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United Airlines is considering a cost-saving consolidation of pilot-training centers in Houston and Denver that predate its 2010 merger, potentially setting up a contest among those cities plus Chicago for any surviving facility.
The move is under discussion with pilots, about 12,000 of whom cycle through the bases every nine months to refresh their skills and train on flight simulators, said Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman. The airline hasn’t decided on a site or whether it will move forward with a combination, she said.
Bringing the Denver and Houston operations together into one site would require moving equipment and people and deliver a local economic boost from visiting pilots. Chicago, where United is based, joins the two existing sites as a possible home for a combined facility, McCarthy said, without elaborating.
“A city’s dream is to have people come in, spend money and leave,” said G.W. “Bo” Corby, a Seattle-based simulator instructor and consultant with Future & Active Pilot Advisors. “Losing this training center — whichever city loses it would lose a significant amount of revenue.”
Denver’s Office of Economic Development is “working diligently to see United expand its operations,” Executive Director Paul Washington said by e-mail, without giving details. Spokesmen for Houston and Chicago economic development agencies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about their efforts.
The centers in Denver and Houston are vestiges of the days before the 2010 merger between former United parent UAL Corp. and Continental Airlines, which created the current United Continental Holdings Inc. Denver was a United hub, and Continental was based in Houston.
The possible consolidation is separate from United’s 2013 plan for $2 billion in annual savings through a combination of fuel savings and operating efficiencies, and any expense reductions wouldn’t be part of that goal, McCarthy said. United said in January that it may outsource as many as 2,000 jobs at non-hub airports to help cut costs.
“We need to move to a single training facility for various reasons,” McCarthy said. “Yes, cost is a factor, but we need to bring our pilots together.”
David Kelly, a spokesman for the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, declined to comment because the carrier hasn’t yet made a decision.
United operates the Houston training facility at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and the Denver outpost is on the grounds of the shuttered Stapleton International Airport.
Moving either or both operations would be complicated, Corby said, and would require relocating or hiring new simulator technicians, pilot instructors and extra support staff, along with maneuvering the equipment. Simulators are delicate and require specially trained teams to move them, he said.
The machines typically weigh about 29,000 pounds (13,200 kilograms), according to information provided by American Airlines Group Inc.
“Moving one of these things is a big deal,” said Corby, the simulator instructor, and can sideline it for as long as 90 days.
United would follow the lead of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. if it goes forward with the plan. In 2011, Delta said it was moving simulators and pilot and flight attendant training centers to its hometown from the Minneapolis area, the former headquarters of Northwest Airlines, which was acquired in 2008.
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