AOPA and other aviation groups are lining up to oppose a proposed cap on flight training benefits for veterans.
An amendment to H.R. 5649, the Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Bill” Mulder (Ret.) Transition Improvement Act of 2018, that was recently approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would cap veteran flight training benefits. The amendment was originally introduced in December as a stand-alone bill, H.R. 4149, which AOPA opposed.
And in today’s growing aviation industry, that’s not an exaggeration. According to the FAA, there were about 827,000 pilots in America in 1987. Over the past three decades, that number has decreased by 30 percent. With air travel expected to double over the next 20 years, pilots are in high demand.
But for many aspiring aviators, becoming a commercial pilot is costly and requires thorough, in-depth, complex training. Without the aid of their promised benefits, most veterans cannot afford the necessary training. The groups wrote that the funding cap deprives veterans of the ability to pursue collegiate flight training, often a stepping stone to a career as a commercial pilot.
Not surprisingly, the number of veterans pursuing flight training is decreasing. According to a report from Marketwatch, about two-thirds of pilots were veterans in the 1980s, but that’s since dropped to less than one-third.
Legislation to cap veterans’ flight training benefits originally came about after it was discovered that some flight schools were taking advantage of the GI Bill by increasing the cost of training. As first reported by the Los Angeles Times, flight training companies began competing to attract veterans by offering costly training on sophisticated aircraft. In one case, a flight company’s records show 12 veterans whose flight training costs exceeded $500,000 each.
While clearly not what the VA intended, most flight schools have not taken advantage of the GI Bill, and AOPA believes there is no reason for a cap, especially in the context of a national pilot shortage. In fact, the signatories strongly supported tightening regulations for the Department of Veterans Affairs to curb the abuses by a minority of flight schools affiliated with collegiate degree programs.
According to a report from local Nashville, Tennessee, news outlet WKRN, many veterans are calling the cap a betrayal and discriminatory toward aviation programs. Veteran Patrick Malone spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps before leaving to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot at Middle Tennessee State University. News of the cap caught him off guard. “The GI Bill is definitely a benefit a lot of people are counting on so this kind of pulls the rug out from a lot of those people and it feels like a betrayal," said Malone.
Another veteran, Brian Larsen, was deployed eight times to the Middle East and is now working to get his bachelor’s degree in aerospace science and training to be a pilot. He couldn’t afford the aviation program without the GI Bill. “To put school tuition costs on top of pilot lab fees you're looking at upwards of $20,000 a semester. That's a lot of money to come out of pocket when this is our full-time job: being a student."
Though the aviation groups could not support the section of H.R. 5649 that would cap flight training benefits, they did support other provisions in the bill including accelerated payments to provide greater flexibility, a more efficient funding mechanism, as well as coverage for the cost of obtaining a private pilot certificate when incorporated into the requirements of a professional flight training program, and flexibility for public schools to contract for flight training.
Along with AOPA, the National Business Aviation Association, Air Medical Operators Association, Experimental Aircraft Association, Association of Air Medical Services, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Helicopter Association International, National Air Transportation Association, and National Association of State Aviation Officials signed the letter.