Nation's Largest Flight School Ready for Take Off at Allegheny County Airport

Feb. 11, 2022

Feb. 10—ATP Flight School — the largest pilot training school in the country — has landed in Pittsburgh at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, joining the Pittsburgh Flight Training Center there as another option in the county to learn to fly.

In business since 1984, it has trained some 20,000 pilots. Based in Jacksonville, Fla., the company has 69 other locations across the nation and a fleet of about 450 Cessna and Piper aircraft.

The school opened here on Feb. 2 and is set to start training its first student the first week of March, according to Michael Arnold, director of marketing.

ATP's specialty is an accelerated, full-time, fixed-cost program that allows students to earn credentials for becoming a commercial airline pilot in as little as seven months.

The program includes classroom training, simulator training and flight lessons. The cost of the fast-track program for someone starting from scratch is $87,995.

Pilots are in big demand right now, Mr. Arnold said.

"Pre-COVID, we were facing a shortage, and COVID just made that worse," he said.

Leading into the pandemic, the shortage was triggered by an upturn in retirements, Mr. Arnold said. When the pandemic hit, which crippled demand in the travel industry, airlines offered early retirement incentives, prompting more pilots to hang up their wings.

Now, two years into the pandemic, increased demand fueled by the rebound in leisure travel has worsened the strain.

According to one estimate, the U.S. industry is expecting a shortage of about 12,000 pilots by 2023.

ATP has partnerships with some 30 major and regional airlines to help graduates find a job. Right now, some airlines are offering up to $17,500 in tuition reimbursement, plus bonus incentives, Mr. Arnold said.

Graduates typically first work as a flight instructor to build flight time, then get jobs with smaller regional airlines (such as American Eagle, United Express and SkyWest airlines) before moving up to mainline airlines.

ATP has a direct placement program with Frontier, Avelo and Sun Country airlines that allows graduates to skip the regionals and get jobs directly with those ultra low-cost carriers, Mr. Arnold said.

The downside to ATP's flight school can be its price, according to the website Everyday Aviation.

"The price is well worth it for someone who wants to become an airline pilot as quickly and as efficiently as possible," the website said.

"However, in some cases students will dive into the program only to find out that being a pilot might not be for them. In that case, you can find you spent [or borrowed] quite a bit of money to end up not even having the career you set out to have."

It said ATP may not be a good fit for people who want to be introduced to flying at a slow pace.

"This is a program designed for people who want to live and breathe flight school," Everyday Aviation said.

"If you want to take lessons on the weekends as a hobby or aren't yet sure if being a pilot is a good career for you, you might be better off at a smaller local flight school where you can learn at your own pace."

According to Mr. Arnold, annual pay for pilots with regional airlines starts at about $50,000 and tops out at about $130,000. With mainline carriers, pay starts at about $90,000 and moves up to about $400,000.

"For dedicated career-oriented students, ATP's airline career pilot program is the fastest track to becoming an airline pilot," he said.

Patricia Sabatini: [email protected]; 412-263-3066.


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