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Aviation program's closure is bad timing for airline industry

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Jeff Johnson
St. Cloud State University Aviation instructor Jeff Johnson performs a pre-flight check. Johnson disagrees with the university's decision to close the aviation program in 2014.
MPR photo/Conrad Wilson

Critics of the decision to close the aviation program at St. Cloud State University say the move comes at exactly the wrong time. Those in the industry expect an increase in demand for more pilots and aviation workers in coming years.

The decision to shut down the program comes as government-mandated retirement policies and more stringent regulations means aviation workers, especially pilots, become increasingly short in supply. That puts the closure of the program at odds with an industry in need of employees. 

Jeff Johnson teaches in the aviation department at St. Cloud State University. He taxis a twin-engine Beechcraft to the end of runway number five at the St. Cloud Regional Airport. Only his most advanced students fly the plane, after spending hours training in smaller aircraft, Johnson said.

As Johnson guns the engines, the airplane rolls forward, gathering speed. Seconds later, he pulls back on the yoke and the plane takes the air.

"When we get up a little higher it usually smoothes out a little bit," he said.

But back on the ground, things are anything but smooth for Johnson. The aviation department at St. Cloud State prepares students for careers as pilots, air traffic controllers and airport managers, to name a few. Johnson says he doesn't understand why the program is scheduled to close in 2014.

"I've heard the legislature talk about jobs, jobs, jobs," Johnson said. "There's a lot of degree programs out there that are producing graduates that can't get jobs."

Aviation instructor Jeff Johnson
Aviation instructor Jeff Johnson disagrees with the university's decision to close the aviation program in 2014. Critics of the decision to close the aviation program say they they expect increased demand in coming years for more pilots and aviation workers.
MPR photo/Conrad Wilson

The decision to shut down the program comes as government-mandated retirement policies, coupled with more stringent regulations, mean aviation workers, especially pilots, are increasingly in demand.

Any barrier that prevents a new generation from entering the industry is disturbing to Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade-group that represents airlines and industry suppliers.

"The need now for skilled aviation professionals and young people to get into aviation at any level is greater now than it's ever been," Cohen said. "The opportunity is greater now than it's ever been."

Neither the Federal Aviation Administration, nor the organization keep statistics on the future demands of airlines. But many of the pilots over the last several decades came out of the military, Cohen said.  And that's kept the industry well-supplied.

"But those people are now retiring. And the industry's grown exponentially over that time," he said. 

As much as Johnson and others would like to see the aviation program remain open, administrators at St. Cloud State said the department's closure is part of a necessary university restructuring.

Devinder Malhotra, provost and vice president for academic affairs, says St. Cloud State has refocused on creating graduates with a broad base of knowledge, not just ones ready for a specific job.

The university also needed to close a gap of $20 million, Malhotra said. Shuttering the aviation department will save close to half a million dollars. 

"It is not as if we set out wanting to close aviation. In fact when we started this strategic program appraisal we didn't know we'd be closing aviation," Malhotra said. "We knew we'd be closing some programs. But which those programs would be was really an outgrowth of a very broad campus level discussion."

Roughly, 150 students are currently working towards aviation degrees and will be allowed to finish. But new students are no longer being admitted into the department.

Bill Towle
Bill Towle, airport director for the St. Cloud Regional Airport, says the closure of the SCSU's Aviation Department could impact funding for the airport.
MPR photo/Conrad Wilson

In addition to affecting the supply of pilots, there are concerns the program's closure will hurt the local economy.

The closure of the SCSU's aviation program could impact funding for the airport, said Bill Towle, who heads the St. Cloud Regional Airport, where students account for almost half of all take-offs and landings. Towle said that translates into funding — the busier the airport, the higher the federal government prioritizes doling out dollars to maintain it.

"If we were to see a reduction in those operations, it just simply means there could be less funding for the airport, which for these projects out here: runway rehabs, taxiway rehabs, lighting projects," Towle said. "Those kinds of other projects are really needed out here."

As the St. Cloud State program shuts down, Minnesota State University, Mankato continues to operate an aviation program. Officials there hope to grow the program.