Photo: Norma Lopez MolinaAshlar D'Souza has spent more than $100,000 for flight training in Florida.
Trends in Aviation
A wing and a payer: Flight schools in Florida
State and private school flight programs make big bucks catering to international airlines and foreign students.
In 2005, an Indian teenager of Portuguese descent named Ashlar D’Souza landed in Florida to pursue his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. The 17-year-old started in Daytona Beach at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and then switched to the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.
Nine years after arriving in Florida, D’Souza has a bachelor’s in aviation management “with flight” and is up to 350 hours of flying experience — which also means 350 hours of paying for aircraft time, fuel and an instructor, not to mention the cost of his four-year degree and nine years of living expenses. Has he invested more than $100,000 in his dream? His answer: An emphatic “yes.”
And he still has an expensive road ahead before he can become an international airline pilot.
D’Souza is one of thousands of student pilots who comprise the growing market of internationals who come to Florida and pay big money to learn to fly at one of its more than 90 FAA-approved collegiate and vocational schools.
Though the cost would make any parent reach for the oxygen mask — D’Souza’s father, an Indian businessman, is paying for his son’s education — Florida is cheap compared to abroad, where costs can be 50% higher to 150% higher if pilot education is even available.
The students also know what the U.S. military learned a century ago: In Florida, the weather’s fine for flying for 300 to 310 days a year.There’s lots of airspace and forgiving terrain — no mountains to steer around. The numerous airfields created for World War II mean there are plenty of places to set down in an emergency.
Florida, additionally, has a reputation for flight education. Enterprise Florida says the state leads the nation in pilot training.
With Boeing forecasting that the world will need 533,000 new commercial airline pilots, most of them internationally, by 2033, Florida’s collegiate and vocational flight schools have been eager to expand the business.
Polk State College launched its flight-training program only last year and at present has the only baccalaureate pilot program at a public institution in the state. It already has begun talks about providing training in Lakeland for institutions abroad. U.S. flight education is “vastly cheaper” than abroad and “the simple reality is the demand is there. It’s silly to not go after that opportunity,” says Polk State aerospace program director Eric Crump.
The flight school market is competitive, and schools seek to differentiate themselves. At Florida Institute of Technology, Ken Stackpoole, vice president for aviation programs at the university’s flight-training organization, F.I.T. Aviation, brags that the university this year became the first in the U.S. to earn European Aviation Safety Agency authorization as an approved school for pilots working toward EASA qualifications, the kind D’Souza now is pursuing. Florida Tech has a similar authorization from Vietnam and is working on approvals from other countries.
A handful of state and community colleges, including Broward and Miami Dade, offer flight training as well, positioning themselves as less expensive alternatives for degree-seeking pilots — “a selling point we hold out to international,” says Miami Dade aviation school director Tom Jargiello.
International students at state colleges can pay triple the tuition in-state students pay. (They pay the same as Florida residents for the flight-training component.)
Community and state colleges contract with private flight schools that provide the actual in-flight education. Broward, for example, contracts with HOVA Flight Services in Pembroke Pines. Miami Dade hires Wayman Aviation at Opa-Locka and Dean International at Tamiami Airport.
The Miami Dade College students actually comprise just a share of a thriving international business at Dean, a 48-aircraft operation that like others in Florida specializes in international students.
In addition to the Miami Dade students, Dean has 300 foreign students who come “from India, Indonesia, from Ecuador, from Colombia, from Europe, from Saudi Arabia, from Australia. Name the country and we have them here,” says founder I. Robert Dean.
Private school students don’t earn a degree, but, in return for up to $45,000, they earn various certifications and about 260 hours of flight experience in nine to 11 months. After passing exams in their home countries, they typically return to Florida to another flight school to get qualified to fly Boeing or Airbus planes, Dean says.
Serving the international market can be challenging. Ever since it turned out that the 9/11 terrorist pilots learned to fly in the United States, foreign students have had to negotiate a thicket of background checks and screenings from several U.S. agencies to attend U. S. flight schools. Meanwhle, in 2012, Irish and Florida media reported that about 180 Irish students at Florida Tech had been left stranded and their studies incomplete after an Irish school which they had paid for training, and which contracted the work out to Florida Tech, failed to pay the university. Florida Tech said it was owed $1.4 million.
Florida Tech spokesman Wes Sumner says the university is no longer pursuing legal action for the money. Meanwhile, the university is after new relationships and international business.
“We are looking to serve the entire world,” Stackpoole says.
Flight Training Hot Spots
At Lynn University, about half of the 36 active flight students at Lynn are on student visas.
Only about a dozen of the 200 students in Broward College’s pilot program are here on international student visas. Associate dean of aviation operations Jan Shakespeare expects the number to increase. “We have been actively reaching out to international students,” she says.
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University is the world’s biggest university specializing in aviation. About 18% of Embry Riddle student pilots, some 200, attend on student visas, says spokesman James Roddey.
Polk State College launched its flight-training program only last year and at present has the only baccalaureate pilot program at a public institution in the state. It already has begun talks about providing training in Lakeland for institutions abroad.
At Florida Institute of Technology,F. I.T. Aviation has conducted flight training for Turkish Airlines, Air Astana of Kazakhstan, Flybe of the U.K., Gulf Air of Bahrain and Copa of Panama.Most of the 150 international student pilots at Florida Tech are trained under contracts with international airlines. The airlines recruit, screen and hire the candidate pilots and send them to Florida Tech for a 15-month fasttrack regimen rather than to get a degree.
Boeing consolidated its simulator training in Miami in 2013 at what is now the company’s largest training facility.About 70% of its customers there are non-U.S. citizens from airlines around the world, says spokesman Jim Condelles. Airbus and Pan Am International Flight Academy also have substantial Miami presences. At Miami Dade College, the flight training program typically costs $55,000 for the degree and flight training.Graduates leave with an associate’s degree and five pilot “ratings” — from the lowliest, private pilot, up to flight instructor — and 250 to 350 hours. Some 15 of the 275 students in the college’s pilot program are on student visas.
Sheik Amir, a student pilot from Guyana, enrolled at Broward College at age 17. As he researched U.S. schools, Florida became an obvious choice. “It’s pretty much flight training central here in Florida,” Amir says. He graduated in December with his associate’s in professional pilot technology and now attends Embry-Riddle Worldwide, the school’s online program and satellite campus program, to earn his bachelor’s degree. He estimates he’s spent $55,000 on his flight training alone. He teaches student pilots now but aims to pilot corporate jets and knows he needs a bachelor’s, more experience and must be a few years older to get a job. “Because I’m 20, nobody will be looking at me yet,” Amir says.