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United Airlines launches pilot training program to address shortage: "Opening the door for a lot of people"

United starts program to train new pilots
United Airlines launches a pilot academy to address staffing shortage 04:43

Airlines cannot fly anywhere without pilots and some are struggling to find enough of them. Next year, they expect to have a shortage of more than 12,000 pilots.

United Airlines has launched a program to train the next generation of pilots, including promoting other workers to fill those vacancies.

Ricki Foster is at the helm, learning the ropes with her flight instructor. She is a mother of two and a former flight attendant. She told CBS News' Errol Barnett that she was inspired to upgrade her wings. 

"Show me an excuse and I'll show you how you can overcome that, you know like you're too old? Well, I'm 38 and there's someone in my class that's a little older than me. So we're just starting now. We're getting it done," she said

Foster is one of 59 students in the inaugural classes of United Airlines Aviate Academy in Goodyear, Arizona.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says this is their effort to combat the persistent staffing shortage on the flight deck,  which has forced route reductions.

"We've got over 100 regional aircraft that effectively aren't flying because there are not enough pilots to fly them," Kirby said.

By FAA regulation, pilots have to retire at age 65 and by one estimate, almost half them will within 15 years.

Couple that with the COVID pandemic, which slowed the rate of new pilots taking to the skies, and it's almost impossible to keep pace with all the open seats.

"One of the biggest sources for airlines was the military. The problem today is there are not that many pilots in the military. There are a lot of drone pilots — that doesn't really help in terms of being able to bring people in," CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg said.

United expects 50% of their pilots to come from this program, and half of those will be women and people of color. 

The airline offers some scholarships and priority to relatives of staff — which helped former University of San Diego football player Aiden Mack follow his father's flight path.

"They're trying to cut down some of those financial barriers and it's really just opening the door for a lot of people. So I try and show them how cool aviation is and that anybody can actually do it," Mack said.

For Foster, who is originally from Jamaica, this journey is also about how her 17-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter see her.

"My name tag was there, and he looked so proud, you know. I did not mean to cry. Oh, you should have seen his face," Foster said. "He was so proud in the picture like, 'This is my mom, you know?'"

Foster tells us the pride she feels from her family is the fuel that keeps her going, so she wants others to consider this career.

Kirby acknowledges it will be a few years before these new pilots make their way to the regionals, and even longer before joining United.

In the meantime, this shortage does mean higher costs and fewer options for people in small cities as major carriers cut back service.

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