Even with pandemic challenges, WMU Aviation expects growth

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — The Western Michigan University College of Aviation is anticipating an increase in enrollment this year and a growing need within the industry despite the hit it has taken because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has been challenging for airlines and schools that train pilots and mechanics, but WMU College of Aviation Dean Dave Powell said upcoming retirements mean there will still be a need for new hires even if many planes remain grounded.

“As a pilot, you have to retire out at 65. Mechanics don’t have a limit on it but they retire somewhere in their early to mid-60s, as well,” Powell said.

WMU graduate Ryan Sewell was hired as a first officer by a regional airline in November 2019 and made it through training right before the pandemic.

“I was kind of seeing what was really going on in the airport day by day. You see the numbers just drop,” Sewell said.

He has noticed passenger traffic beginning to increase but still knows many other graduates who are not able to start a new position.

“Basically, the airlines have stopped their hiring process and our airline specifically has paused all training so people that were in training a few months ago have been sent home,” Sewell said.

While air traffic is beginning to pick up, the numbers still aren’t very good. The TSA screened 417,924 passengers Tuesday. The same day last year had 2,466,574 travelers, which works out to a nearly 83% drop.

But Powell said passenger numbers will recover and more students are expected to enroll to fill the need.

“In the last 10 years, we’re up about 75% in enrollment and this year we’re forecasted to be at double-digit increase again,” Powell said.

Responding to the projected growth, the WMU College of Aviation is building a $22 million facility at the Battle Creek Executive Airport. The state of Michigan has contributed $15 million and the university is covering the rest.

“The need for this new building, or an extra 50,000 square feet, is tremendous,” Powell said. “It gives us more classrooms, it gives us more labs, office space for faculty, all the ways that we can handle the growth for this industry.”

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