United Aviate Academy Inaugurates First Graduating Pilot Class

United Aviate Academy
Credit: United Airlines

The inaugural class of United Airlines’ Aviate flight academy graduated Jan. 25 in a commencement ceremony at the new Goodyear, Arizona campus. 

Of the first 51 student pilots to graduate, nearly 80% were women or people of color. Currently, there are more than 240 students who have matriculated at Aviate.

As United ramps up substantial capacity growth with record 737 MAX and 787 widebody orders, the company launched the only U.S. airline-owned flight school just one year ago. United CEO Scott Kirby’s comments that U.S. airlines are unable to fly pre-pandemic capacity due to supply chain issues, including labor, have only added urgency to Aviate’s mission.

United has developed an in-house pipeline as it endeavors to train 5,000 new pilots at the academy by 2030. Aviate was commissioned to be a significant contributor to United’s hiring spree of at least 10,000 pilots by the end of this decade. The company says it inducted 2,400 pilots in 2022 and plans to hire another 2,500 in 2023. 

In his commencement speech, Kirby described the academy as being the only one of its kind in the world, created by “the biggest and best airline in the history of aviation.”

Kirby said United had set a unique course, particularly in the last three years. “[We were] the one airline around the world that saw the future coming with a reasonable amount of clarity, and started making investments for the future,” Kirby said. “This wasn’t an investment about the short term, but about the next 40 years and setting the tone for the kind of culture we want to create.”

Kirby went on to reflect on a personal level that he had never flown on an aircraft before until traveling to the U.S. Air Force Academy from which he graduated. “The country saw enough in me, with no flight experience at all, to give me a chance,” he said. “So, I’ve always had a vision that doing something like that for others would be important. And it’s here today.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who had previously visited the flight school, sent a pre-taped message for the ceremony. “As we emerged from the pandemic and so many people returned to flying, we saw just how challenging it can be when we don’t have the workforce that we need to meet that growing demand as pilots,” Buttigieg said. “You all won’t just be making a good living; you’ll be making a real difference in an industry of national importance that urgently needs your skills.”

Once graduated, some pilots will work as Certified Flight Instructors at the academy to continue accumulating the 1,500 flying hours required by the FAA for their Airline Transport Pilot License to fly scheduled part 121. Others will build hours at participating flight schools.

United established a $5 million scholarship fund for prospective flight school partnerships, with Boeing planning to come onboard as a partner as well. More than 22,000 prospective students applied, United said. “84% of this graduating class came to the Academy with no previous flight experience, meaning they earned their PPL and beyond here,” United Aviate Academy CEO Dana Donati said.

The 340,000 ft.² campus features 40 Cirrus SR-20s, seven FRASCA flight simulators, and dormitory rooms to accommodate the student body. In its inaugural year of operations, United said its enrolled students had flown more than 2 million miles, achieved more than 250 aviation certificates, and completed more than 68,000 takeoffs and landings. The airline said its “aspiring pilots also organized 174 ‘pool dunks’ in the campus swimming pool, a new tradition that commemorates each time a student completes a solo flight for the first time.”

Additional Investments

United’s regional partner Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines—in which United just took a 10% stake—is participating in the Aviate program. 

“We believe Mesa’s participation in the Aviate program—combined with United’s industry-leading growth plan—will provide the most reliable, fastest path for aviators to transition to a major commercial carrier,” Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein said Dec. 29 on his company’s earnings call. “Once our operations are fully integrated with United, Mesa will be the most attractive career path in regional aviation for pilots as well as all of our other employee groups ... I think United views Mesa as their farm team, and we intend to do everything we can to see that happen.” 

Fellow Star Alliance and JV partner Lufthansa has long run its own in-house flight aviation school in Goodyear as well. 

United has supercharged its training efforts with massive investments to combat labor and training shortfalls. On Jan. 17, United opened its a new Inflight Training Center in Houston, where 4,000 new flight attendants are expected to be trained over the next year. In June 2022, United broke ground on an expansion of its existing 23-acre Denver Flight Training Center—the largest of its kind in the world. Due for completion at the end of 2023, the new four-story facility will include 12 additional advanced flight simulators.

Contract Challenges For Current Pilots

Amid the voracious growth, it’s a turbulent time in the ranks of United’s 14,000 ALPA-represented pilots. On Jan. 23, the United Master Executive Council (MEC) elected Garth Thompson as chair for a two-year term. This position has been a revolving door over the last year, particularly in the wake of the failed ratification of the Tentative Agreement (TA) back in November. Collective Bargain Agreement (CBA) negotiations have been in stasis awaiting the new chair and ratification vote of Delta Air Lines’ TA on March 1. 

Efforts at securing a new industry leading CBA are spooling up anew. United’s MEC says it expects to make an enhanced comprehensive proposal to the company soon after next week’s special meeting. “Mr. Kirby has repeatedly stated that he feels a deal can be done in two weeks. We expect he will allocate necessary resources to match actions with his words,” a Jan. 24 MEC memo to membership said. “It will be clear at this point whether the company is serious about reaching an industry-leading agreement with the United pilots, as they have previously indicated they would.”


Chris Sloan

Chris Sloan is Air Transport World & Routes Senior Editor covering the Americas.