Epic Flight Academy, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, is responding to the national pilot shortage by offering educational sponsorships to U.S. students who aspire to become commercial pilots.
It launched Epic Pilot Solutions (EPS) in 2015, providing student pilots with sponsorship funds to complete their flight training in exchange for employment as flight instructors.
Soon after the program started, Epic management realized there were thousands of student pilots in the United States who had exhausted their financial resources, impeding their training and ultimately their careers in aviation.
Danny Perna, CEO of Epic, said, “We started this program in February 2015 as a way to replenish our dwindling flight instructor staff after the pilot shortage hit our flight academy and grounded students due to the lack of flight instructors.”
The program initially provided student pilots $5,000 in sponsorship support. Now, thanks to Epic’s partnership with Trans States Airlines (TSA), the sponsorship amount has been increased to $15,000.
Trans States Airlines is one of the fastest growing regional airlines in the country, with 52 additional Embraer 145 aircraft scheduled for delivery in 2016. Trans States operates in partnership with American Airlines and United Airlines, and expects to serve over 4.6 million passengers in 2016, with approximately 237 daily flights providing service to over 70 cities in North America.
In addition, the program offers finical aid from Airline Pilot Finance Group (APF), a performance-based student-financing source. Before being accepted into the EPS program, each student is screened and vetted on traits such as motivation, multi-tasking, punctuality, and other criteria important in aviation careers. Cost for each applicant is $495. Once in the program, students gain access to sponsorship funds and APF support, if needed, for additional training.
Financial aid is a key ingredient for the success of the program. Pilot training can be expensive and remains one of the most challenging barriers to entering the industry. Many who take the leap of faith on this career path can easily spend $40,000, only to find themselves unable to complete their training.
Although Epic is an FAA-approved flight school, it has been unable to offer financial aid since October 2008 when lending institutions such as Sallie Mae and Key Bank pulled out of flight school financing due to the economic downturn.
Epic has a long history of providing financial aid, starting in 1999. It has trained hundreds of U.S. students annually, with most requiring some type of financial assistance. However, that number fell dramatically from 2008 to early 2015.
International student training remained strong for Epic during those years. However, international students return to their country of origin for employment after training, further exacerbating the growing pilot shortage in the U.S.
Epic and APF work closely together to ensure that students are on track to meet their career goals and complete their training in a timely fashion before joining Trans States Airlines as commercial pilots. The joint collaboration offers a viable solution not only in terms of financial support but also in career progression, company officials noted.
The APF approval process and lending structure is different from traditional financial aid because it is tailored for careers in aviation. Although credit score and income are a consideration in the approval process, performance factors are just as important.
APF manager Jennifer Bianchini said, “The relationship between the student and APF is important and goes way beyond lending them money. We have an invested interest in their success, so we structure the loans and payback to coincide with their flight training and employment at Trans States Airlines.”
The global aviation industry will need more than 500,000 pilots in the next 20 years. With more than 60% of the current airline work force retiring in the next 10 years and the shortage in new flight students, the pilot shortage is expected to negatively impact the traveling public.