As the country continues to experience its worst pilot shortage in recent history, the airline industry is scrambling for solutions. Headlines of thousands of canceled and delayed flights, along with higher ticket prices, stranded passengers and other travel inconveniences fill newspapers almost daily. To combat this, airlines continue to make the career path increasingly attractive, with growing salaries and benefits, and the

These are stopgap solutions to a much larger issue.

While the pilot absences and bottlenecked consumer demand of the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically hastened the shortage, airlines have been grappling with a decline of pilots for years. At American Airlines, more than 7,200 of the airline’s 15,000 commercial airline pilots will turn 65 over the next decade. The pandemic only exacerbated an already looming crisis. By 2040, the industry is expected to fall short by an estimated 600,000 skilled pilots worldwide.

To get more pilots in the air, we must do far more to create a robust new generation of aviators. That starts with making training more affordable, efficient and accessible.

Pilot training is, for good reason, a lengthy process. Though less time-consuming than pursuing a traditional bachelor’s degree, accumulating the 1,500 hours of flight experience necessary to fly commercial aircraft can still take upwards of two years.

Pilot training is a costly endeavor; it is fundamentally one-on-one training, and aircraft are expensive to operate and maintain. Aspiring pilots often pay between $60,000 and $125,000 in tuition before they can start their career. As vocational training, federal financial aid is unable to help in most cases and insufficient in others, meaning learners must cover costs themselves.

A large number of would-be pilots, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, are unable to access the training they need. Too many learners who want to become pilots are shut out of pilot careers solely because of the cost. As a result, this high-paying and in-demand profession is overwhelmingly white and male.

While learners are able to take out personal loans to help cover the costs of training, lenders often rely solely on FICO scores and other financial records when determining whether they will lend to an individual. This means those aspiring pilots who need the most assistance in paying for their education are also the most likely to be shut out of traditional loans. 

One potential solution is to partner with third parties to offer merit-based financing, which looks beyond a learner’s financial history to consider the full breadth and depth of their academic lives and careers more fully, thus improving the loan options they have access to. 

For example, in partnership with Meritize, AeroGuard has started assisting its learners in gaining merit-based funding to pay for their training. Meritize examines a learner’s previous academic or military history to offer a more robust forecast of their success in the program than credit evaluation alone.

Because many of AeroGuard’s trainees are veterans, merit-based financing is proving to be a significant boost for our learners, helping them gain the funding they need to receive training and transition into civilian careers as pilots. After completing required flight training hours, AeroGuard students are guaranteed an interview with the regional airline SkyWest, where they can receive tuition reimbursements of up to $17,500 for their training. 

This more inclusive, streamlined and affordable pathway to commercial aviation careers is helping unlock new opportunities for individuals who may have otherwise never had a viable way of becoming a pilot.

One of our current trainees, for example, is a single mother who is transitioning from being a flight attendant to a pilot. Unable to access student financial aid and overwhelmed by the high interest rates of personal loans, she has turned to Meritize’s merit-based financing model to help pay for her career change. She’s now well on her way to becoming a commercial airline pilot. 

There are so many individuals like her — with the interest, drive and talent to become successful pilots — who just cannot afford to enroll in flight school.

Being a pilot is a rewarding and well-paying career, with a median annual wage for airline pilots or co-pilots upwards of $200,000. But that pay-off means very little if aspiring pilots cannot clear the financial hurdles to enroll in training in the first place. 

The pilot shortage can only be solved by first fixing the broken economics of paying for the training necessary for careers in aviation. We must help more learners pay for their education and earn their wings.