CWU News

CWU Suspends New Enrollment in Professional Pilot Program

UPDATE: The CWU Aviation program is accepting enrollments for 2021 and beyond. Some of the information below is no longer current.

Read the latest program update from March 2021.


Central Washington University today notified students admitted to the Professional Pilot Program for fall 2020 that the program would be unable to accommodate them. University leadership also announced that they are considering a proposal to modify or discontinue CWU’s Professional Pilot Program due to continuing annual budget deficits and the inability to secure long-term hangar facilities at Bowers Field Airport. 

With a projected deficit this year of more than $1.83 million, and deficits of $673,527 and $1,507,215 over the past two years, the university must examine how to stem those losses, according to Heidi Henschel Pellett, the Interim Dean of the College of Education and Professional Studies. She said the high cost of delivering flight instruction—the enormous capital costs as well as high operating costs—only balances if there are a very high average number of daily flights. For many reasons, weather-related groundings high among them, the program has never been close to the volume of flights that would be needed for the program to cover its costs, according to Pellett.

“We don’t anticipate that the elimination of this program would result in the reduction of any permanent faculty positions,” Henschel Pellett said. “But it could require some reassignments and some change in the level of non-tenure-track support, depending on timing and a number of other variables that have yet to be resolved.”

A second factor looming over the program has been the university’s inability to obtain a long-term lease for the space at the local airport, required for the program’s planes and ground operations. The university currently leases hangar space from Kittitas County, but that agreement will expire in October 2023. The availability of sufficient hangar space at the airport is fundamental to maintaining the Professional Pilot Program. There are no suitable alternative facilities to the Bowers Field hangar, and in light of the program’s poor finances, building a hangar is not a viable strategy.

CWU today also rescinded admissions for students who had been accepted into the program for fall 2020. 

“The pandemic has disrupted the progress of existing students in the program to the point where the university cannot accept new students this fall,” said Michelle DenBeste, Provost and Vice President of Academic and Student Life. “Flight equipment and instructional capacity will be fully required to complete delayed instruction for existing students.” 

The Aviation Management major and minor are unaffected by this decision, and enrollment remains open to new students.

CWU anticipates that the pandemic will have significant short- and mid-term impacts on the university’s ability to recruit students into the program. Global demand for well-prepared pilots has been the driving force behind the development of the Professional Pilot Program, but the challenges faced by the air travel industry have fundamentally shifted the labor market for pilots for the foreseeable future.  

All of the major passenger airlines have idled significant portions of their fleets and pilots, and experts are debating how or whether commercial flights can be made safe enough to bring back travelers in meaningful numbers. Analysts estimate that this process will take years, and likely significant reorganization, before the industry can return to 2019 levels. 

Due to this sudden decrease in demand, the university anticipates a substantial reduction in the number of students interested in the program. Once the situation stabilizes, CWU will consider any potential plans for the future of its aviation program.

Media contact: Kremiere Jackson, Department of Public Affairs, or 509-963-1245.