When the fall term starts on Aug. 26, the enrollment of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's flight program will have grown 45% since 2015.

DAYTONA BEACH — Mariano Quintero, Nicholas Carbone and their Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University classmates likely could not have picked a better time to pursue careers as airline pilots.

[PHOTOS: Embry-Riddle graduation 2019]

[ALSO: Embry-Riddle graduates largest class in history]

Opportunities abound and pay is significantly higher for entry-level regional airline pilot positions, double or even triple what it was a decade ago.

“There’s jobs. There’s jobs like there hasn’t been in a long, long time," said Kenneth Byrnes, assistant dean and chair of the flight department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

So it’s no wonder the flight program at Embry-Riddle’s two U.S. residential campuses in Daytona Beach and Prescott, Arizona, is attracting growing numbers of students. In fact, in the past five years alone, the university is projecting a 45% increase in enrollment in its flight programs when the fall term starts Aug. 26. 

The number of aeronautical science students on the residential campuses reached nearly 2,000 in 2018 and is expected to climb to more than 2,300 this fall.

“The class that will be entering here in about two weeks will be about 20 percent larger than the class that entered here last year,” University President Barry Butler said in a recent interview. “Reacting and responding and being nimble to growth is very important.”

Embry-Riddle is not alone.

Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne has also seen “steady growth” over the past three years, said Isaac Silver, associate dean of flight operations at Florida Tech.

A pilot shortage is driving enrollment at his school and others that offer university flight-training degrees.

“There are a lot of retirees from the major airlines," Silver said. "Regional air carriers have been replacing those pilots at major carriers, so the regional carriers are hard-pressed to find qualified first officers.”

Overall employment of airline and commercial pilots is expected to grow only 4% by 2026, Bureau of Labor Statistics show. That's slower than the average for other occupations, but demographics will create lots of openings.

Median pay for airline and commercial pilots in 2018 was $115,670 annually.

Buying Embry-Riddle brand

Demographics and the nature of a boom-bust industry have swung in the favor of students like Quintero and Carbone at Embry-Riddle. With baby boomers hitting retirement age, and airline pilots mandated by law to retire at 65, jobs are opening up while a strong worldwide economy has also fostered more hiring.

According to a university survey, more than 97 percent of 2016 Embry-Riddle aviation program graduates had jobs within one year.

Quintero, who grew up spotting planes near Palm Beach International Airport, had heard a similar statistic when he was contemplating his choice of schools in 2015 and 2016.

“That figure really appealed to me,” he said.

“I did a little bit of a cost-benefit analysis back in 2015 when I started to look into flight and what it takes to be a pilot," Quintero said. "Back then, it didn’t really pay too much. Going into the first officer position, you’d be making maybe $25,000-$30,000 a year if you’re lucky. So it wasn’t about the pay back then. But nowadays, the pay has just phenomenally increased. For example, at Endeavor Air, our starting figures are around $61,000 to $72,000 per year.” Base pay tops $50 an hour.

“The reason I got into aviation was more about connecting people. I’m not really too crazy about the planes. Just give me something that’s airworthy and safe and I’ll fly it. I’m more focused on being able to connect families. Bringing people home for the holidays or taking people on that trip of a lifetime for their family. That’s really rewarding and that’s kind of why I got into aviation, honestly.”

Embry-Riddle is the Volusia-Flagler area's most expensive university, at $33,120 a year, but also yields the greatest compensation. Ten years after graduation, students earn a median salary of $66,200.

Carbone said he found the Embry-Riddle brand worth the purchase price.

“It looks great on a resume. Embry-Riddle is known as the ‘Harvard of the skies,'" he said. "Obviously, we all want the best for ourselves in life.”

For Carbone, that means pursuing a job as a pilot at a legacy carrier. He also looked at Florida Tech and Purdue University, but was “in awe” visiting Embry-Riddle while he was a high school junior in Massapequa, New York.

“The facilities are top of the line. … It’s incredible to see our 75 aircraft and our flight (operations) building.

There, at age 20, he has already completed his pilot training and is now a university employee, a flight instructor and a participant in the Delta Propel Pilot Career Path Program, which provides financial assistance and mentoring en route to a job at the legacy carrier.

Maxing out?

Butler, the Embry-Riddle president, said the university has been nimble in adjusting to the larger number of students, hiring additional faculty and buying more airplanes.

But there are limits.

"We’re looking at alternatives. We’re looking at ways. ... We have a campus in Prescott, Arizona, and it has room for more students in that area," Butler said. “Here in Daytona Beach this coming fall we will likely be at that capacity.”

Byrnes, the flight chair, said in the past two years, Embry-Riddle has added a net increase of 17 airplanes.

"Our ramp is full," Byrnes said. "We can't fit another airplane on our ramp. We've maxed out."

While the university could remove some temporary buildings and enlarge its flight line, another challenge at Daytona Beach International Airport is air space. The university's activities contribute to one of the state's busiest airports, but there are limits on the number of planes that can be in the air at one time and students can't train over the ocean, Byrnes said.

As a consequence, Embry-Riddle's acceptance rate will likely drop and the university will be adding restrictions.

"Students can come, but they’re not going to fly when they first get here. We’re going to have to phase them in," Byrnes said. He expects flight students will have access to the planes starting in their second semester — "hopefully no more than that."

The job forecast, without factoring in unpredictable market conditions and technology disruptions, remains strong for aspiring pilots. Delta, for instance, has 14,600 pilots and their average age is in the 50s.

"Just looking at the retirements alone," Byrnes said, "we're looking at least 10 years of continued high demand."

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