On a stormy February night in 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed on a flight from Newark to Buffalo. The Colgan aircraft, flying under a code share arrangement with Continental Airlines, went into an aerodynamic stall from which it could not recover and crashed into a house, killing the crew, the passengers, and one person on the ground.
The National Transportation Board ruled that the crew did not react properly to the stall warnings because of inadequate training for such an occurrence. As a result, more attention was directed toward regional carriers and their pilots; and Congress passed legislation mandating 1500 hours of flight training and an Airline Transport Pilot certification prior to becoming a commercial pilot. This was a six fold increase over the 250 hours required before the crash. Primarily, as a result of that accident and the more strenuous requirements, we now find ourselves facing an increasing shortage of pilots. The truck driver issue has spread to the skies. In years past, the airlines have depended heavily on ex-military pilots on whom the government has spent millions of training dollars; but cuts in defense spending have reduced that pool significantly. Now, one whose ambition is to be a pilot, must have a large checkbook to fund his or her training and certification. It is long, expensive road, costing as much as $150,000-175,000. When you consider the starting salary of $50,000-60,000 annually for a regional pilot, the numbers simply don’t add up.
A recent Air Cargo World article pointed out that U.S. flight schools are still turning out a number of qualified pilots, but most are from foreign countries. Students come here for the training, funded by foreign airlines that employ them after they are certified. With 20,000 pilots expected to retire over the next five years, there are not enough pilots in the training pipeline.
So what is the answer? JetBlue thinks they have it. In March, they introduced their Gateway Select program. For $125,000, prospective pilots can complete a four year training course, the end result of which will be a pilot’s seat on JetBlue. Candidates must be 23 years old (by the end of the program), have a minimum of a high school or GED diploma, be in good physical condition, be able to obtain a passport, be able to read, write, and speak English, and have $200 with which to apply.
While the tuition can be paid over 15 months, still it is a substantial sum. One has to wonder if that money might be better spent on a college education. If ambition to be a pilot overrides this, it seems to be that JetBlue and others could absorb more of the cost. Profits of the airlines are at record highs, and if they need more pilots to perpetuate this, I believe they need to loosen up on the purse strings. Other industries train their workers. Why shouldn’t the airlines?