Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Central Florida aviation industry shows signs of growth, promising careers

Seminole County resident Chris Moore can sum up his educational experience with one word - "expensive."

He drives 55 miles one way to classes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, and the $20 in gas he spends round trip is just an investment that Moore hopes to get one heck of a return on.

Having already obtained a business degree from the University of Central Florida, Moore just wasn't content with the retail job he landed post graduation. Working as a manager, he realized that a glass ceiling was in his future and if he wanted to get past it, he'd have to get his hands dirty. Dirty, perhaps, while working on airplanes.

Now, Moore studies aviation maintenance science at ERAU with hopes to venture into the world of sky travel once he's finished with his airframe and powerplant certification - a tool he must have to land a job in his field.

Moore realized what industry experts and economists alike are suggesting - the aviation industry is growing, and with it brings the promise of potential jobs and steady paychecks. The $20 a day may seem pricey now, but if Moore lands his dream job with Boeing, it will be a small price to pay for a promising career.

According to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration, commercial aviation is responsible for 4.9 to 5.2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, bringing with it about $1.3 trillion and around 10.5 million jobs.

Though this may be a nationwide trend, places such as the Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) are experiencing activity that falls suit.

"We've seen a lot of growth this year, especially compared to other airports our size," said Larry Dale, president and CEO of SFB.

Locally, SFB has seen continued growth with the addition of a Boeing 787 on its flight line from Thomson Airways and a brand-new runway extension, which opened on March 31 of this year, Dale said. Meantime, the airport is upgrading its baggage claims and reconstructing its southwest ramp, among other projects.

Now the third busiest airport in Florida - just trailing Orlando International and Miami International - SFB sees about 2 million passengers a year for domestic and international flights, a number Dale says he thinks could eventually increase to about 5 million to 7 million in the coming years. Nationally, SFB is the 23rd busiest airport in terms of takeoffs and landings, he said.

"We've grown steadily over the years, both in our capital improvements and our passenger counts," Dale said. "If we didn't have recessions with upticks and downticks in the economy and political turnover, you can say it's been pretty steady growth. But if you look at our graphs from 1996 when we first started entering into the commercial world, it's been pretty steady growth."

So what does that mean for hopeful aviation students? Dale says it means plenty of opportunities, especially in Florida.

"I think there is [a promising future in aviation] because there's so many people in my generation that are going to be forced to retire in the aviation business, especially pilots. There's going to be a tremendous pilot shortage and they're not getting many of them out of the military like they were in the '60s and '70s," he said. "You'll need more maintenance, you'll need more parts suppliers, you'll need more avionics and you'll need more flight crews and service crews from ground to ticketing [and] reservations. It's a trickle-down effect."

This is a need that Moore is hoping to bank on in the coming years.

Richard Beckwith, a professor at ERAU, is one of Moore's instructors who teaches a variety of maintenance courses at the school. He said Moore will need to complete 16 courses to qualify to work on aircrafts. But the course load doesn't just stop there. To get the A&P certification, students must pass ERAU classes, separate ERAU A&P examinations and an exam administered by the FAA.

However, the trouble is worth it in the end, as Beckwith noted an abundance of opportunity. Having worked with companies such as NASA and Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, Beckwith had some insight into the field.

"I've never had to look very far for a job. Once people realize you're educated in aviation from Embry-Riddle, doors kind of open for you," said Beckwith, who has been in the industry since 1984. "I see students who have graduated and, constantly, most of them that I've talked with, get jobs."

Beckwith's take on the industry doesn't seem to be too far off, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2012. Florida ranks in the top 5 states for employment in several aviation occupations - such as pilots, co-pilots, aircraft mechanics and air traffic controllers. The latest data show that Florida employs about 4,810 pilots, 3,090 commercial pilots, 1,810 air traffic controllers and 9,530 aircraft mechanics and service technicians.

But what's more is that Moore's money spent may be merited with average salaries around $51,580 a year in Florida. For pilots, BLS reported an average salary of $128,870 in Florida, and for air traffic controllers, an average of $118,500 a year.

Meantime, Beckwith says aviation in Central Florida is on the rise, and perhaps, the sky is the only limit - unless, of course, you throw the Kennedy Space Center into the mix.

"What I have noticed is more and more airplanes in this area all the time," he said. "We have busy skies over us."

Story and Photo: