More than 125,000 operations projected in 2019; increase in flight training a leading factor.

After a strong uptick in flight training activity, DuPage Airport in West Chicago (KDPA) is set to record its largest number of annual operations since 2005.

DuPage reached nearly 115,000 operations as of Nov. 1, surpassing its 2018 year-end total of 106,249. The airport is expected to finish the year between 125,000 – 130,000 operations, just shy of the 133,000 recorded in 2005. The total operations rank DuPage as the third busiest airport in Illinois behind only O’Hare and Midway.

Annual operations comprise both itinerant and local operations. Itinerant refers to aircraft that either land at DuPage from other airports or takeoff from DuPage and leave the general airport area. Local refers generally to flight training. These aircraft remain in the local traffic pattern, execute simulated instruments approaches or low passes in a designated practice area that’s within a 20-mile radius of the control tower.

While the number of itinerant operations is up slightly from 2018, local operations at DuPage were 44.2 percent higher through October compared to the same time in 2018.

Most of the local operations come from three different flight schools housed at the airport – Illinois Aviation Academy (IAA), Avel Flight School and ATP Flight Training.

“One of the biggest factors in my opinion is the heightened publicity surrounding the national pilot shortage,” said Bob Werderich, IAA President. “Estimates show that more than 800,000 pilots will be required to meet global demand over the next 20 years. This had led major carriers to raise starting salaries for pilots and design innovative recruiting programs to cultivate the next generation of aviators, spurring interest among the younger demographic.”

Werderich also cites the strong economy and a more diverse crop of pilots as key factors in the recent growth of flight training. Of his students, Werderich estimates 40 percent are “early learners” who will go on to further their skillset in college, 30 percent are career/vocation oriented, and the remainder simply enjoy flying for recreation.

IAA also runs the flight training arm of Tuskegee NEXT, a nationally recognized program housed at DuPage that seeks to transform the lives of at-risk youth through aviation. Since its inception in 2014, the program has certified nearly 30 new pilots.

Prashanth Elangovan, the chief flight instructor and president of Avel Flight School, agrees that a stronger job market has led to more robust flight training, but also points to the growing number of international airports as a driver.

“New airports are opening up in smaller countries across the globe,” said Elangovan. “This has created an exciting opportunity for international students who now want to become pilots.”

Elangovan travels the world recruiting pilots to train at DuPage. After becoming certified and gaining the necessary training hours, most of his students head back home to take jobs with local airlines.

“The significant increase in flight training speaks to the dynamic nature of DuPage Airport,” said Mark Doles, Executive Director, DuPage Airport Authority. “Our facilities can safely and comfortably accommodate hundreds of flights each day, from business jets that operate internationally to the smaller single-engine aircraft commonly used in flight training. We are proud to play a role in training the next wave of pilots here at DuPage and hope that flight activity will continue to grow into 2020 and beyond.”