United Airlines buys flight academy to gain source of pilots

United Airlines said Wednesday it is buying a flight academy to help produce a new supply of trained pilots, an unusual approach to deal with the wave of retirements now hitting the airline industry.

United will take over the Westwind School of Aeronautics in Phoenix. The airline said it expects the academy to produce about 300 graduates in its first year, who would then build experience at smaller operators before flying for United.

The academy's graduates could help — but will not fully solve — United's need for pilots in the future. The airline forecasts that it will need to hire more than 10,000 pilots by 2029, as thousands of its baby-boom pilots hit the mandatory retirement age of 65.

United and rivals including Delta and American have enough pilots for now because they recruit from smaller, regional carriers where pay is far lower.

However, several regional airlines have suffered shortages — bad enough for some to reduce flying. They have had to boost wages and signing bonuses. Regional carriers operate smaller planes under banners including United Express, Delta Connection and American Eagle.

United said it will be the only major U.S. airline to own a flight-training academy, although other airlines have arrangements with flight schools to give their students a quicker path to a pilot job.

One reason for the pilot shortage is the high cost of training and gaining experience — it can top $100,000. Most applicants need a minimum of 1,500 hours to be hired by an airline. Chicago-based United said it is talking to financial institutions about helping the trainees with financing terms, but it gave no specifics, and a spokesman declined to say what the academy will charge for tuition.

The spokesman, Charles Hobart, said the academy course will last nine to 12 months with a curriculum that must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. After students graduate from the academy and gain enough flight hours for an airline pilot's license, they will be assigned to a regional airline such as ExpressJet, Air Wisconsin or Mesa Airlines to gain more experience before flying for United, he said.