The number of students earning degrees through Auburn University's Department of Aviation has increased dramatically over the past five years.

In the 2015-16 academic year, 81 students sought degrees in either aviation management or professional flight, and for 2019-20, that number has grown five times its size to 499 students.

With that growth, the AU Airport has expanded its facilities to bring more classroom space and flight simulators, opening the first building on Auburn's campus to have a corporate partner — the Delta Airlines Aviation Education Building — earlier this year.

Delta Air Lines Foundation and the Jacobson Family Foundation contributed a combined $6.2 million toward this effort.

In a recent presentation at the Auburn Chamber of Commerce, AU Regional Airport Director Bill Hutto said he believes the number of aviation students will pass the 500 mark next year, and that the program will continue to adapt and grow.

He attributes the rapid growth to successful promotion of the program and the current pilot shortage.

"We've done a great job, I think, as a team promoting the program," Hutto said. "I think it's also a function of the pilot shortage that's out there now, and it is real. There's a lot of interest in it now. Delta is retiring about 600 ... pilots a year over the next 10 years, and United, American, Southwest are more. They're looking at somewhere like 900,000 pilots a year."

Many aviation programs are also increasing student numbers through recruiting minority groups. For example, there is a push to put more women in the sky; the current national average of women pilots is only 5 percent.

At Auburn University, women earning aviation degrees make up 16 percent of the program's students.

"The 16 percent is a number we want to grow," Hutto said. "The industry average right now is about 5 or 6 percent female. Aviation is white male dominated. There's a big push in the industry to try to change that, and we have some excellent ladies who are really working hard to do it."

The airport will also put its attention toward creating a new master plan within the next year. Its current plan, which spanned years 2005-2019, saw an investment of $45.25 million in improvements over the past 14 years.

"That's a pretty strong number for our community that we're very proud of," Hutto said. "We're never going to be resting on our laurels because we've always got to be moving and keeping up with demand."

In the master planning process, staff will look at what has changed in the community, at the airport and in aviation. Community input will be sought.

"We need to look at and adjust our plans moving forward," Hutto said. "And we can't do it in a vacuum. We need to know what's going on in our community so we can plan to meet the forecasted needs."

For more information on the AU Regional Airport or Department of Aviation, visit auoairport.com.

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