The Aviation Workforce Development Act would expand 529 plans to include pilot and aviation maintenance education. WA leads the nation in aerospace and aviation industries. The field supports more than 250,000 WA jobs.

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, joined Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) in introducing the Aviation Workforce Development Act, which removes barriers to paying for aviation-related training. This legislation extends eligible expenses for 529 plans, allowing them to be used to pay for flight and aviation maintenance programs certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“Families use 529 plans to save for their children’s future education. But we know that our next generation of workers need options beyond traditional four-year college degrees, such as apprenticeships, trade schools, and more,” Sen. Cantwell said. “By allowing 529 plans to cover FAA-certified commercial pilot and aviation maintenance courses, this bill helps remove cost barriers for students considering a career path in Washington state’s thriving aviation industry.”

The Aviation Workforce Development Act will open more opportunities for young professionals to become an integral part of the state’s aviation workforce. U.S. Representative Mike Collins (R, GA-10) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged account that can be used to pay for the qualified education expenses, including tuition, room and board, and other related expenses, of qualified beneficiaries to attend institutions of higher education, K-12 schools, and many trade and apprenticeship programs.

529 plans generally do not include coverage of pilot or aviation maintenance programs unless they are offered by an “eligible educational institution,” such as a college, university, trade school, or other post-secondary educational institution that is eligible to participate in a student aid program run by the Department of Education.

Meanwhile, according to Boeing’s Pilot and Technician Outlook, the 20-year outlook for aviation personnel includes 602,000 new pilots and 610,000 new maintenance technicians. According to ATP, the nation’s largest flight school, costs just over $96,000 a year to become a pilot with no previous experience and just over $75,000 if a student starts with a private pilot certificate. This upfront cost is a major barrier to entry for pilots, copilots, and flight engineers, preventing access to a career field that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook has in the top 20 paying occupations, with a median wage of $202,180 a year in 2021.

The State of Washington has been ranked first overall in aviation and aerospace for more than 100 years in the U.S. across multiple categories, making the state attractive to manufacturers. Each year, more than 25 million passengers and 600,000 tons of cargo are transported through the state’s aviation system. Commercial and defense-related aerospace companies directly employ 93,000 people at 600 companies across the state, generating $35.5 billion annually in sales, with another 94,000 jobs and an additional $24 billion in annual sales generated indirectly.

Combined, Washington state’s aerospace and aviation industries support more than 250,000 jobs. In 2019 alone, over 240 aerospace start-ups in non-traditional aerospace and emerging segments were established in Washington – this growth trend showed no signs of slowing down as of 2022.

Sen. Cantwell has been working to remove barriers to entry for the aviation workforce, advocating for policies that would expand and diversify the talent pool by increasing access to financial assistance for education and training while attracting more women and people of color.

“Now more than ever, we cannot afford to leave good talent on the table,” Sen. Cantwell said during a March 16th hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “We should consider policies that will help drive down those costs and get more students into the aviation talent pool.”