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JetBlue Airways Corp. is looking for more supermarket clerks and accountants to train to fly its planes as the U.S. airline industry copes with a looming pilot shortage.
The New York-based carrier said its first-in-the-U.S. training program that turns people with little or no flying experience into commercial jet pilots has been so successful that it’s seeking a second round of candidates. The company is taking online applications for the four-year, $125,000 program starting Wednesday and running through Sept. 30.
The window opens as six of the program’s initial 24 candidates selected in 2016 begin training to become a flight instructor, a key step toward becoming a certified passenger pilot. Trainees include a baggage handler, a grocery-store clerk, a heavy-equipment operator and an accountant.
“We have every intent to continue with this program,” Warren Christie, JetBlue senior vice president of safety, security and air operations, said in an interview. “We have six others to attract and recruit pilots. This one has been very successful. It opens up aviation careers to individuals that otherwise might never have had the opportunity.”
Major U.S. carriers long have relied on hiring pilots who already have the required minimum of 1,500 flight hours, typically amassed in military aircraft or by working as a civilian instructor before snagging a job at a regional airline. Breaking with that tradition, JetBlue borrowed from training regimens used by the military and some carriers in Asia and Europe to create the Gateway Select program, which seeks to train pilots “from the beginning.”
A pilot deficit in the U.S. aviation industry will soar to 15,000 by 2026, according to a study by the University of North Dakota’s Aviation Department. More captains are reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 and fewer young people are choosing commercial aviation as a profession.
JetBlue, which received more than 1,500 applications during about a week in the first Gateway Select round, will choose 24 candidates again this time. Training could begin in early 2018.
Trainees go through classroom instruction — including meteorology, aerodynamics and aircraft systems– spend time in flight simulators and then build up 1,500 hours of flying experience before they are hired at JetBlue. The program was opposed by the pilots’ union when it was announced last year.
Nineteen candidates from the original group of 24 still are in training, broken up into smaller groups. Having to fund the six-figure cost of the program has proved to be the biggest problem, Christie said. The airline continues to work on ways to help the candidates secure loans for the training, he said.