Given pilot shortage forecasts, a new ab initio hiring program launched by a US airline is going to be watched closely.
New York-based JetBlue Airways’ Gateway Select program inducted its first class of cadets late this summer. One of seven dedicated pipelines leading to the JetBlue cockpit, Gateway Select is the first modern example of a zero-time, trainee-to-airline-pilot program by a US carrier, despite the practice being established in Europe and Asia for some time.
The issues that made ab initio popular in other parts of the world—a dearth of indigenous pilots from general aviation and the military—are expected to spread to North America as a bubble of retirements hitting mainline airlines over the next decade combines with fewer pilots entering the profession because of the costs and time required.
The supply-demand imbalance is further exacerbated by the record numbers of new aircraft deliveries by Airbus and Boeing. Airbus’ most recent forecast shows a demand for 32,428 airliners to be delivered globally through 2035. Dominating the deliveries will be Asia-Pacific, with 41% of the total, followed by Europe with 21% and North America with 17%.
Boeing’s 2016 pilot and technician outlook (see table, page 32), published in July, forecasts a need for 617,000 new airline pilots through 2035, a 10% increase over the 2015 outlook. Of that number, Boeing predicts 248,000 pilots will be needed in the Asia-Pacific region, 112,000 in North America and 104,000 in Europe.
“The Asia-Pacific region comprises 41% percent of the global need due to the growth in the single-aisle market which is driven by low-cost carriers, while North America is the result of new markets opening in Cuba and Mexico, and demand in Europe has increased as a response to a strong intra-European Union market,” the Boeing report states.
On top of this growing requirement for pilots will come the impact in the US of a surge of mandatory age-65 retirements that are expected to peak in the late 2020s. For the US regional carriers, there is a double hit.
They are struggling to fill seats from college programs, the military and general aviation, a task complicated by a 2013 congressionally mandated first officer flight time rule that requires first officers to have an Airline Transport Pilot certificate.
This typically means a pilot must have logged 1,500 flight hours before being able to fly a commercial airliner; previously pilots could qualify with a minimum of 250 hours and a Commercial Pilot Certificate.
This combination of factors has put additional pressure on US airlines to invest more money and be more creative to keep cockpits staffed in the near term and to build pilot pipelines for the future. It’s neither an inexpensive nor a short-term solution.
“When you consider the path of ab initio, you’re looking at investing about five years or more before that pilot is capable of being considered for a captain position,” Michael Johnson, president and CEO of Paramount Aviation, a flight crew procurement agency based in Virginia, noted. “I think the number of programs is growing and will be a key factor in the long-term need for producing pilots.”
While there is no guarantee that a cadet will make it through the program, when an airline takes control of its pilot pipeline from the beginning, it gets the chance to screen prospective employees from the start, then to customize flight training through both schooling and initial operations in the fleet. This can yield benefits.
“There are several advantages for the airline—they can train the pilot exactly how they want the pilot to perform and do not have to un-train the peculiarities or unfavorable habits of an experienced pilot,” Johnson said.
“They develop a life-long relationship with the cadet pilot, which has the long-term advantage of lower attrition for the airline.”
Johnson acknowledged there can be downsides. “The airline assumes the risk that even after investing such capital into the pilot, they may not successfully complete the program,” he said. For JetBlue, the benefits outweigh the potential downsides. JetBlue SVP-safety, security and training Warren Christie said the carrier had been thinking about an ab initio program for a couple of years.
“What was attractive about the ab initio was the ability to structure it so that every phase of training was designed to prepare the pilot to be a future airline pilot,” Christie said. “You could ensure … consistency through every phase of a pilot’s training.”
Christie said he first considered the idea of creating an ab initio program after hearing Dieter Harms speak at a conference. Harms is the former head of the Lufthansa Pilot School and was a key player in the design of the multi-crew pilot license (MPL) program.
JetBlue worked with Canada-based training provider CAE to pull out the “best attributes” of an MPL program and combine it with FAA flight training requirements for the Gateway Select program, Christie explained.
CAE operates formal ab initio programs for 10 airlines and MPL schools for five, including Asia low-cost carrier (LCC) group AirAsia, UK LCC easyJet and Lufthansa. MPL programs train pilots to fly in a crewed environment from the start.
CAE announced in June that it had signed a new ab initio contract with India LCC IndiGo to produce more than 200 pilots through 2018 at locations in India and Australia. The company trains approximately 1,200 new pilots per year, with a capacity limit if 2,000 per year.
Gateway pilot path
Once admitted to JetBlue’s Gateway Select, cadets will spend four weeks in a “foundation” course, followed by basic flight training at CAE’s Oxford Academy in Phoenix, Arizona. That training will be followed by simulator time at JetBlue’s facilities in Orlando and then a job as a certified flight instructor at CAE to build hours.
The airline will induct the first six candidates in a class of 24 cadets selected from 1,400 applications received in a 2.5-week period in March. Another six cadets will start training with ab initio training provider CAE every three months, with all 24 expected to complete the program in approximately 3.5 years and transition into a six-week JetBlue training course to become Embraer E190 first officers.
According to the Future and Active Pilot Advisors web site, JetBlue hired 289 pilots through its six pipelines in 2015, down from 420 in 2014.
JetBlue has not said whether it will make a direct investment in the students in the program, which will cost $125,000 per cadet over the course of roughly 15 months.
“We’ve been working with financial institutions to help get loans,” Christie said. “We’re committed to working with each of [the cadets] to make sure finances do not become a problem.” He added the airline will evaluate the results of the effort before deciding whether to expand Gateway.
While full control of the training program is one benefit of the ab initio program, so is a potential new source of pilots. “They’re anticipating that the other gateways may start drying up, or become less pronounced in the future,” Nick Leontidis, group president of civil aviation training solutions at CAE, said.
“For sure, the trend we’re seeing in this area is that there are more airlines looking at ab initio programs for pilots than what we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “It’s a mixed bag at the moment; historically Asian carriers have been more akin to sponsor people, and in the West there were enough people to be hired on the market to fill vacancies. In the US, you had the regional to mainline flow.”
He said CAE has seen “a lot more interest” from airlines that historically have not considered ab initio.
“It’s because the pool of what’s available for people to hire is shrinking,” Leontidis said. “And people are retiring and airlines are growing.”
He noted that professional ab initio programs “are still the exception,” not the rule.
“I think the airline industry as a whole needs to figure out how this part of the industry can be better utilized to produce pilots because it will become a more important source,” he said. “This pathway or channel will become more important for everyone.”