Once-struggling South Florida flight schools are seeing the largest influx of foreign students since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the result of a severe shortage of airline pilots worldwide.
The students can more easily enroll because the Transportation Security Administration has streamlined the application process. And South Florida is a popular choice for them because year-round good weather allows accelerated training and local schools have been aggressively wooing them.
This year, more than 1,000 foreign nationals are enrolled at about 30 flight schools between Miami and West Palm Beach. Most come on a two-year visa, training to fill a projected 460,000 airline pilot jobs worldwide over the next 20 years, brought on by surging market growth and the retirement of older pilots.
In the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, about 500 flight schools nationwide, including about 50 in Florida, closed down, done in by a soft economy and tight federal scrutiny on foreign students. Many of the 9-11 hijackers received basic training in South Florida and on the state’s west coast.
“9-11 killed general aviation, so we really had to start thinking outside the box in terms of how we would attract students,” said Andrew Henley, director of American Flyers, a flight school at Pompano Beach Air Park. The result: Schools are now advertising in Europe, Asia and Latin America, where the need for pilots is most immediate.
According to a study by Boeing, the Chicago-based manufacturer of commercial jetliners, the world’s airlines are projected to add more than 39,500 planes over the next two decades. Carriers based in the United States, Canada and Mexico will need almost 83,000 pilots. China alone is expected to need almost 73,000 pilots, European airlines 92,500 pilots, Latin America 41,200 pilots and the Middle East 36,600 pilots.
Foreign carriers already are hiring flight crews in large numbers, and 55,000 foreign nationals are receiving training at U.S. flight schools this year, according to the TSA.
“We perform a thorough background check to include terrorism watch list matching, a criminal history check and an immigration status check,” said agency spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
Pelican Flight Training, a school at North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines, has received government authorization to train students from Russia and Latvia. The students learn to work as airline crew in a $500,000 flight simulator and get the basics of flying in a small Cessna 152.
Matiss Veiss, 20, of Latvia, plans to fly a commuter airliner for airBalticcq. After arriving in South Florida in September with no flying experience, he hopes to obtain his airline transport pilot rating by July.
Veiss said training in South Florida gave him the best opportunity to land an airline job.
“We don’t have this level of flight school in Latvia,” he said, adding, “the weather is good for flying most of the time.”
Although Pelican is happy to accept people who want to fly just for fun, the business now depends heavily on airline-oriented students, owner Terry Fensome said.
“We just had go out and do something more,” he said.
American Flyers will open a training operation in Amsterdam on March 1 as a means to attract students from all of Europe. It also has a training facility in Mexico City to draw students from Latin America, Henley, the school director said. A number of local students aim to fly for U.S. airlines, he added.
“What we’re seeing more than anything else is career students who want to go on to the airlines,” Henley said.
At Palm Beach Flight Training in Lantana, students from India, South America and England are enrolled in a professional pilot course. The school also draws students learning to fly for fun and for business purposes, said owner Marian Smith.
“We have a nice mix,” she said.
Not all of the area’s flight schools count on foreign students to boost business. Lynn University Flight Academy, based at Boca Raton Airport, caters to anyone who wants an aviation job, whether as an airline pilot or an airport administrator. That includes about 35 people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who want a career change.
“They see the writing on the wall; they can’t advance in their jobs because of the weak economy,” said Jeff Johnson, the university’s dean of aeronautics.