Where is aviation going? Will global biz help college programs?

How friendly are those skies for university aviation programs?

Last week I wrote about Minnesota State University – Mankato’s aviation program and its potential contract with the Chinese government — apparent success amid news of closures of aviation programs at St. Cloud State and the University of Illinois.

Is international business the way to go? Is Mankato doing something right?

I was hoping to get a little context and explanation, so I called up both St. Cloud and Steve Jones, executive director of flight operations at Western Michigan University.

First off, Mankato’s program was considered for closure last year, but received a three-year extension, spokesman Michael Cooper told me.

(I’m still trying to connect with aviation profs there for more info — including what the Chinese contract would be worth. Cooper said he didn’t know.)

Jones told me contracting with international customers might boost a program’s fortunes, but presents a big challenge:

“It’s interesting. It’s problematic. It’s got potential. But it’s got some issues.”

Chief among them is trying to juggle the different needs of domestic students and foreign contract students, who must be trained under differing national/international standards, and who must share the limited number of airplanes. Who takes priority when there’s a conflict?

He told me:

“It’s a lot tougher (than just dealing with domestic students). … We’ve had inquiries from China and Africa. We’re just being really careful.”

Jones said his and other flight schools are keeping an eye on Mankato and the Chinese deal.

Mankato appears to be hanging on during a long-lived slump in the aviation industry. For about a decade — Jones says since the 9/11 terrorist attacks — the demand for pilots has been down. That slack has depressed enrollment in aviation programs.

And it has forced a number of colleges to reconsider expensive programs that require large investments in aircraft and technology to stay current enough to lure students, Jones said:

“If you’re reacting to that, and not looking to what’s about to happen, it makes a fair amount of sense to say, ‘We shouldn’t train pilots.”

But the slump should be ending soon, Jones said, according to aviation industry data:

“Based on the number of airplanes being sold nationwide and worldwide, the (large) number pilots about to retire and the (decreasing) number pilots coming out of the military, there will be a definite shortage.”

Just how big?

Jones said the consensus in the industry is that aviation will demand close to 5,000 pilots a year in the U.S., and the demand internationally could be three times that amount. And yet at the moment, he told me:

“On a normal day, nationwide, all collegiate programs graduate 1,700-1,800 pilots a year — maybe 2,500 in a good year – which is half of the requirement.”

Job placement is already, albeit slowly, ticking upward — at least for his program, he said:

“I think the tide is turning as we speak. I’m getting increasing activity. American Eagle is talking to us about a bridge program, and we’ve had conversations with (Atlantic Southeast Airlines), and are talking to Delta.”

Hanging on till business improves, however, is tough:

“It takes a will to keep a program like this going especially in light of a prolonged slump.”