With a less than 10 percent acceptance rate, the EVA Air flight school at Sacramento’s Mather Airport boasts some of the best students aspiring to take wing – in Asia.
Dressed in crisp white shirts with navy blue neckties, the 25 mostly male students were brought here by EVA Air, an international airline headquartered in Taiwan, to become the company’s next generation of commercial pilots. In less than two years, they will sit at the helm of a Boeing or Airbus jetliner, ferrying hundreds of passengers behind them.
EVA is spending $20 million for what will be a sprawling 9.66-acre campus with an aircraft hangar, dormitory and cafeteria when it’s fully built. Founded in 1991, EVA has not experienced a single hull loss or passenger fatality, one of the few airlines in the world to command that distinction. The airline, Taiwan’s second largest, is betting that training its own pilots will allow the company to continue that record.
“From the first day, they are inducted with the EVA culture. It’s much easier to work with a blank slate,” said Jackson Chu, chief executive and principal of the EVA Flight Training Academy, during an interview conducted in Mandarin last week at his office with views of the tarmac.
Traditionally, the Taiwanese have gone abroad to learn how to fly, owing to the island’s mountainous terrain and lack of available airspace. Only recently did a private flight school open up on Taiwan’s lesser-populated eastern seaboard.
EVA’s academy started operations in 2013 and is the company’s first and only flight training school. Chu said the company looked at 100 airports across the United States before settling on Sacramento. He said the capital was selected due to the presence of an advanced radar and air traffic control system in Northern California, as well as sunny weather, clear airspace and geography. Training the students here also exposes them to an English environment and international culture, key elements of the pilot lifestyle, Chu added.
The cadets must pass six rounds of vetting – multiple interviews, tests and physical exams – before they are formally invited to train. They spend four months intensively studying at company headquarters in Taoyuan, before packing their bags for actual hands-on flight training at Mather, where they live in company apartments and take a company bus to the grocery store and for other errands. Once they satisfy all the requirements of the five-month course, the students return home for another year of specialized training and receive official aircraft assignments before taking to the air.
“Not everyone can be a pilot,” Chu said. “During flight, you can’t get stuck ... The plane won’t wait for you.”
The program, valued at $50,000, takes recruits with no prior flight experience. They come from all walks of life, including engineers and athletes, but they are all young and fresh-faced – optimistic that the expanding aviation industry will take them to new heights both in terms of professional development and salary.
Since the company pays for training and living expenses, graduates are bound by a contract to serve EVA for 15 years. The starting wage for first officers is about $78,000 annually, nearly seven times the average salary of new college graduates in Taiwan. Aviation jobs are highly coveted in Asian nations for their prestige and stability. It is not unusual for several thousand people to apply for flight attendant and ground staff positions, with acceptance rates as low as 3 percent.
“There aren’t many jobs that are as stable and as well-paid,” said Spencer Chen, 26, an EVA pilot trainee from Taipei, the capital city.
Chen, a university graduate who majored in physical education, worked at Taiwan’s Olympic Committee for almost a year before applying to become a pilot. Chen said he likes the challenge of the field, where the situation can change second by second, in contrast to the slow pace of a public agency. After graduating, recruits can expect a crushing workload that can involve several days away from family, time zone differences and red-eye schedules.
“There is a sacrifice to making more money,” said Chen, speaking in his native Mandarin. “You need to work many more hours. That’s life.”
Students participate in a very structured curriculum that mandates they pass each requirement at a certain time. Not everyone graduates. About 10 percent of students fail or drop out. Two of the recruits from January’s original 27-member class have already returned home.
In recent years, EVA has expanded at a feverish pace, inaugurating new routes to the United States, such as Houston and Chicago, and increasing flights to existing cities on its roster such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. EVA serves more than 50 cities from its hub at Taoyuan International Airport – Taiwan’s main gateway located 30 miles outside of downtown Taipei.
Taiwan, an island nation off the southeast coast of mainland China, is in the middle of East Asia. Geographically speaking, Taiwan is strategically positioned to capture passenger traffic to and from important centers of commerce in the region. Similar to how Emirates has transformed Dubai into a world hub, EVA is banking that Taoyuan will emerge to be a central hub in Asia, offering passengers one-stop connections to destinations in mainland China, Southeast Asia and beyond.
“That’s a way of cashing in on the overall growth in Asia, where traffic is rising,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at UC Irvine and aviation expert. “There’s always going to be good demand for connecting traffic.”
For 2017, EVA is forecasting a 20 percent jump in passenger capacity, fueled by the demands of business and leisure travelers. Last year, the airline carried 11.2 million passengers and may soon catch up to its chief rival, China Airlines, the 57-year-old flag carrier of Taiwan.
“To complete our expansion, we’ll need many more pilots. The school was founded so we could keep pace with our needs,” Chu said, adding that the academy may one day churn out 80 new pilots a year.
The airline spares no expense on its trainees to ensure that safety remains the top priority. For example, the engines of the academy’s Diamond propeller planes are completely replaced, instead of refurbishing them, every 2,000 flight hours at a cost of $60,000 each, Chu said.
Leading the academy is something of a homecoming for Chu, 55, who has worked at the company for 28 years. “To see the next generation develop is a great honor,” he said.
Chu was part of the first class of pilots hired by the airline in 1989, when he was dispatched to the University of North Dakota for training. Back then, few people in Taiwan traveled by airplane. Martial law also had just been lifted for the first time since the Nationalist government fled to Taipei from mainland China, after losing the Chinese civil war to the communists in 1949.
Much has changed since, with Taiwanese now regularly jetting across the globe but much more frequently to mainland China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Chu explained that “growing tourism consciousness” was driving ticket sales. The dramatic surge in the number of visa-free countries – 137 – for Taiwanese citizens is another catalyst.
“Before, going abroad was considered a momentous event,” Chu said. “Now, all you need is a passport and plane ticket.”