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VOL. 133 | NO. 159 | Monday, August 13, 2018

University of Memphis Commercial Aviation Degree Takes Flight This Fall

Special to The Daily News

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After a three-year process, the University of Memphis is partnering with a local flight school to offer a Bachelor of Science in Commercial Aviation this fall. When U of M Provost Karen Weddle West went before the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for approval in July, she highlighted a “strong letter of support” from Fred Smith.

A personal endorsement from the founder, chairman and CEO of global logistics company FedEx Corp. emphasized the need: The U.S. — and U.S. companies like Memphis-based FedEx — needs more pilots.

The $65 billion transportation, business services and logistics company relies on thousands of qualified commercial airline pilots to fly its fleet of 670 aircraft traversing the globe each business day.

But that talent pool is about to take a nosedive.

“There is a need not only in the community, but in the field of aviation,” said Joanne Gikas, interim dean of the University College, which is partnering with Crew Training International (CTI) Professional Flight Training based at Millington-Memphis Airport to administer the program.

More than 40 percent of U.S. pilots at major airlines will reach the Federal Aviation Administration-mandated retirement age of 65 in the next decade, about 22,000, according to an industry report from Cowen Inc.

Couple that with the latest Pilot Outlook from the Boeing Co., it is estimated 206,000 new pilots are needed in North America alone over the next 20 years.

“Airlines typically get pilots from the military, but those numbers are decreasing as well,” Gikas said. “There needs to be something to fill that gap.”

An average cost of $50,000 to get the licenses required to fly a commercial aircraft is often a prohibitor. But partnering with a university allows pilots in training to use financial aid and scholarships.

“If you were to go to a bank and try to borrow $50,000 to become a professional pilot, it would be a hard thing to do,” said Kyle Mullen, CTI’s managing director of flight training and aviation services. “No student in our history has been able to get a personal loan. With the university, there are established paths to financial aid that open up to you. It’s probably the single biggest benefit to the population of Memphis.”

Now associated with a university, veterans can also apply Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, which cover most in-state tuition plus a housing allowance, toward flight training costs.

Under an agreement between the parties, the U of M will pay CTI to deliver the training instruction through flight and ground fees students will pay, plus tuition.

Simultaneously getting a bachelor’s and commercial pilot licensures will cost about $100,000 over the four years, Gikas said, based on the cost of in-state tuition and aviation fees.

A bachelor’s degree in aviation also reduces the FAA-required flight hours to become a commercial pilot from 1,500 to 1,000 hours, Mullen said, making it more convenient and realistic for people to fly for an airline.

The 120-credit hour degree, including 61 hours of aviation instruction, is interdisciplinary combining courses in business, law and leadership. It concludes with a capstone course, in which students become certified flight instructors, enabling them to earn extra money while logging flight hours.

In January, James Higgins, department chair and associate professor of aviation in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, conducted an external review of the proposed program.

“This program is distinctive for two reasons,” Higgins stated in his review. “Memphis, a large urban city, is uniquely situated to diversify the field of commercial aviation. Second, the presence of FedEx Corp. and its large footprint into the aviation industry will provide unique and specialized growth opportunities for aviation and aeronautics.”

Although Middle Tennessee State University has a similar program, a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace with six concentrations including the professional pilot option, Higgins anticipates U of M’s program to follow national trends of rapid enrollment growth.

The U of M’s initial enrollment numbers are conservative with five to 30 students anticipated to participate annually with the first graduates in year three. In year two, the University College anticipates hiring a full-time program coordinator.

CTI’s operations in Millington are outfitted to accommodate up to 100 students concurrently.

East High School’s T-STEM Academy and Wooddale High School’s aviation program are anticipated to serve as enrollment pipelines to U of M’s new degree program.

“Memphis has many people interested in becoming a pilot of some sort and we’re excited to have a partner,” Mullen said. “There’s only so much we can do on our own. And only so much people can do on their own financially.”

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