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JetBlue considers a new approach to training pilots

NEW YORK >> JetBlue wants to recruit a few flight students with no flying experience and train them to become pilots.

The airline says applicants would still need to meet minimum requirements including 1,500 hours of flying experience before operating one of its planes.

JetBlue said Monday it only plans to put 24 students through the training. The airline has about 2,600 pilots.

Still, if JetBlue’s request is approved by federal officials it would break from a long-standing pattern in the United States.

Airlines once got most of their pilots from the military. In recent years, many have been aviation school graduates who gained the necessary flying experience on their own, doing everything from towing advertising banners to working as flight-school instructors.

Some airlines that operate small planes for American, United and Delta have reported a worsening shortage of pilots since the Federal Aviation Administration raised the minimum-experience bar to 1,500 hours in 2013 — from a previous 250 hours — after a crash near Buffalo that killed 50 people.

One regional airline, Republic, cited a pilot shortage in reducing its flights this year, and the smaller airlines have lobbied to roll back the 1,500-hour requirement. Unions say there are plenty of available pilots if regional airlines would raise pay, which they say starts around $21,000 a year at some regionals.

JetBlue Airways Corp. spokesman Doug McGraw said his airline is not experiencing a pilot shortage and gets “thousands” of applicants. He said the proposed new training program, called Gateway 7, would not replace the airline’s six current pilot-recruitment programs.

McGraw said the program would be designed for people with little or no aviation experience. He called it a competency-based approach that borrowed from programs run by the U.S. military and foreign airlines.

New York-based JetBlue would hire an outside company to provide the early part of training. Officials did not describe how the applicants would reach 1,500 flying hours, saying such details were still being finalized.

The JetBlue plan was first reported by Bloomberg News.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents JetBlue pilots, declined to comment.

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