After a lull at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, leisure travel came roaring back with corporate travel lagging slightly behind.
Scott Vlasek, a lecturer at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Aviation Institute, said that although airline business is rebounding from the early days of the pandemic, there’s still a long road ahead, which will be impacted by the new COVID-19 variants.
“The domestic market is certainly coming back faster than international,” he said. “On the international side, they are not expecting this segment to recover to pre-pandemic levels until late 2024 or early 2025.
“On the domestic side we are seeing a faster recovery than anticipated. The leisure market should reach 2019 levels during 2022 and the business segment is expected back in 2023.”
First Priority: Support Services
Although there’s a massive need for pilots globally, an even more pronounced shortage right now is for qualified aviation technicians and mechanics.
“I have a huge need for aviation maintainers,” said Oracle Vice President and General Manager Dave Poole. “That field will continue to grow and needs as many bright young people as we can get into it. Beyond that, every other support job in aviation is continuing to grow and expand and needs good talent.
“Only about 10% of aviation jobs are in flying aircraft. The other 90% are all of the support services required to keep the planes and the industry afloat. No matter what someone’s interest is — accounting, legal, medical, or general business — there’s an aviation component to those educational paths.”
According to the Boeing Outlook for Pilots and Technicians, there is a worldwide need for over 612,000 civil aviation pilots, 7,626,000 maintenance technicians, and 886,000 new cabin crews over the next 20 years. The demand for these new positions comes from a mix of airlines growing their operations, retirements, and attrition. In North America, 130,000 pilots, 132,000 maintenance technicians, and 170,000 cabin crew members are needed.
“The industry needs to be doing a better job of reaching out and recruiting women and underrepresented groups,” Vlasek said. “There is also a need for more scholarships and financial assistance for students going into aviation. Flight training is very expensive.
Individuals can expect to spend $50,000 to $75,000 or more to get the certificates and ratings they need to become a professional pilot.
“While we hear a lot about the pilot shortage, there are other areas that are in need of highly trained and skilled professionals. On the nonflight side there is a need for air traffic controllers, dispatchers for both the scheduled airlines and charter operators, maintenance professionals, airport managers and operations specialist, flight attendants, and more.”
Pilot Shortage Persists
Last year turned out to be the best year for Ultra Air, and President Scott Robertson expects this year to match or exceed that growth.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic we had essentially no business for about a month and a half,” he said. “After that it recovered month to month so by the end of 2020 we were back to where we were pre-COVID or maybe even a little above that.”
Although the firm has been getting plenty of job applicants, many of them don’t have the necessary experience or something else in their job history that does not qualify them for the jobs for which they’re applying.
“We’re seeing fewer people who meet all of our benchmarks,” Robertson said. “One of the big problems is that most, if not all, flight schools got shut down during COVID. For argument’s sake, say there was a one-year lapse in flight training.
“On top of that, people decided to leave aviation, and they’re not coming back. The problem is it takes literally years to train a pilot and get them the experience necessary to [enter] the cockpit of a jet airplane as captain. Every airline is struggling with this. Even the military is struggling with it.”
Oracle Aviation, now in its eighth year at the Millard Airport, has partnered with Sioux City to open a new aviation facility. The project will be going out to bid shortly and construction is expected to begin by the end of the first quarter of this year.
Oracle also has partnered with Morningside University in Sioux City, which is creating a new bachelor’s degree program for flight training, and it has partnered with Western Iowa Tech Community College which will start a new program for aviation maintenance to train qualified mechanics.
“The neat thing about these two locations for us is they’re close enough together that they can support each other but far enough apart that they don’t cannibalize each other’s business,” Poole said. “Also, it will be very easy for us to reposition people, airplanes, and equipment from location to location.”
Urban Air Mobility (UAM) — an aviation transportation system which uses autonomous aircraft that deliver passengers and or cargo at lower altitudes in urban and suburban areas — is using new technologies for aircraft development, operations, and infrastructure.
The emergence of electric aircraft that can take off vertically and carry up to four individuals helps to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint and reduces the noise associated with aircraft operations.
“The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will have a positive impact on the aviation industry,” Vlasek said. “We will see construction projects at airports, investment in air traffic control facilities, and promotion of career opportunities within the industry from these funds.
“Airports in Nebraska will receive approximately $111 million for infrastructure development for airports over five years. There is also $5 billion in discretionary funding that airports can apply for to help with terminal projects that address aging infrastructure, expand accessibility for persons with disabilities, and improve access to disadvantaged populations.”
There is a movement away from the airlines toward private aviation, but airplane prices are at historic highs, and the labor market is difficult and expensive, Robertson said.
In November 2021, over 359,000 passengers traveled through Eppley Airfield, according to Stephen McCoy, chief information & development officer for the Omaha Airport Authority.
“While up from 2020 and supported by Thanksgiving travelers, those numbers were down 7.6% from November 2019, before the pandemic,” he said. “It is anticipated that full travel recovery will still take some time.”
In 2021 the Omaha Airport Authority introduced Video Relay Service (VRS) kiosks at Eppley Airfield. These seven new kiosks in the terminal aid deaf and hard-of-hearing travelers with communications via sign language interpretation to voice telephone users.
To further improve accessibility, 17 new visual paging monitors were installed in Eppley Airfield concourses in addition to those already in other parts of the terminal.
“For blind or low-vision travelers, we also offer service through the Aira smartphone app which provides access to highly-trained, remotely-located agents who deliver objective visual information including guidance through the Eppley Airfield terminal,” McCoy said.
The Omaha Airport Authority is currently making a number of improvements to Eppley Airfield through the Airport Access and Parking Modernization Program.
“That program includes projects such as our Terminal Entrance Roadway Expansion Project, which will include a new vehicle entrance to the Eppley Airfield terminal off Abbott Drive with stoplights and improved signage to make accessing the airport more convenient,” McCoy said. “It also includes additional traffic lanes to add capacity and provide safe and efficient access for years to come.”
Eppley is also working on a South Garage Restoration Project that includes wider stalls, energy efficient lighting, improved wayfinding, and a new express ramp that will provide exclusive access to a new Premier Parking area on level three for the most convenient parking option with quick, climate-controlled terminal access.
“Both projects will improve the customer experience, provide more efficient traffic flow, and enhance safety and security at Eppley Airfield,” Robertson said.
Skip the Line
Over the past six months, Jet Linx has seen demand growth of more than 40% over the previous year, according to President & CEO Jamie Walker.
“We’re running into a supply issue with having enough planes to provide all the lift to meet the demand,” he said. “The supply and demand issue is affecting the entire industry.”
Some of that growth was pent-up demand from the pandemic. The firm started to see demand spike in March and April 2021, as the COVID-19 vaccine became readily available, and by the end of June and early July the firm reached that 40% surge.
“That continued through the end of the year and has not subsided,” Walker said. “Based on what we see from the ownership side, the entire industry has seen a huge surge in the number of people wanting to own airplanes, so the inventory went from 16% of aircraft available for sale to now less than 2%.
“We thought by the end of the year we’d see a little lull in demand on the ownership side, but so far in January [that hasn’t happened]. We’ve seen aircraft values continuing to increase in December and January.
“We don’t see this spike in demand as temporary. It wasn’t only pent-up demand from the pandemic. We see this continuing for a number of years due to the microeconomics taking place in our industry.”
At the beginning of the pandemic the firm implemented a number of new protocols regarding the cleaning of aircraft pre- and post-flight, including team members all wearing masks.
“We have private terminals that sit outside of commercial airline terminals and (fixed base operators) that our competitors use, so we have a closed environment that only serves our customers,” Walker said.
“So, some social distancing is already built in. We have over 20 private terminals nationwide, so many of our aircraft are now able to leave a Jet Linx terminal and arrive at a Jet Linx terminal.”
Since Jet Linx started in 1999, the firm had envisioned 25 private terminals across the country. Its recent expansion into Florida gives it 20 locations from as far north as Boston, as far south as Miami, and as far west as Scottsdale, Arizona.
“The remaining five terminals we’re looking at (will) be west of Scottsdale,” Walker said. “Going into 2022 and beyond we see the continued development of new locations and growth of existing locations.”
The firm recently finished remodeling its Dallas Love Field location.
“We’ve been serving clients through there for over 12 years,” Walker said. “We wanted to refresh it, so we gutted it and remodeled it. We’re looking to remodel a number of other locations. In Omaha, we’re building a new 70,000-square-foot private terminal facility and hangar complex.”
Millard-based Oracle Aviation saw strong growth in 2020 and 2021, according to Poole.
“In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, we had the most billable hours and flight training we ever had,” he said. “I think many people took a time out when COVID hit, reflected on things they had always wanted to do and learned to fly or looked for career change possibilities. That was a bit of a surprise for us. It was a fantastic year in flight training.”
On the corporate travel side, business has been fairly slow but has picked up in the last quarter, approaching pre-pandemic levels.
“The charter world has been very busy in the last six to 12 months,” Poole said. “I think many individuals and organizations feel much more comfortable putting people in travel situations if they’re limiting and controlling their interactions with the public on an airplane.
“[Also] I think we’ll see more firms and organizations rely on charter going forward because it’s an on-demand service. You’re not at the mercy of [your flight being canceled].”
The firm has implemented stringent cleaning and disinfecting protocols for all of its training aircrafts, wiping them after every flight.