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Auburn School of Aviation leaders discuss state of aviation industry, university’s role in feeding pipeline

James Witte and James Birdsong
James Witte, left, and James Birdsong are leading Auburn's School of Aviation to new heights.

The country’s aviation industry is currently experiencing a substantial staffing shortage, from pilots and airport staff to mechanics and management personnel. Leaders from Auburn’s School of AviationJames Witte, department chair, and James Birdsong, aviation program coordinator and winner of the 2020 Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award—recently discussed the state of the industry, how the situation developed and what leading national programs like Auburn are doing to help feed the pipeline with qualified professionals who are ready to make an immediate impact after graduation.

It has been widely publicized that the airline industry is struggling with personnel shortages in several categories, including pilots, airport staff and mechanics. Can you talk about how this came about and how long this issue might persist?

Birdsong: The combination of an aging aviation workforce (pilots, airport staff and mechanics), coupled with the early retirement incentives offered by airlines early in the pandemic as airlines worked to cut operating costs as demand plummeted, followed by rapidly increasing demand for air travel on the backside of the pandemic, led to the current situation where the industry is struggling with personnel shortages. Additionally, about 50% of all Air Transport Pilot certificate holders (the license required to serve as a pilot at the airlines) will reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 within 15 years, meaning half of the current pilot workforce will need to be replaced over the next 15 years. The industry is onboarding many young talents, but training pilots and other professionals takes time. In the short term, airlines are working to balance their capacity with demand by adjusting schedules, but in the long term, they are planning for an extended period of hiring new talent over the next decade. 

Auburn’s School of Aviation is producing highly skilled graduates via both professional flight and aviation management majors, and their job placement has been extremely high in recent years. How have programs like Auburn Aviation helped meet the demand for high-quality personnel and how has that demand helped increase the number of students interested in working in the industry?

Birdsong: Graduates of both degrees, professional flight and aviation management, are joining the aviation workforce in record numbers. Prospective students see the many opportunities graduates enjoy and see Auburn as an excellent onramp to a career in the airline industry.

The aviation program at Auburn has grown exponentially in the last seven to eight years, with nearly 700 students expected to participate in the two majors this fall. Can you talk about that growth and Auburn’s evolution into one of the nation’s premier programs?

Birdsong: The growth of the Auburn School of Aviation is a reflection of the times. We are certainly in a period of growth and replacement of personnel retiring throughout the aviation industry. A fair window for the current expansion would be a 10-year consideration of expansion and prediction concerning the market forces.

Auburn Aviation has already forged partnerships with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines that have benefited all involved. What other alliances is the program currently working on for the coming months and years?

Witte: We are incredibly fortunate to have a working relationship with Delta and United. These agreements allow for a smooth transition from a school setting to active employment with a major airline. We are also looking at similar arrangements with Southwest Airlines.

The School of Aviation at Auburn boasts a top-notch group of instructors and faculty members. Could you discuss the importance of students receiving instruction from veteran pilots who have excelled in the military and commercial sectors of the aviation industry?

Witte: As a Part 141 flight school, we have a very high standard of acceptance into our school. As we expand our academic offerings to the graduate level, a doctorate degree plus flight experience is a requirement. Competent aviators with a high level of formal academic education are desirable, sought after and scarce. Entering aviation academics is highly competitive.

Auburn’s growth is expected to continue in the coming years. What will that look like in terms of additional facilities and resources, and how can program supporters donate to the cause?

Witte: The future of the aviation program at Auburn is centered around three factors: Facilities, Faculty and Funding. All three areas are germane to the success of the school. We are finalizing the introductory process of developing a significant expansion to the existing Delta Building to support the needs of the professional flight program. At the same time, we are exploring the steps to secure an administration building for the school at the airport to support the expanded faculty, house teaching labs and better facilitate student learning.

There are numerous ways Auburn Aviation supporters can get involved to help propel our progress.

Tags: Aviation

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