MANKATO, Minn. — Delta Air Lines wants to hire 200 pilots a month to help build its fleet into the future and it's looking at Minnesota for help.
"You take off and you just see the buildings, how big they are then they get smaller. You start seeing everything from a new perspective," Madi Leubke, a senior at Minnesota State University Mankato, said. "Seriously, you can't describe the feeling of how much calmer life is when you're in the sky."
There's nothing calm about airline travel since the end of COVID. With demand now surging comes an urgent need for airlines, like Delta, to build a farm system. All pilots must retire at 65, and during the pandemic, thousands left the industry for an early retirement, opening the door for students like Evan Storkamp and Leubke.
Storkamp was accepted into Delta Propel, a pilot career path program complete with a conditional job offer and mentorship. Leubke might be next.
"Not many people get to say they took their first small airplane ride when they were six months old. I guess I had that privilege," Storkamp said. "Having that around my entire life, it really developed into something much bigger which is why I'm here now."
"I wanted to be a teacher, or professional athlete or something like that. Nothing in the aviation industry," Leubke said. "I wasn't terrible at math. I didn't enjoy it."
They took different routes to get here, and that's exactly how Delta wants it. Propel is only five years old, and MSU Mankato was among the first partner schools. There are now 17, but Mankato remains the only one in Minnesota. Still, of the 150 Propel students across the country, almost a third of them are in Mankato.
"Being born and raised here, I've got my biases, but I think there's a work ethic, customer service and personality of Midwest people that go a long way toward making this a success," Scott Calvert said.
Calvert is a longtime Delta pilot and Propel mentor. He says the biggest recruiting challenge for airlines is the perception that the career is out of reach.
"That's what we're trying to beat down because that's not the case. There are ways to do it, opportunities to do it. That's where the mentorship comes in," Calvert said. "Standards remain. We're in a spot where people have to grow to."
Those standards include at least 1,000 flight hours, which they can accumulate as instructors or in the military.
"I would hope it improves the customer service experience overall. Sure, I'm there to fly an airplane, but I'm also there to interact with the passengers. It is a customer service business. The customers have a choice of who they want to fly," Calvert said.
Storkamp and Leubke promise they're all in — it's not just about being a pilot, they want to be professionals.
"You're the one up there, you're the one in control and control of their lives," Leubke said.
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