By TIM UNRUH
Salina Airport Authority
Job prospects played a big role in Zak Kierstein’s pursuit of a professional pilot a career.
“Demand was insane” in 2016 when he graduated high school in Denver.
“I thought I’d give this a shot,” Kierstein said, and he opted for enrollment at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus in Salina — among the top five flight programs in the nation.
“It was the smaller size of the program, the smaller feel, proximity to the airport, everything is in the same place,” he said, “and their good quality airplanes.”
But like many industries these days, commercial aviation has taken some hits this year, along with flight education, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The spread of coronavirus that spiked through the spring and summer — worse this fall — has posed a threat to scheduled air service and corporate/ business jet travel.
Young people pursuing careers as pilots, have wagered their futures on demand for flight remaining high, yet current events pose worries.
Fret not, young flyers.
Experts predict the dip in demand to be relatively brief before activity soars again, along with job prospects.
“When we get to the other side of COVID, we hope to return to the hiring levels we experienced pre-COVID,” said Prof. Terry Hunt PhD, aviation department chair at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus in the Salina Airport Industrial Center.
Flight operations “shut down” this past spring when COVID-19 hammered the world.
K-State Poly instruction went to remote learning and flight operations ceased, and while “the fairly aggressive hiring” of airlines slowed thanks to the drop in passenger numbers, not all was lost for long.
“After COVID safety protocols were developed, we were able to resume flight operations in early June and through the summer, and this fall semester,” Hunt said.
Through the uncertainty and lulls, Kierstein stayed the course.
“There might have been a couple times when I was not sure what was going to happen,” he said.
Kierstein remained focused.
He graduated in December 2019, and reached the required 1,000 hours of flight time in early September to achieve a Restricted Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.
Professional Pilot graduates are typically hired by regional airlines, Hunt said, where they advance in rank from first officer to captain.
“Many of them will desire to finish with regional airlines, and other go to legacy carriers (among them Southwest, United, American and Delta),” he said.
After a short stint as a K-State Poly flight instructor, Keirstein will pursue work as a professional pilot.
“Luckily, I have a good job here,” he said. “I have all this training and I’m qualified. I figure I can find something.”
COVID safety measures are strict. Students and instructors must remain masked. Aircraft are deep-cleaned every evening, Hunt said, and surfaces are sanitized between each flight.
Students and instructors are COVID-tested twice a week.
“There have been a few positive cases, but students have been able to return to campus after quarantine,” he said. “I think the department of aviation has worked very hard to minimize the spread.”
As the United States and countries around the globe are on the cusp of releasing COVID vaccines, good pilot prospects have returned.
Analysts at CAE, formerly known as Canadian Aviation Electronics, expect civil aviation to need more than 260,000 new pilots over the next decade. CAE released those findings in its 2020 Airline and Business Jet Pilot Demand Outlook.
A worldwide aviation training leader, CAE predicted “that the active pilot population is expected to return to 2019 levels in 2022.”
The 2020 to 2029 CAE Pilot Demand Outlook reported that “retirement and attrition” will add challenges to the civil aviation industry as air travel recovers progressively.
“This is expected to drive an acute demand for pilots, resulting in an estimated short-term need for approximately 27,000 new professional pilots starting in late 2021,” the report reads.
Those words are golden to the K-State Poly’s aviation department, which is full and stands a good chance of staying that way or gaining in size.
“We at K-State are definitely enrolled to capacity, and we’re moving students forward,” Hunt said. “We are enrolling additional aviation students for the spring semester, and for next fall we expect similar numbers. We expect the inflow of students to remain very strong.”
Many of the airlines use CAE as a reference point, said Gary Foss, owner of the ArkStar Group, and air service consultant for the Salina Airport Authority.
“They are a world leader in training for unique professional positions; pilot training, flight attendants, medical training,” he said. “They need to make estimates for how many flight simulators or medical infrastructure that they need.”
Getting back to normal in aviation is “tied to the (COVID) vaccine,” Foss said. “The story as I see it is the existing pilot shortage will be fairly short-lived. While the industry is long on pilots, I think, by the end of 2021, you’re going to see demand back in a robust fashion. With the herd immunity, we will see people flying unfettered and be back to the demand for pilots that you had previously.”
Forecasts keep plans alive for a department expansion, K-State’s Hunt said.
“We are certainly passionate and optimistic about aviation,” he said. “The airlines, business and corporate aviation are still very strong, and have been hiring pilots. Private aviation within the industry is quite strong.”
Looking at the situation a bit more long-term, Hunt said the past 10 to 12 years have seen “an amazing trend of hiring and growth within the airlines. What we’re seeing now is a COVID-driven slowing of that trend.”
K-State Poly prepares Professional Pilot graduates for more than the airlines, he said. Graduates pursue careers in agricultural aviation, military, corporate and business flying, and air taxi/charter.
“The airlines are the most visible facet of the industry, but the other facets are hiring as well,” Hunt said. “We are producing high quality professional pilots that will successfully compete in any of those facets. They’re definitely going to be more than qualified to compete out there in the workplace.”
The pandemic has so far been just a blip to Kierstein’s plans and those of his K-State colleagues. “It’s basically just a delay at this point. We’re just kind of waiting it out, basically doing all we can do,” he said. “It looks pretty good.”
Four years ago, mentors lauded Kierstein’s luck, because the forecast for 2020 was a good time to enter the pilot job market, given the expected pilot shortage.
That hasn’t changed for the 22-year-old.
The same number of veteran pilots “are still going to reach 65, and the underlying demand remains,” he said. “The cause is still there. This is just delaying some of the hiring, just a bit.”
Did You Know?
Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus counted 291 students enrolled in aviation programs in 2018; 334 in 2019, and 376 this year. Enrollment is “at capacity and maybe a little beyond” this year, said Prof. Terry Hunt, PhD, aviation department chair, and interest remains high for next year.
“Enrollment for the spring and fall will be very good,” he said. “This is a great program. It has quite a history of excellence and a very bright future.”
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The above article was republished with permission from the Salina Airport Authority. It first appeared in the December 2020 issue of "Reporting Points."