Alaska Airlines Launches Pilot Academy Amid Regional Shortage

Alaska Airlines jet tail
Credit: Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines and its regional subsidiary Horizon Air have launched a new flight academy in the Pacific Northwest, part of an effort to address a national shortage of commercial airline pilots. 

The new initiative—launched in partnership with Oregon-based Hillsboro Aero Academy—will create a new flight school to feed into Alaska’s pilot pipeline. Dubbed the “Ascend Pilot Academy,” the program seeks to attract high school and college students with little or no flight experience into a future pilot career by offering successful candidates a conditional job offer to become a first officer at Horizon, which operates a fleet of De Havilland Canada Dash 8s and Embraer E175s.

Alaska hopes to eventually graduate 250 pilots from the academy each year, around half of the 500 pilots it expects to hire each year by 2025. The program’s classes will include between 20-30 students monthly, beginning as soon as April. Students can expect to graduate after 13-14 months with around 250 hours flight experience amassed on Hillsboro’s fleet of 95 Cessna 152/172s and Piper Seminoles.

The Ascend Pilot Academy is intended to supplement Alaska’s existing pilot development program, which targets young aviators who are already enrolled at partner universities with conditional job offers.

“The difference here is that the Ascend Academy is hoping to reach a broader audience, a group who may not think that aviation is available to them as an option,” explained Horizon VP-flight operations Carlos Zendejas. “If selected, they’ll have access to our financial aid in the form of a $25,000 stipend and loans, and then Hillsboro is going to walk them through the process from start to finish, from private pilot all the way to instructor rating, because we do need a number of them to stay and instruct at Hillsboro to build their time.”

“The goal is that once they have their required 1,500 hours for their [Air Transport Pilot certificate], then we move them down the road to our Ops Center in Portland and start them in one of our two aircraft,” Zendejas continued. “And once they’re on the property here at Horizon, then the pathway program to Alaska becomes available, so they can apply and interview. Very early on at their time at Horizon, they can secure a place in line to go to Alaska.”

The total training costs of the program will range between $65,000 and $80,000, including the $25,000 stipend provided by Alaska to help students get their commercial rating. Much of the rest of the cost will be financed through low-interest loans offered by the company. Zendejas said the airline is committed to bringing down the cost of becoming an airline pilot, adding that Alaska—along with its U.S. airline peers—has been engaged in lobbying efforts at the federal level to expand access to student loans for prospective pilots. 

“The cost of obtaining all your ratings could easily range between $70,000 and $90,0000, depending on where you go, so Hillsboro actually comes in toward the lower end of that scale,” Zendejas said. “We’re also working with a major financial institution to get students access to these loans, although we’re not ready to announce anything publicly now.”

Like the rest of the regional airline industry, Zendejas said Horizon has been battling high attrition rates and staffing shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic, with many more pilots choosing to fly at Alaska’s mainline operation than in normal years. He said Alaska estimates the need for 10,000 new pilots at major airlines in 2022, about 80% of which will be sourced from the regionals. 

“We’re seeing high attrition, not only through our pathway program to Alaska, but also externally to other airlines as well,” Zendejas said. “As we work to replace them, we end up using some of the pilots who are instructors or tech pilots, so we end up having a negative block hour impact as a result. Even so, we’re still supporting every single city in our route structure, but you do see a reduction in the amount of service right now to particular cities. Every single regional carrier in the country is going through the same thing right now.”

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.