Hoping to head off pilot shortage, United Airlines and Metro State aviation program launch unique partnership

Associate Chair and Professor Kevin Kuhlmann, of Metropolitan State University, left, and Captain Michael McCasky, of United, shake hands after talking with students, in aviation program at Metropolitan State University, about a new partnership between United and Metro on Feb. 5, 2018 in Denver. The partnership is promising students who meet certain academic criteria a smoother path into the cockpit of one of the largest carriers in the world.

By Joe Rubino | jrubino@denverpost.com | The Denver Post

PUBLISHED: February 6, 2018 at 6:00 am | UPDATED: February 6, 2018 at 9:03 am


Metropolitan State University of Denver aviation students got a preview Monday of a new partnership between the school and United Airlines, a first-in-the-industry program United officials hope will help push back against a looming pilot shortage.

The “career path program,” which is being unveiled Tuesday, will create a means for flight officer students at Metro to interview with United as undergraduates, and — if accepted — follow a defined track to one of United’s regional partner airlines. After meeting flight time requirements there, participants can move on to waiting jobs in United cockpits, all within five or seven years of graduation.

“There are requirements, but when you think about the process and the path you need to go, it’s a very streamlined effort,” United Capt. Michael McCasky told students at the school’s aviation and aerospace science building Monday. “And I think the real key is … when you do your interview with us when you’re a junior in college, you have done your last United interview. Your first and only United interview.”

The first applications aren’t likely to be accepted until Metro’s fall semester, but the program, developed over the past 15 months, is designed to address a looming problem in the airline industry: ballooning need for qualified commercial pilots. Citing increased demand driven by global economic expansion, Boeing projected last year that 2 million more commercial pilots will be needed around the world by 2036, including 117,000 in North America.

McCasky, managing director of flight training at United’s Flight Training Center in Denver, said he worked with MSU to develop the partnership not because Untied is having trouble recruiting pilots, but because its regional partners are feeling the pinch. Participants would be set up with job interviews at CommutAir, ExpressJet and Air Wisconsin, McCasky said.

“What’s in it for us is a supply of qualified pilots at the end,” he told students. “What’s in it for you is a defined path with certain criteria to get to it.”

Applicants must be full-time Metro students with at least two semesters in the aviation and aerospace science school’s pilot officer program. They must have a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating, and remain in school full time with at least a 3.0 grade-point average through graduation. If an applicant can’t get a job with one of United’s regional carriers for any reason, they would be out of the program, McCasky said.

The program does not obligate participants to work for United, but McCasky hopes the relationships built through direct career mentorship will steer them that way. A Metro graduate himself, McCasky noted United is growing its presence in Denver and already draws interns from Metro every year.

“I think it’s awesome that we caught the attention of such a major airline,” said Tom Shriver, a senior in the flight officer program and teaching assistant. “It’s a really interesting partnership.”

The university has 150 to 200 full-time students in its aviation and aerospace science program, said Kevin Kuhlmann, a professor and the department’s associate chair.

Enrollment dipped after 2013, Kuhlmann said, the year the Federal Aviation Administration bumped up qualification requirements for first officers flying for passenger and cargo airlines from a commercial pilot certificate, earned with 250 hours of flight time, to an airline transport pilot certificate, requiring 1,500 hours. But Metro has rebounded, he said, and this program should only serve to boost its profile.

“We’re just glad that we’re the first out of the gate,” Kuhlmann said. “Recently, we’ve had 8 to 15 percent growth in enrollment (every year). I think this is just going to propel that.”

Kuhlmann noted that the cost of making it to the cockpit of a legacy carrier like United — which he put in the $100,000 to $250,000 range — has become a deterrent for some would-be pilots. But by showing students a clear path to a long tenure with United, which he estimated could pay north of $6 million in wages plus benefits over 35 to 40 years, he feels the industry can clear that hurdle too.

“It’s always been worth it, but certain times and regulatory atmospheres have shadowed that,” he said.


The Denver Post