JetBlue program speeds path to cockpit for untested pilots

Some 18,000 airline pilots will reach the mandatory retirement age over the next seven years, but finding replacements is becoming a huge challenge.

After the deadly 2009 crash of a commuter plane near Buffalo, New York, Congress raised the requirements to fly, increasing the training cost to more than $100,000 a pilot.

Now, one major airline is exploring a controversial solution, reports CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave.

Usually when someone makes it into the cockpit of one of JetBlue's multi-million dollar simulators, he or she is already a seasoned pilot, but that is about to change as the airline is experimenting with a new way to hire pilots.

As part of a new program, "Gateway 7," JetBlue will soon accept 24 people with little-to-no aviation experience and train them to be a co-pilot by 2020.

"It doesn't matter how many hours of pilot time you have -- thousands and thousands or a few -- the standards are the same. You have to meet the proficiency standards to be qualified and have the FAA certification or certificate," Warren Christie, senior vice president of safety, security and training of the JetBlue training center told CBS News earlier this year.

"It's a very scientific method that we use to train. We collect a lot of data on pilot training performance, along with all of our other groups so we know where additional emphasis is required," Christie said.

The airline says these new pilots will meet the FAA's mandated minimum 1,500 hours of flight time to start work as a commercial pilot, while going through an unprecedented level of screening.

"It's almost like a STEM program and that it's going to attract young people into a profession, possibly that they had not considered before," said aviation consultant Dan Elwell, a former airline pilot and FAA official. "And getting them when they're just starting in the flying program, I think, is a good idea."

This comes at a time when smaller airlines are already having trouble finding enough pilots.

"There has been a reduction of young people that are getting in to flying, and there are tremendous amounts of people that are retiring from flying at the same time, so it's kind of losing it on both ends a little bit," Elwell said. "So we need to find more innovative ways to get young people involved in flying."

The Regional Airline Association, which presents smaller carriers, is hoping to create a faster path to the cockpit with a new proposal that calls for airlines to run a program to train pilots. It said in a statement it "contains substantial enhancements that reach a higher level of safety than current flight training pathways... and offers a meaningful and quantifiable measure of experience for pilot training."

But the Airline Pilots Association is expressing concern about these ideas, saying in a statement: "Programs like the one currently being discussed at JetBlue should not be used to undermine or weaken today's current FAA regulations that ensure safety is paramount."