Chuck Weirauch visited growing low-cost carrier JetBlue to find out how their expansion plans incorporate all aspects of training.
With a reported record third quarter 2015 operating revenue and net income, JetBlue Airways is continuing a series of such financial successes this year. The low-cost airline is expected to increase its capacity from between 8.5 and 9.5 percent for 2015, and the LCC is continuing to add new routes, particularly in the Caribbean and Central and South America regions. This year, JetBlue began operating one of the first routes to Havana, Cuba offered by any US domestic airline.
Helping drive this success is undoubtedly the airline’s reputation for customer service, backed up by air passenger surveys that put it at the top of the charts. This year JetBlue earned top honors in customer satisfaction among low-cost carriers in the J.D. Power 2015 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, an accolade it has received for several previous years. The New York-based air carrier was also named Best Low-Cost Airline - The Americas for 2015 for the second year in a row by the editors of AirlineRatings.com.
“We are very happy about our consecutive string of profitable quarters,” said Warren Christie, JetBlue’s senior vice president for Safety, Security and Training. “The keys to our success are that we have a very strong network, which is continuing to be profitable. We also have high and efficient utilization of aircraft and crew, which helps us to maintain our cost advantage. Couple those things together, and it makes us profitable and competitive.”
While others might consider the airline’s success to be the offerings of leather seats, free high-speed Wi-Fi services and an assortment of other passenger conveniences, Christie points to what he considers as the true factor - customer service.
“Our culture is the key to JetBlue’s success, because what we do is the same thing as our competitors,” Christie emphasized. “The difference is how we do it. A lot of that is the experience our crews provide to our customers. All of the hard stuff, the TVs, the leather seats, all of those can be, and will be duplicated. The thing they can’t duplicate is the passion our crewmembers have for customer service.”
Planes & Pilots Currently the JetBlue fleet features 201 aircraft, with a reported average age of eight years - which JetBlue claims makes it as having one of the “youngest fleets of airliners in the industry.” The current makeup of the fleet includes 130 Airbus A320s, 11 A321s and 60 Embraer 190s. As of October 2014, 129 additional aircraft were on order, including 42 A321s, 30 A320neos, and 24 190s.
According to Christie, the new aircraft orders are not necessarily to replace older airplanes, but rather a part of the LCC’s plans to continue to grow its route structure.
“The benefit is, each day we add a new airplane we are balancing or reducing the average age of the fleet in totality,” Christie explained. “But the deliveries and orders that we have next year are A321s. We are also continuing to add larger-gauge aircraft to the fleet, which helps us especially in slot-restricted airports. It also helps us to bring more seats into the markets that are difficult to get additional slots in.”
Current industry estimates show JetBlue as employing approximately 3,000 pilots. Including about 3,500 Inflight crewmembers; total employment for the airline is approximately 15,000. JetBlue considers all employees to be an airline crewmember as a part of its culture.
In light of its expansion plans, the air carrier is actively hiring pilots, and will reportedly bring on between 250 to 300 pilots this year, with similar numbers during 2016. Christie said that he has not seen any impact of a pilot shortage, but the answer to that problem is “to continue to push ourselves to look for new and innovative ways to keep bringing pilots to JetBlue”.
One of the ways to bring in new hires is through the airline’s Gateway program, partnering with flight schools, universities and regional airlines to establish connections and pathways with younger potential new hires. Current partners in the Gateway program are Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the University of North Dakota, Inter American University, Jacksonville University, and Auburn University, as well as Cape Air and ExpressJet.
JetBlue University All initial and recurrent flight crew and inflight crew training is conducted at JetBlue University in Orlando. While the training facility itself began operations in 2005, the latest edition to the complex is the $32 million Lodge, which opened its doors in March of this year. Offering amenities much like a hotel rather than a crew dormitory - with a restaurant, bar and salt water swimming pool - the Lodge provides housing for JetBlue crewmembers while they are at the University for their six-week initial and three-day recurrent training. Providing such a facility is a way to immerse crewmembers into the JetBlue culture from the moment they arrive.
JetBlue University itself features four CAE A320 and two Embraer 190 full flight simulators, along with two full cabin trainers - one for each aircraft type that JetBlue operates - with full cockpits to enable joint flight and inflight training sessions. Also within the training center are cabin door trainers, a pool for emergency evacuation training, numerous classrooms and a conference center.
According to Christie, all of the up to 300 new pilot hires per year will spend approximately six and a half weeks training at JetBlue University in order to graduate from the AQP final qualification course to the right seat of either the A320 or Embraer 190. With 60 of the latter aircraft, he expects that the two 190 sims will have the capacity to continue to handle the throughput for that aircraft.
“Our model again is built on efficiency, so we see simulator utilization rates of north of 80 percent. All are CAE sims, and CAE maintains all our sims. We see extremely high reliability rates. However, we are already talking to CAE of the potential for an additional order - perhaps late next year. We will test the marketplace, but we will see another simulator here in 2017.”
Additionally, between 600 and 700 inflight crewmembers will earn their AQP training certifications each year at JetBlue U, along with their two-day recurrent training every other year. A joint flight and inflight crewmember scenario-based training session is conducted during recurrent training for both. This session is made possible by the full cockpit communication systems in the cabin trainers. The two crews training together for situations that they might encounter during regular operations is just another application of the JetBlue culture concept.
“All of our flight programs are in AQP, and the last piece is the Instructor/Evaluator Continuing Qualification training,” Christie reported. “We are working on that, and we are also looking to complete the Phase Two of dispatcher training, looking at a small group tryout early next year. So we will have all of flight and inflight and Dispatch in AQP by early next year.”
Training Emphasis While JetBlue pilot training emphasizes stall, go-around and upset recovery training as a part of the AQP, Christie pointed out that the LCC was conducting such training before they became the major issues that they are today.
“Even before it received a lot of attention, we focused around stalls and upset recovery,” Christie said. “We were teaching those in our programs from the beginning. We launched the 190 program as an example of upset recovery with stall training, and also from the very beginning we teach those elements in a scenario where, for example, we can simulate auto throttles disconnecting. So it’s more realistic than knowing the stall is coming, and then it’s just a mechanical recovery. The key to stall training is recognizing that it is going to happen before it does and then recover the airplane. With upset recovery training, it’s the same thing.”
With JetBlue’s continuing route expansion into Latin America, the air carrier has added another training program emphasis that it has dubbed “Latin American training.” It’s in actuality an emphasis on enhanced training for flying into high-risk airports.
“Just by being in AQP and collecting data at the tasks level, the data tells us where we need more emphasis if there is a potential training deficiency - it’s the scientific approach,” Christie explained. “What we have recently done - especially as our network grows into Central and South America - is we launched, at the beginning of this year, enhanced training. We call it Latin American training, but it’s more about flying into high-risk airports in those regions. We have indentified those high-risk airports as part of our risk assessment, which is a part of our SMS. The threats in those airports require additional training. So we introduced that, along with a simulator event, early last year to better prepare our crews who fly into those regions.”
Yet another focus for JetBlue pilot training - this time on cockpit automation - is to instill the concept of what the airline calls active monitoring. This is defined as a pilot’s focus on asking what the airplane is going to do next and then confirming that it is indeed doing it via the automation, rather than being surprised by what the airplane does.
“We also focus on hand flying to make sure that we retain core flying skills,” Christie added. “We have a very well-structured plan as to how we address deficiencies in training, and we are consistent in how it is applied. We customize the individual training to best overcome the deficiency, but also how we apply the additional training so that we are providing it in a standardized manner.”
Tablet-Based Training In addition to providing pilots with iPad 4s as electronic flight bags in 2013, JetBlue has incorporated several training aids into the content of those tablets, including all previously printed training documents. Crewmembers also have access to guidebooks as to what will occur during recurrent training, for example. Inflight crewmembers have recently been issued iPad Mini 3 tablets as customer services aids, but they can also employ the devices for training. In addition, this year the airline’s maintenance technicians were issued iPad Minis that contain reference manuals and guides.
“All of these tablets have access to our training menu and our new learning management system,” Christie reported. “So for the most part, we are out of the paper handout business, since we found a way to get our training applications on our iPads. We made the transition out of laptops to iPads, and Flight, Inflight and technician crews love them. So even if they are not online, they can get access to the materials. That’s when they want to do their recurring studies. Inflight is still carrying books (as of late October), but final tests will be completed in the next couple of months.”
Pilot Customer Service While those pilots who want to fly for JetBlue may have the experience to qualify for an interview, there is one major deciding factor as to whether they become new hires or not.
“The pilots that we see coming to JetBlue are well-experienced when they get here,” Christie said. “But when we select pilots at JetBlue, we are looking for pilots who are interested in the customer service element that this airline has. The primary questions are; do you fit within our culture, and do you have a passion for customer service.”