,123 commercial pilot spots in the second quarter of the 2017 fiscal year, leaving 127 and 39 spots open, respectively.

“All the studies show we have significant retirements in the pilot field…these baby boomer pilots are retiring” and “we need to fill that gap,” said panel member State Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13).

‘Huge Vacuum’ at Regional Airlines

CWU Aviation Department Chair Sundaram Nataraja agrees. He told Lens that much of that is due to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation requiring pilots must retire at age 65.

Once students receive their flight experience hours they are “normally grabbed by United, Delta, or American…” and “there is a huge vacuum at regional airline level,” added Nataraja. “It is a social responsibility as a public institution that we serve the industry,” but “we need infrastructure. ”

Mychal Hornbeck is pursuing his B.S. degree in Professional Pilot with the hopes of becoming a commercial pilot.

Hornbeck said, “There’s a shortage of pilots at every level, especially at the Certificate Flight Instructor (CFI) level because employers struggle staffing CFIs for long periods of time. They are not there to be permanent…they get the required flight time to go off to an airline…and move on.”

The university partners with Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, who offers students a stipend to offset training costs, in exchange for a two year pilot contract with the airline.

Brad Lambert, Vice President of Flight Operations at Horizon Air, told Lens, “I think it would be fantastic to expand their program…there’s really a level of regimentation that go through these university programs, more than just going to a flight school. There is a value in teaching crew concepts…producing a well-rounded student that may choose to go into the industry as a pilot or an administrator.”

Nataraja said the additional funds would allow the program to open another five classrooms and a hangar. This year, the professional pilot program had 160 students enrolled, double last year’s enrollment.  CWU plans to expand up to 400 pilots in the program within five years though the ask was not included in Governor Inslee’s proposed 2017-19 capital budget.

Prioritizing Higher Ed Projects

Every two years, OFM is required by statute to analyze and score higher ed capital budget project requests. The list is then given to the four-year institutions and legislators of related committees, to help decide which should receive funding.

Manweller stressed that the appropriation shouldn’t negatively impact other flight programs in the state, such as Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. “We’ve always had a cooperative and almost symbiotic relationship… and we need to make sure our program doesn’t crowd out their program, and make sure the Big Bend program doesn’t crowd out CWU’s. We want to work cooperatively and not be using state resources to compete with other state resource programs.”

HB 1325 would require Washington’s four-year institutions to include priority level with each requested project with a description and desired funding amount. Prime sponsor is State Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-24), and co-sponsors include State Reps. Gael Tarleton (D-36) and Laurie Jinkins (D-27).

Tharinger on Friday, February 3 told the House Capital Budget Committee, “There is a process that works really well for the two-year schools…we are trying to set up a process that the four-year baccalaureate schools can work on to try to help prioritize their efforts across the state and then help us make those decisions.”

For the 2017-19 biennium, CWU’s aviation expansion ranks 2nd highest for major public higher ed growth projects. Out of a maximum of 74 points, CWU’s project received a 44. In front of CWU is Washington State University’s Tri-Cities Academic Building, which received a score of 57.

Executive action on HB 1325 was scheduled for Friday, February 10, but the measure was placed on hold.

Steve DuPont, CWU’s Assistant Director of Government Relations, told Lens, the expansion would address the coming demand for pilots, but the university needs to have the sufficient resources to train new pilots.

DuPont added, “We will be in big need of our program to grow. Currently, the major constraint for us…we don’t have the facilities.”

If the project is selected for funding, the competitive bid process would likely take until the end of 2017, according to DuPont, and construction would begin early 2018.

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