Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pilot Careers 2010: A Brave New World

With the industry showing signs of life, preparation and training soon will meet opportunity for prospective pilots

Gateway Programs: 21st-Century Pilot Training

With airline safety and professionalism in question today, new gateway programs are a model for future pilot training
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, change for commercial aviation is in the air. One of the most discussed topics among industry experts, academics and business analysts is training and developing new pilots for the commercial market. With declining numbers of student pilots, new methods have emerged for finding and training pilots for commercial cockpits.

One of the most interesting topics at the “Professionalism in Aviation” forum this year is the structured “gateway” training program being used by Cape Air, the largest independently owned regional airline, employing some 200 pilots ( The program has been wildly successful in feeding highly qualified pilots to JetBlue, using an innovative approach that major airlines are seeking to adopt.

The program begins with students entering one of the AABI (Aviation Accreditation Board International) college aviation programs like those at Embry-Riddle, University of North Dakota and others. In their sophomore year, they apply to the Cape Air gateway program. After a thorough screening based on factors as different as personality tests, stick-and-rudder skills, simulator training and background checks, the student is accepted into the program.

During the student’s third year (as a junior), he or she serves a Cape Air internship, learning the operations of the carrier and flying with Cape Air crews. Years 4 and 5 (senior year and postgraduation) are spent as CFIs at the AABI school. By now, the individual is 23 years old and has amassed 1,500 hours. At year 6, the pilot begins employment with Cape Air, gaining 2,400 hours in 30 months. Near year 8, the pilot goes through a jet transition course and, in year 8, he or she goes through a final interview with JetBlue, transitioning to their cockpits.

The program works, says Captain Craig Bentley, Cape Air’s director of operations, for several reasons. First, it identifies the best talent early. It then establishes a mentoring/training relationship that provides continuous evaluation for more than eight years. The Cape Air experience gives pilots an especially strong background, providing direct experience with paying passengers and with coordinating multiple departments. Cape Air pilots do six to 14 flights per day, making 300 instrument approaches and 1,500 landings per year. Most regional carrier pilots make 500 landings in a year.

The results of the program are so good that other airlines are hoping to adopt similar gateways. Cape Air’s washout rate of pilots went from 35% to 2%. Also, the major carriers—in this case, JetBlue—get a metered, steady flow of highly qualified pilots with excellent qualifications and known backgrounds.

The gateway-program idea is certainly a portent of things to come in the airline world. KLM and Lufthansa have adopted similar programs. With a declining supply of pilots, airlines will have no choice but to ground flights or accept lesser-qualified applicants, raising possible safety concerns. With professionalism in question today, successful gateway programs like Cape Air’s are quickly becoming the standard for future airline pilot applicants.

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