New ‘Sun’ rises

Sun Country Airlines and UND unveil unique career pathway pact to address flight instructor shortage

Joe Restifo

Joe Restifo, senior director of operations at Sun Country Airlines, explains a new pact between UND Aerospace and his company that allows student-pilots to earn full-time employment prior to graduation and go straight to a national carrier after their time at UND, a break from the typical regional first-to-major airline path. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Though not an alum, Joe Restifo got a sense for UND student aviators as soon as they walked in the door at Clifford Hall, Monday evening.

The Sun Country Airlines senior director of operations poured cups of soda for them as they grabbed a complimentary slice of pizza.

“I’ve figured out how you guys get such good grades — everybody in this room drinks Mountain Dew — it’s crazy,” he quipped to laughter from the group.

Restifo was just kidding, of course, as he’s well-versed on the academic and safety excellence of UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

His opening remarks were the start to a paneled dialogue about the Minneapolis-based airline’s new partnership with UND Aerospace – the Sun Country Bridge Program.

This pathway program sets itself apart. It allows students to earn full-time employment prior to graduation and go straight to a national carrier after their time at UND, a break from the typical regional-to-major airline path. They’ll fly international routes and have eligibility to be captain after only two years on the job.

It also means that after they leave UND, pilots will be on the flight deck of a Boeing 737 to start their careers.

Topping it all: UND gets to retain much-needed certified flight instructors as they earn flight hours necessary to fly for Sun Country.

“That’s the big thing,” said Jeremy Roesler, chief flight instructor at UND. “This is the first time we’ve seen a program that specifically targets keeping experienced instructors around.”

Earlier this year, UND announced other career partnership programs with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, involving their regional carriers.

Joe Restifo

Restifo pours soda and introduces himself to UND student pilots on campus, Monday, along with UND alum and Sun Country pilots James Drury, Brad Geisler and Chief Pilot Todd Lawrence. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Game changer

Students who have around 200 hours of flying will earn their commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, which will allow them to interview with Sun Country. Once they’re accepted into the program and have 1,000 hours, they’ll start receiving flight benefits as they continue instructing at UND – building toward the 1,500-hour mark. After that, it’s off to 737 training classes at Sun Country.

The structure of this program is a game-changer, says James Higgins, professor and aviation department chair. It provides a capability for current students to find two professional jobs in their lives: certified flight instructor at UND, then piloting for Sun Country Airlines.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Higgins said. “I can’t thank Sun Country enough for being such a great partner.”

Associate Dean of Aerospace Elizabeth Bjerke says it’s been in the works since last year. Working with a locally based airline allowed for a responsive collaboration.

“We have many alumni that work various positions at the airline,” she said. “We started the conversation looking for a creative solution to our flight instructor shortage, and they were very open in that dialogue.”

With around 40 percent of the airline’s 350-plus pilots having UND ties, and various administrators of similar background, the company culture made for a natural fit, says Bjerke.

UND Aerospace students with Sun Country Airlines

The new arrangement between UND Aerospace and Sun Country Airlines means that, after leaving UND, pilots will be on the flight deck of a Boeing 737 to start their careers. Additionally, UND Aerospace gets to retain much-needed certified flight instructors while they earn flight hours necessary to fly for Sun Country. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Spoken from experience

Restifo says that while the pilot shortage on the industry’s horizon is the impetus for developing pathway programs, it’s also an opportunity to give back to, arguably, the best flight school in the world.

James Drury graduated from UND’s commercial aviation program in 2014 and started flying for Sun Country in June. He remarked that it felt good to be back on campus, knowing exactly how it felt to be in the students’ shoes.

Drury says that if he’d been able to participate in a program like Sun Country’s and skip the regional airlines, he would have done it in a heartbeat.

“It stands out a lot more from other programs, just for the company you’re going into and the type of aircraft you’ll be flying,” he said.

It’s a tight-knit group of pilots at Sun Country says Brad Geisler, a 2013 UND graduate who sat on Monday’s panel with Drury, Restifo, Higgins, Bjerke, Roesler and Sun Country’s Chief Pilot Todd Lawrence. “It’s called a hometown airline for a reason,” he said. “I never had the chance to fly a Boeing 737 right out of school, so it’s a unique program – something that hasn’t really been done in the U.S. – and we’re excited about it.”

Lawrence, who graduated from UND in the 1990s, says the industry landscape is nearly flipped from when he was coming up as a pilot. He’s always excited when there’s a chance to visit his alma mater, though Monday was something special.

“We knew when we had to start recruiting pilots that this is the place we wanted to go,” he said. “We know the quality of pilots they develop here at UND.”