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Airline industry problems don't hurt UND's smooth ride

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A future pilot logs training time on a flight simulator at the University of North Dakota, one of only 11 colleges in the country to offer aviation training. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
These are tough times for the airline industry. In recent years the major airlines have lost billions of dollars, shed thousands of jobs. United, Delta and Northwest Airlines are all in bankruptcy. US Airways just emerged from Chapter 11. But despite those financial problems, there are still plenty of people who want to become pilots. One of the country's largest aviation schools is at the University of North Dakota aerospace center. So far the problems at the nation's major airlines don't appear to be harming the school's popularity.

Grand Forks, N.D. — An air traffic controller sits in front of a computer screen, scanning the information from an incoming plane. The flight is coming in for a landing at the Oklahoma City Airport.

The controller guides the plane in to a routine safe landing; a common occurrence at airports around the country. Only this isn't happening in a control tower in Oklahoma. This controller is a student at the University of North Dakota.

Down the hall in another classroom, students are getting flight instruction. They sit in the cockpit of a flight simulator and log training time.

For the past four years, Amanda Hanson has spent a lot of time in these classrooms. Hanson will graduate next month and start looking for a job as a pilot. She is confident she'll be able to find work.

"There are going to be pilot jobs, it just depends on what you want to do and where you want to go," says Hanson. "As as far as the airlines, there are pilots retiring, a lot of ex-military pilots are coming up on the age of mandatory retirement, and so there will be jobs opening up."

Federal laws require airline pilots to retire at age 60, and in the next five to 10 years this will create job openings.

Before Hanson can work at a major airline she'll need to get lots of experience. She'll need up to 1,000 hours of flying before she can even apply with a major carrier.

Last summer Hanson was an intern for Alaska Air, and while she finishes her degree she's working as a flight instructor.

Eric Hoolihan is also graduating this winter. He spent part of last summer as an intern with Express Jet in Houston, Texas. It was a good experience, but no flying time. He got flying hours working on a weather project in western North Dakota last year.

Hoolihan says at this point he has a number of options. He might apply for a job with a regional carrier, or he could go back and fly for the weather project. He's also considering applying for a pilot's job with a private company.

"I'm applying for a corporate job in Bismarck, I've got that type of option too," says Hoolihan. "A corporate career has always interested me, which is a little more stable because you have a set employer."

At a time when financial problems in the airline industry dominate the news, Hoolihan's optimistic view may be surprising.

Bruce Smith, dean of the UND aerospace program, says flying for a major carrier is a long-term goal.

"If you take an entering freshman today in the fall of 2005, it's 10 years before they'll even be considered for a major airline," says Smith. "The hope is by then they'll have all their issues straightened out."

Smith says new pilots usually start at regional airlines and work their way up. He says some regional carriers like Mesaba and Pinnacle are unlikely to hire new pilots. But airlines like American Eagle, Horizon, Alaska Air and Piedmont are expected to hire a total of at least 200 new pilots this year.

The University of North Dakota program is the biggest aviation school in the country, with more than 2,200 students. UND is one of only 11 colleges to offer an aviation program. School officials say last year, 68 percent of their graduates found jobs as pilots or flight instructors.

Smith notes the school has done a good job of keeping up to date with its equipment. Students train on the same type of simulators the airlines use, and that's something students notice when choosing a school.

"If they're going to have a chance, this (UND) is their best chance to get into the airlines. If they want to fly, this is the best place to come to fly," says Smith.

Smith says the school has other advantages -- there is ample flying space in North Dakota and the program has a great safety record. No one has died in a training accident in 25 years.

Graduates leave the school with their private and commercial pilot's license, and are certified flight instructors.

The pricetag for that education is $60,000 for in-state students. That bumps up to $80,000 for out-of-state students.

Typically, new pilots at regional carriers make $20,000-$25,000 a year. Many of them will freelance as flight instructors to supplement their incomes.

Tough times in the airline industry have taken their toll. Some schools are experiencing a drop in enrollment while others have closed. Dean Bruce Smith says UND's program remains strong. In fact while other schools struggle, UND'S enrollment is at a high point.

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