Bipartisan Bill Seeks Adding Aviation Training To Savings Program

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Amid industry workforce constraints, U.S. lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at easing tuition pressures for students pursuing a career in aviation.

Under the Aviation Workforce Development Act, training at FAA-certified commercial pilot and aircraft maintenance technician schools would become eligible for inclusion in an existing savings program called the Qualified Tuition Program (QTP).

Also referred to as a Section 529 Plan, the program allows third parties to pre-pay or contribute to education expenses in a tax-free investment account. Currently it applies to certain enrollment or attendance expenses for any college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution eligible to participate in a U.S. Education Department-administered student aid program. 

Looking to add FAA-certified school training as a qualified expense, the new bill was introduced March 28 by Representatives Mike Collins (R-Ga.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), and Aviation Subcommittee Ranking Member Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

“The Aviation Workforce Development Act is a commonsense proposal to give Americans who want to pursue a career in aviation—on the ground or in the air—the same tools as those seeking four-year degrees with zero increased cost to taxpayers,” Rep. Collins said.

Among the industry bodies offering support are many associations—including the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC), National Air Carrier Association (NACA), Aerospace Industries Association, Airlines for America, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA)—and several unions, including the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), the Allied Pilots Association, and the Air Line Pilots Association. 

In supporting comments, costs were described as a barrier to training at a time when the industry seeks to increase its available workforce. 

“Despite average pay increasing by nearly 70%, fewer Americans are pursuing careers as airline pilots,” NACA said. “The Aviation Workforce Development Act will help increase the pilot supply in the near- and long-term by providing financial incentives.”

According to forecasts from Oliver Wyman, North American aviation may see a pilot shortage peak in 2026 with a shortfall of 24,000. For aviation maintenance workers, the consultancy’s most-likely scenario predicts a gap of nearly 43,000 by 2027.

“The aviation maintenance workforce is in sore need of new technicians,” AMFA said in a statement. “But for many, the cost of higher education is a significant challenge. By empowering students to use their 529 savings to pay for tuition and expenses at an aircraft maintenance school, the Aviation Workforce Development Act will help address the severe deficit of qualified aircraft maintenance technicians.”

Even for aviation training providers with schools mostly covered by the savings program, the legislation could be an improvement. 

“Most of our A&P schools are accredited, so they already have access to 529,” ATEC Executive Director Crystal Maguire told Aviation Week. “Even though this would only impact the minority of our schools, ATEC supports this because we support anything that increases access to funding.”

—With Lindsay Bjerregaard in Chicago


Christine Boynton

Christine Boynton covers air transport in the Americas for Aviation Week Network.