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Auburn aviation leaders talk about changing landscape of industry, university’s thriving program

From left: Jame Witte, James Birdsong, and Bill Hutto

Like many industries, aviation is undergoing changes due to the pandemic. Three leaders from Auburn’s Department of Aviation—James Witte, department chair, James Birdsong, aviation program coordinator and recent winner of the 2020 Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award, and Bill Hutto, past acting chair and Airport and Aviation Center director—discuss below the changing landscape of the aviation industry and how Auburn’s program is responding. They talked about how the Auburn Department of Aviation is rising to meet the needs of the aviation industry during the pandemic and discussed their outlook on the future of aviation.

How has the pandemic affected Auburn’s Department of Aviation?

Birdsong: The two degrees we have are Aviation Management, which is the business side, and Professional Flight, which is the pilot side. The hiring was basically 100 percent for our pilots up until COVID came because there was a huge shortage of labor supply and ever-increasing demand. One of the challenges for us before COVID was retaining flight instructors because the airlines were hiring. That means we’re pretty flush on flight instructors right now. But we’ve actually taken advantage of that because we’re able to take more students as a result and get them flying.

Witte: We haven’t really noticed a drop in need based on COVID decline. The complexity of the industry will change as a result of the pandemic, but I think by diversifying, we’re staying on the cutting edge of the industry. We are not going to let the industry overtake us, period. We’re just not going to do it.

How might the pandemic affect students getting jobs in aviation?

Birdsong: Because pilots have to retire at 65, there’s movement there, whereas those on the management side tend to stay in their positions longer. For example, almost half of Delta’s pilots were eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, and in an effort to try to avoid furloughing people and basically getting people off the payroll, they offered early retirements. So, you get a lot of your senior people taking early retirements and leaving the workforce, which means that there are still plenty of opportunities for pilots once demand for air travel in the domestic and international markets returns to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Hutto: The corporate traffic is really rebounding, so there are many flying jobs on the corporate side of it now. Our graduates also go to different places, for instance, the Air Force, airlines, FAA, they go to crew resource management, revenue management, scheduling and other types of aviation-related employment.

Witte: On the flying side, about 90 percent walk out of here employed. They may not be moving directly into a United Airlines cockpit, but they are flying. As their hours build, they’ll move up there. We haven’t really noticed a drop in need based on COVID decline. So, we’re very confident in the future projections. I think a good general response to the question of, “Are we having a problem placing students?” The answer is, right now, no.

When do you think the aviation industry will fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Birdsong: From what I’ve seen, 2023 or 2024 is when everybody thinks things are going to get back to pre-COVID levels. So, there’s several years where there’s going to be this dip because there has to be a vaccine developed and there have to be vaccinations given. And then countries have to open their borders, because right now there are very few places that you can fly outside the U.S. I think that's indicative of a larger pattern, but again, it’s just to stop the virus spread between all the countries. But they’re slowly starting to add flights back, but it’s predominantly leisure travelers. It’s not business travelers, and business travelers is where airlines make their money because those are the people who buy last-minute tickets and a seat that really doesn’t cost any extra from what that person that bought that ticket a month earlier than you. It doesn’t cost to deliver it, but the amount of revenue that they make on that last-minute seat is huge. That’s where you make the money.

So, if you’re just flying around with people who are on vacation and are price-sensitive, you might be able to stay afloat, but not forever. There will be airlines that come out of this that are much better positioned, I’d say, in terms of market and health in the market. I don’t foresee any of them disappearing, but there are some that are definitely stronger than others right now. It’s going to be very interesting to see how they handle this.

What are some initiatives the Department of Aviation is taking to meet the current and future needs of the airline and aviation industries?

Witte: The aviation industry is much larger than the pilot force. There’s also an aging of the aviation mechanic. Well, mechanics keep aircraft in the air. Here at Auburn, we’re looking forward to having an agreement with Southern Union State Community College to be involved with the training of aircraft mechanics. We’re preparing students to make a contribution to the industry in a couple of different ways. One of the things we’ve found in perusing literature is that the primary factor in customer satisfaction on an aircraft is the service provided by the flight attendant. This is pretty well-documented within the literature, and it’s something we wouldn’t have normally thought of. We would have thought of time of arrival, time of departure, if luggage was lost, etc. We’re looking seriously at the prospect of contributing to flight attendant training and offering a certification program here at Auburn. It’s a joint effort with the hotel and restaurant management folks in the College of Human Sciences.

On the aviation management side, we are spreading out our offerings in an effort to facilitate hiring within the aviation industry. So, we certainly have the skill here at Auburn. Again, combined with the hotel and restaurant management folks, it’s an ideal way to access that market. So, we’re not just looking at pilots. We don’t train pilots here. We train aviators. That’s a big difference in what we’re doing. We’re training people here to go into the cockpit, who are cognizant of the industry as a whole. They’re aware of the forces that make an industry successful.

What sets Auburn’s aviation program apart from other programs and schools?

Witte: Forward thinking and optimism. I like to call it entrepreneurial education. We’re not just sitting here waiting for students to come in. We’re carving programs that attract students to come in, and then we solicit them. So, again, it’s this whole idea of producing viable products. With the record numbers of students coming in, that’s an indication that there is optimism and off-the-charts interest. James and I have worked on a project with the FAA, dealing with air traffic control training. So, Auburn Aviation looks at the field of aviation, not just pilot training.

Hutto: We love what we do here. When you enjoy what you do; there’s a passion. That’s what is driving our success. Without it, you will have a difficult time succeeding in this program.

Birdsong: Another thing that sets us apart is that we have three times the national rate of female aviation students enrolled in our programs. We are collaborating and connecting with all these other avenues to benefit our students. We may not be the biggest program out there, but we are working on being the best.

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