So what does an industry do when it cannot find enough qualified workers? It creates them. That's the approach JetBlue Airways is taking in fighting the national pilot shortage.
This week, the New York-based airline launched a program it's calling "Gateway Select" to attract new pilots. Here's the deal: you don't actually need any aviation experience to apply.
In the U.S., the typical route to a commercial flying gig is to either come out of the military - which has been downsizing for decades - or to put yourself through flying school, followed by several, low-paying years flight instructing until you get enough hours to meet the regulations and fly for an airline. Then, you apply to a regional airline, spend several more low-paying years flying between Newark, NJ and Ithaca, NY back and forth, back and forth, until a "mainline" carrier - such as JetBlue, Delta, United, etc. - has an opening. During all this time, you hope the price of oil doesn't go up, because that usually leads to job losses and airline bankruptcies.
The shaky career path commercial pilots have been offered has lead to a collapse in the number of young people going into the profession. I have long argued that the regional airlines, with help from the pilot unions, are largely - though not entirely - to blame for creating the pilot shortage. How do you convince an 18-year-old to spend $80,000 on learning to fly when their first airline job will likely pay $24,000 a year and provide so little job security? "Maybe I'll just go to work for a tech startup instead" is what many are thinking.
Further, Congress hasn't helped since lawmakers raised the minimum hours needed to be an airline pilot to 1500. The move followed the crash of a Colgan Air turboprop in Buffalo, which exposed gaps in the airlines training programs and culture.
The result? Some regional airlines have blamed the pilot shortage on their financial woes, with Republic Airways Group citing the shortage in their recent bankruptcy filing. I'm dubious of that claim, but there may be some merit to it.
So the regionals are now playing catch-up. Many have pumped up the starting salaries and are offering unheard of bonuses for new pilots. That's a good first step.
But JetBlue has decided that the best way to hire new pilots is to mint them itself. JetBlue is seeking those with a passion for flying but with no actual experience in the cockpit. The airline will train candidates from the start and four years later, they will graduate with the skills and ratings to fly JetBlue's airplanes. Many European airlines have used this approach but it's new for Americans.
Learning to fly doesn't come cheap. The airline is charging about $125,000 for the entire course. But students will earn money flight instructing. To start, JetBlue is filling only twenty-five positions. However, pilots will graduate with a job at an airline generally considered among the best to work for.
Beyond attracting new pilots, JetBlue is hoping to attract a more diverse workforce. The industry's record of diversity is atrocious. According to recent surveys, only 4.1 percent of air transport pilots are women and just 2.7 percent are African American or Latino. Overall, the diversity in the general pilot population isn't any better. About 6 percent of pilots are women.
Like training to be a doctor or a lawyer, creating new pilots involves a lot of lead time. But if we don't start now on new solutions, there won't be anyone to fly Americans in the future.