Aviation Careers: Airline Pilot Job Program Placement

To meet demand for pilots, airlines offer programs that promise students a place in the cockpit.

Aviation Careers Airline Programs

Aviation Careers Airline Programs

Left to right: Anthony Beruvides (JetBlue FO E190/Mentor),
Michael Pfeiffer (Cape Air, Auburn University Graduate),
Clayton Adamy (Cape Air, Auburn University Graduate),
David Alpert (JetBlue FO E190/Asst. Lead Mentor ERAU
Prescott Grad), Leo Callender (Cape Air, ERAU Daytona
Graduate), Armando Garcia (Cape Air, ERAU Daytona
Graduate), Steve Coleman (JetBlue A320 FO/Gateway
ERAU Daytona Grad)

An uncertain path to their career goal may stunt some students' dreams of becoming airline pilots, but programs aimed at addressing looming crew shortages provide all but guaranteed routes to the flight deck, if you have what it takes.

"Everyone is feeling the effects of the pilot supply issue, to the degree many airlines are parking airplanes and cancelling flights," said Linda Markham, president of Northeast regional carrier Cape Air, and chairman of the Regional Airline Association. Cape Air is a founding partner of the JetBlue University Gateway Program, which guides participants from school to a pilot's job at JetBlue, via service at Cape Air or ExpressJet Airlines.

Underscoring the pilot job squeeze regional airlines face, Cape Air itself is "25 pilots short from where we would like to be," Markham said, while ExpressJet anticipates a need for 300 to 500 new pilots in 2016.

Gateway is open to students in aviation degree programs at six institutions: Auburn, Bridgewater State, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (both the Daytona, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona, campuses), Inter-American and Jacksonville Universities, and University of North Dakota. Inaugurated in 2008, close to 250 students have been accepted in the program, and more than 20 are now first officers at JetBlue. For airlines, efforts like these go beyond addressing potential staffing shortages. "What we want are quality pilots with quality training who want to come to JetBlue," said Bonny Simi, JetBlue's v-p of Talent. "That's what this program accomplishes."

Complementing their classroom educations, JetBlue University Gateway students serve an internship at one of the carriers, "getting a well rounded experience in the airline business," Markham said. After graduation they work as a flight instructor for at least one year, building 1,000 hours of flight time and earning a restricted ATP. Gateway grads then enter either Cape Air, getting captain's bars at 1,500 hours, and log a minimum 3,500 total time, or as first officers at ExpressJet and accumulate at least 4,000 total time, before they transition to first officer at JetBlue. Pilots can also combine service at both regionals.

Left to right: Eric Poole (JetBlue CA A320, Program Manager), Jacob Deel (UND Student/Certified Flight Instructor), Ryan Wood (UND Certified Flight Instructor), Eric Scott (JetBlue CA A320, Lead Mentor), Waseem Mathews (JetBlue FO E190, Mentor)

This is just one example of opportunities the growing need for pilots is creating. Cape Air and ExpressJet also allow pilots already flying for their companies who meet its requirements to join the Gateway program. Cape Air also offers a "Grey Gulls" program to recruit retired airline pilots, and an internal program for qualified Cape Air employees who want to train to become pilots. JetBlue has a "Vets in Blue" initiative, aimed at bringing former military aviators to the airline.

As for low starting pilot job salaries sometimes cited as exacerbating shortages, regional experts point out published pay scales don't account for signing bonuses and many other benefits, or rapid salary increases that typically boost a first officer's pay by more than half (52 percent) between years one and five.

Formal pathways aside, less structured routes to cockpits remain. "If you have passion to fly, you should really go after your dream and look to become a pilot," advised Markham. Simi suggested aspiring airline pilots first get a four-year college degree in any discipline. "That's number one," she said. "It shows you're capable of learning and passing tests."

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