NEW YORK — Ask any airline CEO what challenges they’re facing… and each one of them will likely cite “pilot shortage” as one of the biggest – if not the biggest – obstacle to overcome.
Air travel is in demand, and that demand is quickly increasing. The problem is that there simply aren’t enough qualified pilots to keep up with that trend. And, to make matters worse, becoming a commercial pilot became even more difficult over the last four years.
In 2013, the FAA upped the qualification hours for first officers who fly for U.S. passenger or cargo airlines from 250 to 1,500 – an astounding 500 percent increase.
While the shortage is a very real problem, New York-based JetBlue is doing what they can to stay ahead of the game. The airline hires hundreds of new pilots each year, recruiting through their various “pathways” – programs that pave the way for aspiring pilots to assume flying careers.
One such pathway – “Gateway Select” – is an aptitude-based program the airline says will help make the profession more accessible by attracting a broader, more diverse range of candidates.
Application Process Open for Second Cycle of Gateway Select Program
Gateway Select applicants go through a series of assessments based on the airline’s own selection criteria and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) pilot competencies. Selected trainees complete a rigorous four-year program comprised of classroom learning, real-world flight experience and instruction in flight simulators – ultimately becoming JetBlue first officers.
The first six-candidate cohort just completed the airline-focused training portion of the program and are in the process of working toward their FAA-required hours of flight time. With the next cohort set to complete the education portion of the program in winter 2017, JetBlue has opened the application process for the second cycle of the program.
After reviewing applications, JetBlue will select 24 candidates who will be divided into two groups of 12 – the first dozen to start early next year.
Warren Christie, JetBlue’s senior vice president of safety, security and air operations, is optimistic for the second cycle, after they saw great success the first time around. “We were very pleased with the interest we saw when we opened the first round,” Christie said. “In two weeks we had more than 1,500 applications, and we’re excited to see an equivalent number this time.”
Inspiring Humanity through Flight
The first group of trainees have extremely diverse backgrounds, ranging from a former heavy machine operator to a supermarket clerk and an accountant. Christie says they performed extremely well throughout the program. “JetBlue’s mission is to inspire humanity, and I think this program is really inspiring to individuals who didn’t see a pathway to becoming an airline pilot,” he said.
The first cohort has now moved on to the fourth phase of the program: returning to CAE in Phoenix for 12 weeks of additional FAA licensing requirements. During this phase, trainees become certified flight instructors (CFIs), and then earn their CFII (instrument) qualifications and ratings before ultimately becoming entry-level salaried instructors for CAE to work toward the required 1,500 hours of flight time.
For phases one through three, the trainees spent two weeks at JetBlue University in Orlando to learn the fundamentals of aviation, moved on to 30 weeks of training at CAE’s Oxford Aviation flight academy in Mesa, Arizona to develop core flying skills, and ultimately returned to JetBlue University for additional training.
After the trainees meet the FAA and Gateway Select requirements, they become pilots at JetBlue, where they take part in the same orientation and six-week instruction that all first officers are required to complete.
Gateway Select costs $125,000 per trainee for the full four-year program, which breaks down to roughly $8,300 a month. Wells Fargo will offer up to $80,000 in financing, still leaving about $3,000 per month that trainees will need to pay out of pocket. However, that tuition is all-inclusive: lodging, meals for a significant portion of the training and examiner fees are all covered. “We continue to look for ways to make it as affordable as possible,” Christie said.
A Rewarding Way to Meet the Need and Expand the Profession
For Christie, watching the candidates succeed and being a part of their success has been the most rewarding part of the program. “I can tell you from having conversations with the first group of candidates that if it wasn’t for a program like Gateway Select, they would not have pursued a career in commercial aviation,” he said.
JetBlue starts new hire classes every other week, and so far, they’ve had no problem filling all of their classes, with projections showing they shouldn’t face problems in the future either. “As we continue to grow, it’s important that we provide these pathways so that we can get the qualified pilots we need to grow our airline,” Christie said.
JetBlue offers seven pathway programs, including University Gateway, Transition Gateway and qualified first officer recruiting among others. “We’re always interested in looking at opportunities to expand the profession and make it more accessible,” he said.
Simply put, through Gateway Select and all of JetBlue’s pathway programs, the airline set out to make the commercial pilot profession more accessible, and so far, it’s working. “From the individuals we’ve selected, it really validates what we’re trying to achieve.”
Aspiring pilots are encouraged to visit JetBlue Pilots to apply to the program.