The U.S. is blessed with a well-developed aviation infrastructure of more than 1,700 airports and largely unregulated airspace. This fact goes largely unnoticed by a majority of Americans, but to foreign nationals from places like Bahrain, where there is only one airport and airspace is highly restricted, the U.S. is like a dream come true.
U.S. Flight schools like Oxford Aviation Academy in Phoenix cater to student pilots like Mahmood Ali Al Sheikh from Bahrain, who has dreamed of being a pilot since he was 14 and soloed this past October. With more than 1,700 airports and more flight instructors than some countries have pilots, the U.S. is very attractive to foreign students.
Some of the schools, like the Oxford Aviation Academy, are operated by foreign corporations; while others are U.S. schools taking advantage of the huge market of international students. While many of the foreign operators have schools in many European countries as well, the expense of training in Europe drives many students to U.S. schools. In fact, the high cost of training in Europe even has some European airlines like Lufthansa sending pilots to the U.S. for training. Regardless of reason, whether cost or a lack of infrastructure, the U.S. is often the most attractive option for foreign pilots.
While the U.S. aviation sector has come on some difficult times, other countries, particularly in East Asia (such as China, which recently announced the opening of airspace to general aviation) and the Middle East, are seeing a booming commercial air travel sector. These countries are struggling to meet a very real need for qualified pilots, while flight schools in the U.S. are being forced to shut down. This is made all the more difficult by the lack of infrastructure and highly restricted airspace in some nations.
Like most foreign students, Sheikh will likely have no trouble finding a job and stands a good chance of being hired by Gulf Air immediately after completing his ATP rating. Some foreign students, like those at Lufthansa’s flight school in Phoenix are already employed by the airline before they begin flight training. This Lufthansa’s way of engendering their corporate culture and enhancing the safety records of their pilots. Their training center, which started 40 years ago in California before relocating to Arizona, offers students dormitories, a cafeteria, and a fleet of Beechcraft Bonanzas. With an annual budget of nearly $35 million, the school has trained more than 5,000 Lufthansa pilots.
Many of the U.S. flight schools that have welcomed foreign students with open arms, such as Florida Institute of Technology, which is training currently Irish and Turkish pilots, see it as a way to bridge the gap until domestic enrollment increases. According to an official at a flight school in Vero Beach, Florida, a decade ago most of the students at the school were from the U.S., but now most of the students are foreign nationals.