Alaska Airlines and its regional carrier Horizon Air announced a ground-breaking initiative Monday to offer financial aid to University of Maryland Eastern Shore undergraduates who aspire to be commercial airline pilots.

Sophomore Izaiah Brown of Baltimore
with Alaska Airline pilots Ron Limes and J.P. Wilson

The Seattle/Tacoma-based companies are launching a program called “True North” that will help top UMES aviation science students afford the considerable cost of completing advanced flight training and pilot ratings necessary to become an airline pilot.

Alaska Air Group will establish a fund to underwrite the cost of advanced flight training for two upperclassmen as they work toward graduation. The formal agreement calls for Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air to continue that same level of support in subsequent years for students who qualify to take the place of initial recipients after they graduate.

“Often the barrier to students entering this in-demand, well-paying career is the expense of the flight training,” UMES President Heidi M. Anderson said. “This partnership will ensure any student who comes to UMES and wants to be a pilot, will be able to pursue their course regardless of their financial situation.”

UMES’ True North beneficiaries will work for the university as flight instructors after graduation to build their resumes before moving on to the airlines for five years.

Alaska Air Group recently challenged its personnel division with developing a strategy to recruit a more diverse pool of pilot-applicants and in February began talks with UMES about entering into a partnership after executives learned about its aviation science program.  Capt. Ron Limes, an Alaska Airlines pilot since 1999, headed the initiative to make UMES a partner institution.

“When I became a pilot, I realized how few pilots looked like me,” Limes said. “I am excited by this program because it will remove so many barriers – whether that be financial or otherwise – for Black, Indigenous and People of Color pilots to have full and rewarding careers in aviation.”

Dr. Yuanwei Jin, chairman of UMES’ engineering and aviation science department, said “it’s good for (the airlines) and it’s good for the university. Developing these kind of programs (partnering with corporations) can be a model” for other disciplines.

“It comes down to benefitting the students,” Jin said, “especially students who want to be part of the airline industry. It’s a unique way to expand recruitment, especially for people of color.”

A 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report says 3.4 percent of airline pilots and flight engineers were Black and 5.6 percent were women. “The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers,” the federal agency said, “was $160,970 in May 2020.”

The leap from being a UMES graduate with a private pilot’s license to becoming a commercial airline-eligible pilot is expensive, and Alaska Air Group pitched a plan to help “knock down that barrier,” as one person involved in the talks put it.

UMES currently enrolls 70 aviation science majors, roughly half of whom are pursuing a degree that includes earning a pilot’s license. (The others are studying the industry’s ground-based management track.)

Participants in the Alaska Air Group
partnership agreement signing

Selection for the new aid package will include screening by faculty to identify top candidates, followed by interviews with company recruiters.

UMES junior Xavier Cox of Brandywine, Md., said he’s interested in the program if it will help accelerate his pursuit of being a commercial airline pilot.

“Somebody said this is a historic day for UMES,” Cox said. “I’d be honored to be part of what makes this partnership work for the university.”

Students who accept the incentive would be obligated to pay it back if they cannot fulfill the commitment to work for the companies for five years.  UMES alumni hired by Alaska Air Group will also be eligible for signing bonuses if those incentives are being offered at the time.

Once a UMES graduate achieves 1,000 hours of flying time and meets Airline Transport Pilot requirements, the alumnus will start with Horizon Air, the nation’s seventh largest regional carrier.  The goal is to put UMES alumni in a position to earn a promotion to the nationwide carrier, which flies to 110 destinations in the United States and Mexico.

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