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Aviation M.B.A.'s Take Off

Business schools target the aerospace and aviation industry with niche degrees, graduate certificates.

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Shailesh Kumar's fixation with flight started at an early age. As a boy in New Delhi, he devoured books about planes, spacecraft, and flying, he says.

"The idea of travel itself was very fascinating for me," Kumar says. "I was very fascinated by other countries, and the aspect of taking humans across [them] and making their travel times short."

Kumar's curiosity about airplanes led him to the undergraduate aerospace engineering program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Daytona Beach, Fla.

But when his interests shifted from the technical realm of engineering to the analytical world of business, Kumar faced a difficult choice—pursue his M.B.A. at a business school powerhouse such as Stanford University or Yale University, or stay on at ERAU, a school known for turning out airmen and astronauts, not accountants.

His passion for planes won out, Kumar says.

"If I'm looking for aviation industry knowledge, and to be in the industry itself, I'd pick Embry-Riddle without a doubt," he says. "If you're not very passionate about it, then it's a tough pick."

Every aspect of ERAU's M.B.A. program—courses, case studies, research, and academic clubs—is filtered through an aviation lens, says Dawna Rhoades, associate dean of research and graduate students at ERAU's College of Business.

[Learn five tips for choosing your M.B.A. concentration.]

At ERAU, finance classes examine the purchasing and leasing of aircraft; management classes deal with airline operations; and marketing lessons explore ad placement in airport terminals. The school relies on an advisory board made up of aerospace executives and representatives from government bodies such as NASA and the International Civil Aviation Organization to keep its curriculum relevant.

"M.B.A.'s are fairly common, and most universities would like to find a really clear focus," Rhoades says. "We've always known what our focus is."

Since ERAU's aviation M.B.A. took flight in the 1980s, other U.S. universities have followed suit. The University of Tennessee—Knoxville offers an aerospace and defense executive M.B.A., and Weber State University's John B. Goddard School of Business and Economics in Ogden, Utah, launched a graduate certificate in aerospace management in January.

These programs are part of a larger movement in business schools toward industry-specific M.B.A. curricula, according to recent report by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), an accrediting body for business school programs.

[Read more about specialty M.B.A. programs.]

Driving the need for aviation and aerospace M.B.A. programs are stringent industry regulations, says Rick Hale, president and CEO of Winner Aviation Corp. in Youngstown, Ohio.

"Unlike other industries, this industry is highly regulated by the government. There is a credo of safety over profit, or over anything else really," says Hale, who also chairs the advisory board at ERAU. "If you don't have a grasp on good business measures and can't understand the aviation safety aspect of things, you can get into trouble pretty quick."

Understanding insider lingo and how unpredictable factors such as terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions, and SARS outbreaks can alter the industry­ is also key for job-seeking aviation and aerospace M.B.A. students.

For Kumar, who completed his M.B.A. at ERAU in December 2011, a strong grasp of industry terminology and knowledge of aircraft components helped him turn an internship with United Airlines into a full-time job as a senior financial analyst.

"RASM, CASM … they are very specific airline industry terms," Kumar says, referring to revenue per available seat mile and cost per available seat mile. "Having learned about it beforehand, you can get back to the company a lot faster, rather than trying to understand what these things are all about."

Employment demand for workers well versed in the industry is another force pushing some universities toward aviation and aerospace M.B.A. programs. The aerospace industry employed more than 620,000 people in 2011, according to the Aerospace Industries Association. Approximately 42,000 of those are in Utah, says Mark Stevenson, M.B.A. enrollment director at Weber State in Ogden, Utah.