Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Natalie Baker is taxiing towards a job ahead of schedule in an office that will take her to new heights.
Baker graduated from Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation
in 2022 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation Flight Science and is among the first graduates of the College of Aviation to access a partnership between the College and Allegiant Travel Company
announced on November 2. WMU is an inaugural partner in Allegiant’s Accelerate Pilot Pathway program, which will streamline the career trajectory for graduates like Baker.
“This program is a really good opportunity for me and other students at Western because it gives us the chance to skip the next step of flying for a regional air carrier and go straight to piloting an Airbus and flying longer routes,” says Baker, who is from Mason.
Before they can fly for a regional carrier, graduates of the Aviation Flight Sciences program not in the Accelerate Pilot Pathway Program, must earn their Airline Transport Pilot certification which is achieved by logging 1,500 flying hours, says Tom Grossman, Executive Director, Flight Operations for WMU’s College of Aviation.
Natalie Baker, a recent graduate of WMU's College of Aviation, will be among the first to take part in a partnership between WMU and Allegiant Travel Company.
However, WMU’s program enables graduates to get their ATP certificate in “as little as 1,000 hours,” he says. “The career pathway that someone might go through is to go from that 1,000-hour mark to a regional carrier to the major airlines.”
Graduates can log the ATP-required hours working as flight instructors, aerial surveyors, or piloting small, lighter aircraft that fly banners, among other jobs.
The Allegiant partnership enables these same graduates to log their 1,000 hours for the ATP certification and go straight to piloting larger aircraft, Grossman says.
After graduating with her degree, Baker became a Certified Flight Instructor and worked for the College of Aviation teaching other students She says it took her just over one year to log the required 1,000 hours.
“Everybody’s different,” she says. “Some are faster than others.”
Students who enroll in the Accelerate Pilot Pathway program are assigned an Allegiant mentor to guide them through their educational journey and have the opportunity to be hired as a cadet their senior year with a conditional job as an Allegiant first officer, according to a press release from WMU.
“Students and recent alumni hired as cadets have the ability to visit Allegiant's headquarters in Las Vegas as well as the airline's training centers. Once a cadet completes their required hours of flight training, Allegiant will sponsor their Airline Transport Pilot Certification course. Upon completion, the cadet will join Allegiant as a first officer,” according to the press release.
WMU currently has 13 cadets in the Accelerate program and two of them have started training as first officers.
In addition to Allegiant, students in the College of Aviation have career pathway program opportunities with Delta Propel Pilot Career Path Program
, United Aviate Pilot Development Program
, AAR EAGLE Career Pathway Program
, Sky West Pilot Pathway
, and AMT Pathway
Tom Grossman, Executive Director, Flight Operations for WMU’s College of Aviation
For Baker and other graduates of the College of Aviation, based at the Battle Creek Executive Airport at Kellogg Field, the partnership with Allegiant enables them to forego flying for smaller regional carriers, s requirement to pilot larger commercial aircraft, says Tom Grossman, Executive Director, Flight Operations for WMU’s College of Aviation.
Baker will go through three months of training in Las Vegas that includes a full flight simulator and will then be fully prepared to fly passengers around the world in an Airbus aircraft. She says Allegiant has also ordered some Boeing 737s that are due at the end of this year.
“This is what I’ve been training for the past five years. Western has prepared me very well to take this next step to the airlines. It’s a very big step,” she says.
Among the other advantages she will have working for Allegiant is a flight schedule that will enable her to be home every night if that’s what she chooses.
“The big difference with Allegiant is that they really promote out and back flights which gives you more time with family and friends because you’re home every night,” Baker says.
Filling the pilot pipeline
In 2021, Dave Powell, who retired in 2021 as Dean of the College of Aviation, used the term “madhouse” to describe what it could look like as domestic and international airlines scrambled to find pilots to fill predicted shortage
s that would begin in 2023 and grow in severity by 2025.
His prediction proved true. In April, representatives of airline industry groups told Congress that the U.S. Airline industry is about to be hit with a “tsunami of pilot retirements” that will further the nation’s pilot shortage, limiting flight availability for passengers and putting upward pressure on fares, according to a CNN story
. These representatives also say that more than half of pilots working today hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 in the next 15 years and younger pilots are not making up for those aging out.
“The pilot shortage has resulted in a collapse in air service,” says Faye Malarkey Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association, told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing in prepared remarks reported by CNN.
Grossman says there are a multitude of factors contributing to the pilot shortage, including retirements and airline growth.
“If you look back many years, airline travel was not for the everyday person,” he says.
However, this has not been the case for a long time and the post-COVID demand for airline travel has only added to it. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Air Traffic Organization (ATO) says it provides service to more than 45,000 flights and 2.9 million airline passengers across more than 29 million square miles of airspace each day, according to its website
Grossman is among those frequent fliers and says in the last few years he has spent more time in commercial aircraft than on a bus. He says among the things that airlines have been doing to address the pilot shortage is to drop the requirements for a baccalaureate degree.
“We have a fair amount of professional flight schools providing flight training outside of a college or university environment, but the shortage is still an issue,” he says.
By providing mentorship, conditional employment, and assistance with regulatory credentials, Allegiant hopes the Accelerate Pilot Pathway will streamline the process new pilots face.
"The ability for our students to seamlessly transition from flight school to a career with a major carrier is huge,” Grossman is quoted as saying in the press release.
During the Fall semester, the College of Aviation had an enrollment of 1,123 students with 650 in the Aviation Flight Science program and the remainder in Technical Operations and Management Operations. Some of these students are double majors in Management Operations and Aviation Flight Science.
Of this total, females account for 20.2 percent of students in Aviation Flight Science; 13.6 percent in Technical Operations; and 26.5 percent in Aviation Management and Operations. Compared to an industry average of less than 5 percent, Grossman says these numbers for the College of Aviation are impressive.
While the current total enrollment represents a slight decrease from last year’s number, Grossman says this is because the College of Aviation is managing admission into its Flight Science program because of the high demand for pilot training.
“If we accepted everybody that applied we would be over capacity and we would not be able to accommodate and train pilots admitted into the program,” he says. ”In looking at 2018-19 we had an incoming freshman class of nearly 300 students and we cannot handle that many students. In 2021 we started scaling back the incoming freshman class size.”
The incoming class this Fall was 150 up from 109 in 2022. Grossman says he expects to have 150 in the 2024 incoming class.
These students are supported by 24 full-time faculty, 15 part-time faculty, a staff of 36, and a temporary staff of 50, the majority of whom are flight instructors. There also are 99 student employees.
The College is ranked as the No. 2 aviation college in the nation by FLYING Magazine
Grossman says the Allegiant partnership "demonstrates the confidence that Allegiant Air has in the quality of graduates that WMU provides. This is a win-win situation for both the airline and our aviation Broncos.”