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Forces to Flyers

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Forces to Flyers
Washington, DC
Thursday, November 16, 2017

Good afternoon and welcome!

It is a pleasure to have Congressman Graves with us today, to announce this exciting demonstration program to help veterans become pilots.  Senator Thune was going to join us, as well.  But he can’t be here because his Senate Finance Committee is meeting on tax reform, which is very important for our country.  But he asked that I share with you his enthusiasm for this initiative!

We also appreciate the participation of Eric Eversole and Dr. James Birdsong. Additionally, we want to welcome members of our armed forces who are here with us today.  Thank you for your service.  And, of course, thank you Deputy Administrator Elwell, for being our emcee.  And thanks also to Senior Governmental Affairs Advisor Bobby Fraser, for spearheading this initiative.

We are here today because we recognize the importance of helping returning veterans find good jobs, and helping communities find solutions for the growing pilot shortage.  This shortage impacts air travel and air cargo service nationwide, but especially threatens rural access to air service.  This program is an important first step in addressing both of these goals.

Congressman Graves is an ATP-certified commercial pilot.  And Senator Thune has been a leader in calling national attention to this problem which is too often overlooked.  Residents of large cities take access to air travel for granted-- there are many flights to almost every destination and in many cases, a choice of airports. This is not the case for rural communities.  And now, their access to air travel is being threatened not by a lack of passengers, but a lack of pilots. 

Boeing’s 2016 Pilot Outlook estimates that North America alone will need to hire more than 112,000 pilots by 2035 to keep pace with demand.  The Regional Airline Association reports that by 2020—just three years from now—there will be a cumulative shortage of 19,000 pilots in the United States.  This has already been a factor in the cancellation of air service to several rural communities.

Over the past couple of years, several rural communities have lost their air service.  They include Roanoke, Virginia; Watertown, South Dakota; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; and Tupelo, Mississippi.  Loss of air service impacts the ability of these communities to attract new investment, which creates jobs and opportunity. Senator Thune-- who has always been a champion for rural communities-- has been working especially hard to address this problem along with Congressman Graves and other colleagues.

To explore ways to address this pilot shortage, and ensure our nation continues to be a world leader in aviation, the Department of Transportation is announcing the launch of the Forces to Flyers Initiative.

This is a three-year demonstration program with two main objectives:  First, to assess the level of interest among our military veterans in becoming pilots. And second, to help American veterans who are not already military pilots to receive the training they need to become commercial pilots.   

After the Department’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center puts the finishing touches on the design of this program, it will provide financial support for training interested veterans.  That support will include beginner courses up to receipt of their Flight Instructor Certificate or Flight Instructor Instrument Certificate.  As many of you know, flight instructors can use their paid time to earn hours toward their Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.  So, with certification, participants in the Forces to Flyers program will be able to earn a living flying while they accrue the flight hours necessary for certification as commercial airline pilots.  We hope to have the arrangements with flight schools completed, and veterans enrolled in flight programs, by the middle of next year.

The Forces to Flyers Initiative addresses three important issues:

  • access to air travel for rural communities,
  • the growing shortage of pilots, and
  • helping America’s veterans find good jobs in the civilian economy. 

This program is a first step in addressing all three.   Hopefully, the lessons learned from this pilot program may provide a foundation for a larger effort. 

So, thank you for joining us today, and a special thanks to Congressman Graves for being here, as well.