Nota del editor: También está disponible una versión en español de esta historia.
Every pilot has a first flight, and Alex Gonzalez’s began with some nerves. He’d fallen in love with aviation staring out the windows of big commercial planes, watching the wings flex ever so slightly as they lifted into the air. But when it came time for his introductory flight as a college freshman studying aeronautics, Gonzalez remembers approaching a tiny propeller plane and being a little anxious.
“I didn’t have a lot of background on flying yet, and you see this small aircraft and you think, ‘Is it going to take off? Is it going to be OK?’” Gonzalez recalled. “But I jumped in, and we took off, and it was amazing.”
Four years later, Gonzalez has hundreds of takeoffs and nearly a thousand flight hours under his wings. His nerves have long since given way to excitement as he prepares for a career as a professional pilot, and the path to his dream of being a captain on an international flight has never been clearer.
The new graduate is a member of Delta Air Lines’ inaugural Propel class, a program launched last year to help Delta expand its pilot ranks. Approximately 8,000 pilots — nearly half of its current pilot workforce — are set to reach the Federal Aviation Association’s mandatory retirement age of 65 over the next 10 years.
It’s a scenario facing all major U.S. airlines, and with demand for global travel expected to only increase, Delta is carving out new recruiting pipelines with help from Wells Fargo. College students pursuing flying careers, as well as current Delta employees looking for a career change, can apply to Propel and access its suite of benefits, including customized financing plans developed by the bank.
For aspiring aviators, Propel offers an enticing two-way commitment: Successfully complete your required coursework and training along a defined and accelerated path, and a job at Delta awaits.
“That’s flipping the whole dynamic on its head,” said Brent Knoblauch, manager for the Delta Propel Pilot Career Path program. “A student could be a junior in college and hold a job offer from Delta Air Lines.”
‘A rewarding and sensational career’
Knoblauch, a first officer on Delta’s Boeing 717, knows firsthand how expensive and time-consuming the pilot training process can be. The cost of building up flight hours, certifications, and ratings needed to become an airline pilot is an expensive and lengthy commitment — one sometimes compared to medical school for its delayed payoff.
Propel aims to break down many of those barriers. As college students earn their degrees and certifications, they become flight instructors, reinforcing their own training as they continue to build flight hours. Once students graduate and reach the minimum flight hours required by the FAA, they have three pathways to Delta: Flying for Delta Connection (its network of regional airlines), flying for Delta Private Jets, or flying for the U.S. Military Guard/Reserves.
After 42 months or less with Delta’s partners, these new pilots are officially hired onto Delta Air Lines, fast-tracking a process that historically could take more than a decade.
“Being a professional pilot is a rewarding and sensational career,” said Knoblauch, “and through opportunities like Propel, students can have a defined and accelerated path and know that Delta Air Lines and many other airlines across the globe are ready to invest in them as aviation professionals.”
Alleviating financial burdens
Flying wasn’t a straight path for Gonzalez, who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to Tennessee with his parents when he was 11. His mother and father both worked in the restaurant industry, and Gonzalez intended to follow their path. He went to culinary school in New York and did an internship in California.
Still, Gonzalez said he kept feeling the spark for aviation he’d first encountered as a little boy reading books about technology and airplanes in Mexico. So with the support of his mom, he moved back to Tennessee and enrolled in Middle Tennessee State University’s aerospace program. As he built his flying experience, earning his private and commercial pilot’s license, and certified flight instructor rating, his expenses built, too.
A competitively priced loan from Wells Fargo allowed him to complete the last rating required to begin work for a regional airline.
“I was able to complete that in two or three months, which was awesome,” Gonzalez said. “It helps to know that if you need extra financing, Wells Fargo is willing to support you and help you reach your dreams.”
Ben Wright, managing director in the Industrials Group for Wells Fargo Corporate and Investment Banking, said Delta and Wells Fargo’s long-standing business relationship was key to understanding Propel’s goals. Wright and Ryan Olson, division market manager for Educational Financial Services, worked with Delta’s treasury team for more than six months to create the right financing program.
Students can borrow up to $25,000, and employees up to $75,000, from Wells Fargo as part of Propel under the customized plans.
“Delta came to Wells Fargo looking for us to help them customize a solution,” Wright said. “They knew we were a major player in the education financial services space and that we had a track record over the past few years of delivering on our word to find customized solutions that meet their needs.”
“We know pilots,” adds Knoblauch. “We know how to train pilots, we know how to inspire pilots. What Wells Fargo has helped us do is identify opportunities and ways in which we can help these students and internal employees achieve their dreams through financing options available.”
‘The happiest moment of my life’
“I wanted to surprise her with a flight and have her see what her support of me has enabled me to do. Being in the cockpit, doing my work, and seeing her excited about how I’ve grown from such a young boy from Mexico to being a pilot in the U.S., that was the happiest moment of my life.”
— Alex Gonzalez
Delta anticipates Propel will account for a third of new pilot hires over the next decade, as the program continues to expand with more students, employees, and partner schools. This year’s class includes five Delta flight attendants and an operations specialist. Employees are granted a leave of absence to build their flight hours with partner flight training schools and have access to larger Wells Fargo loans to offset their leaves.
All Propel participants were invited to Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta in April as an introduction to the company’s leadership, strategy, and culture. Inside the Flight Museum, Delta captains and first officers who volunteered to be mentors for students in the program stood alongside the Spirit of Delta, the airline’s first Boeing 767 that employees rallied to purchase when the company was experiencing lean times in the 1980s.
Wells Fargo representatives were also on hand for financial advice and assistance. “It’s just nice to see what we do day-to-day actually deliver on those promises,” Wright said. “We’re helping real people in real communities across the United States grow into their dream, and in this case, it’s the dream of becoming a pilot.”
The scene wasn’t lost on Gonzalez, who counted meeting his mentor, flying a simulator, and learning about Delta’s operations among the highlights.
In June, Gonzalez will start a job with Republic Airways, a Delta Connection carrier. But first, the boy who cried on the first day of sixth grade because he didn’t know anyone or the language celebrated his degree in aeronautics by taking his mother on an aerial tour of her adopted hometown.
“I wanted to surprise her with a flight and have her see what her support of me has enabled me to do,” Gonzalez said. “Being in the cockpit, doing my work, and seeing her excited about how I’ve grown from such a young boy from Mexico to being a pilot in the U.S., that was the happiest moment of my life.”