Young JetBlue woman pilot praises Cape Air’s Gateway program

Lean Into Aviation (3)When Krista Walsh was in the ninth grade, her parents booked a flight on Cape Air. She had the good fortune to sit up front with the pilot of the Cessna 402. That day, Walsh realized what she wanted to do with her life.

“I always wanted to work at Cape Air,” says Walsh.

During this week’s Regional Airline Association conference in Cleveland, Walsh was part of a panel discussion about a pilot shortage, which is increasingly becoming an industry-wide problem due to low starting salaries, soaring education costs and uncertain schedules. Regional airlines are competing for a smaller pool of prospective pilots and finding it difficult to attract and retain them.

“It’s here and the impact is real,” says former Cape Air pilot Dave Bushey of the shortage. Bushey maintains that Walsh was his best hire ever, and he sees the need to attract more like her to the industry. “What kind of pipeline and pathways can you create for them?”

Major airlines, which frequently draw pilots from regional carriers, have not felt the full impact of the shortage yet, says United Airlines Captain Mike McCasky. “I expect to see this challenge to surface in the next five to six years,” he says. Some 2,500 pilots will be retired by 2019 and United plans to hire 1,000 to 1,600 pilots over the next year. “We don’t have full flow through agreements with regional partners.”

Kent Lovelace, a professor in the aviation program at the University of North Dakota notes that young people value their social networks and are seeking work schedules that limit time away from home. “Sell me on the whole idea of an airline as a career,” says Lovelace. “Students are being attracted to airlines where pay is [rising]. They just want to be equal to other graduates.”

Walsh, who is 29, took all of these factors into account when deciding to become a pilot, and is convinced she made the best decision.

Upon graduation from St. Louis University with a degree in aviation science, Walsh landed at Cape Air in 2008, initially splitting her time between recruiting and flying. She became part of the carrier’s Gateway program in partnership with JetBlue. Successful candidates are guaranteed an interview with the low-cost carrier after a set period of time. Walsh was hired last November by JetBlue.

A total 22 Cape Air captains have completed the Gateway program and are now flying in the right seat of JetBlue aircraft, notes Cape Air president Linda Markham.

Walsh, who is continuing her education in a Master’s program at Cornell, is eager to see more women and minorities consider aviation careers, as they are vastly underrepresented. And she sees Markham’s appointment as president of Cape Air as an important inroad in this male dominated industry.

She suggests that carriers consider paid internships, tuition assistance and greater outreach through mentorship programs.

“Students need to see what the airline industry is really about,” she says. “It was never unattainable. So, you’re young, you’re female but it was never not ‘doable’. I’m living the dream. I didn’t think I could reach this goal as early as I did.”

Photo of Cape Air aircraft courtesy of Jason Rabinowitz, aka @AirlineFlyer