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VOL. 11 | NO. 21 | Saturday, May 26, 2018

FedEx Rolls Out the Purple Runway For Its Next Generation of Pilots


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FedEx Express is paving a runway for the pilots of tomorrow – a direct pipeline to flying for the Memphis-based delivery services company on the Fortune 500 list.

Participants in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association SAFECON 2018 competition at Indiana State University check out a FedEx Express Cessna C-208F cargo aircraft. FedEx promoted its Purple Runway program during the event. (Submitted)

The subsidiary of FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) announced Purple Runway – A FedEx Pathways Program this spring to address an industry-wide shortage of up-and-coming pilots.

In a speech at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, site of the only aviation school in the state college system, FedEx chairman and CEO Fred Smith said Purple Runway will play an important role in the continued growth and success of FedEx Express and its feeder operators.

Feeder operators are independent companies, but their pilots fly smaller FedEx planes that FedEx provides for smaller routes, such as Buffalo, New York, to Indianapolis, Indiana, and Memphis to Birmingham, Alabama. Feeder pilots aren’t FedEx employees.

Under the Purple Runway program, feeder pilots who qualify will go to the front of the line for FedEx pilot job interviews. The coveted FedEx pilot jobs – careers flying so-called “trunk” planes, or big jets – pay an average of about $200,000 annually, far more than a job flying a smaller, regional plane.

“We always have people wanting to fly for FedEx,” said Tom Jones, manager for air operations and global express communications at FedEx Express. “Our feeders, though, were struggling a little bit with getting applicants. The military’s having the same issue. The pilot shortage is becoming kind of a problem. … In 10 years, we may not have enough pilots.”

FedEx Express currently employs about 4,500 pilots to fly its “trunk” planes.

Purple Runway was created for career development of pilots at feeders, to assist feeder operators with recruiting of high-quality candidates, and to provide FedEx with an early opportunity to evaluate feeder pilots to possibly fly big jets. In fact, the announcement of Purple Runway alone generated an uptick of more than 200 applications in the weeks that followed at one of the feeder operators, Mountain Air Cargo. So far, 25 of the applicants have been hired.

FedEx’s Jones attributed the rise directly to Purple Runway.

“People see there’s a FedEx connection and a pathway,” he said. “When you put the reputation of FedEx on the line, it has industry-shaping effects.”

Craig Bentley, president and CEO of Denver, North Carolina-based Mountain Air, said of the new applications, “We attribute a lot of that to some horsepower and branding by FedEx. It’s really the top of the top to fly for them.”

The other feeder signed on is Empire Airlines. While Mountain Air handles a lot of the routes east of the Mississippi River, Empire flies several western routes. In all, seven feeder airlines may eventually be part of Purple Runway.

Earlier this year, FedEx announced steps to modernize the company’s feeder fleet with the purchase of 30 ATR 72-600F aircraft and an option to buy 20 more, and a purchase agreement for 50 new-design Cessna SkyCourier 408F aircraft, with the option to buy up to 50 more. The Purple Runway program is expected to provide a reliable pipeline of pilot applicants with experience flying the feeder aircraft for jobs flying bigger FedEx aircraft.

As part of the Purple Runway effort, FedEx and the feeders will collaboratively reach out to college students with an interest in aviation careers. Delta State was the first stop. FedEx also promoted the program at a National Intercollegiate Flying Association competition a few weeks ago at Terre Haute International Airport – Hulman Field. The event was hosted by Indiana State University. About 40 schools from around the country participated, including Delta State.

Aviation careers and the “maturation process” requires extensive time, expense and commitment, Bentley said, adding there’s been almost 10 years of decline in enrollments.

With four years of college, a year of flight school and additional on-the-job experience, the process can take several years. Under the Purple Runway program, however, qualified college-educated pilots hired by the feeders can expect to get an audience with FedEx Express in about 36 months.

As employees of a feeder and participants in the Purple Runway program, pilots will take a jet transition course, preparing them further for a FedEx job.

Officials believe the quicker route to FedEx will address the shortage that’s partly due to retirements. The FAA requires FedEx jet pilots and other commercial pilots to retire at age 65. The shortage is an issue all over the world, Bentley said, with an expected 60,000 pilots shy of what’s needed over the next 20 years.

A few pilots will be grandfathered into the Purple Runway program and qualify to apply to FedEx quicker than 36 months. They already have worked for feeders for a while.

Such is the case with Capt. Lindsay Ervin, 29, of Greensboro, North Carolina. A pilot with 11 years of experience – four with Mountain Air – she’s expecting to apply for a FedEx jet job in maybe six months.

“I’ve always wanted to work for FedEx,” she said. In the past, “you’d apply and hope they call you.”

A graduate of Western Michigan University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in aviation administration, Ervin expects the Purple Runway program to make her dream come true.

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