JetBlue has recently announced that it would begin an ab inito pilot training program, which it hopes to kick off in 2016. The company said that the program was not founded because of any impending pilot shortage, but that claim that is dubious at best. While the details are sparse, the apparent structure of the program will be similar to the multi-crew pilot certificate that certain European carriers use.
The multi-pilot license (MPL) works by training candidates with no flight time whatsoever ab initio (“from the beginning”), using simulators for the majority of training. The intent is to immerse students into the crewed cockpit concept as early as possible. Once the basics are mastered, candidates spend large chunks of time flying “flights” that are similar to line operations, but with all manner of problems and issues introduced. Everything from medical emergencies to cabin fires is fair game, and students are required to respond accordingly.
Under a traditional MPL program, pilots will only be qualified to fly certain airline equipment. Depending on how the program is structured, it’s quite possible that a pilot will be fully qualified in the Embraer E-190 (which is the only plane that JetBlue is proposing right now), but would not be able to rent a Cessna 172 at the local FBO.
As noted, the details are scant, and the FAA has to weigh in on JetBlue’s proposal. The early word is that pilots would still get some traditional certificates (probably private, commercial, and instrument), and would then transition to the airline training environment, which would result in an ATP. JetBlue has said that pilots would work with “partners” to get the requisite experience, but it’s unclear if that means sending pilots to work at another flight school, or if they would be sponsored to work for a regional for a while.
So, is this program worth considering for the airline pilot wanna be? That’s a good question, and it’s worth studying when the details are available. While JetBlue has claimed that it will make the monetary investment, nothing is free. It’s a safe bet that there will be some kind of contract required to make sure that pilots don’t get the training and then bolt. Such contracts can be a pair of golden handcuffs.
An alternative possibility is that JetBlue is going to propose a program to the FAA in which the successful candidates will not be eligible to fly for anyone else, thus rendering moot the fear that a pilot will jump ship to a better employment opportunity at another airline (i.e., a non-compete clause). That said, I still suspect a contract will be required in case the candidate decides that instead of flying airplanes, he or she would rather pursue a different line of work.
At present, there are plenty of regional airline pilots that JetBlue can choose from, and the pilots at JetBlue recently voted to join ALPA; negotiations for their first collective bargaining unit are under way, and it’s safe to assume that there will be across-the-board improvements, which will further enhance the appeal of the airline as a place to work. This program is clearly—despite the company denials—a strategy for getting ahead of the pilot shortage while controlling the training of future pilots.
But will it work? Will it last? My early guess is that it will have mixed results at best. Training is expensive, and in this case, there will not only have to be training costs covered, but likely some basic living expenses as well. The core business is still to run an airline, and it will take an awful lot of ticket sales to train a pilot.
While candidates will be exposed to a lot of JetBlue Kool Aid, at some point they will begin to learn to decipher the difference between what the company says and reality, and let’s face it: No matter how great any company is, no company is perfect. Further, smart individuals are only going to be willing to sign contracts with certain limits and restrictions on their ability to move on, and there will always be a few who manage to walk away unscathed.
This presents an interesting situation for airlines. From a competitive standpoint, if nobody else follows suit, JetBlue may have to give this up just because of the cost. Shareholders want to see a return on their investment, and they may not like this idea.
Time will tell if this will be a success. If it is, JetBlue management will look like geniuses. If not, it’s an expensive failure to absorb.—Chip Wright