Behind the scenes at Florida's 'JetBlue University'

Most visitors here -- enjoying vacations and taking thrill rides -- are escaping reality. But thousands of others travel great distances to experience a carefully-controlled dose of reality.

The edge of Orlando International Airport is home to JetBlue University, JetBlue Airways' unique immersive training program. The ‘university' campus consists of a pair of glistening white buildings quietly nestled between two noisy runways.

“We're actually on the airport property," said JetBlue University “Dean” Warren Christie, whose official title is JetBlue senior vice president.

It doesn't matter where they are hired – nearby Tampa, Florida or far-flung Seattle, Washington – JetBlue Airways ships nearly 100 percent of its new hires to Orlando for orientation.

"It just shows the importance here," he said.

TWO BUILDINGS; ONE GOAL

One structure is basically an international airport in a box. It houses life-size mock-ups of ticket counters, fully-functional aircraft cabins, and several multi-million-dollar flight simulators.

"We can't show them everything, but we try to make the environment as realistic as we can," Christie said.

The other JetBlue building is a newly-built lodge. It's essentially a crew-only hotel that is attached to the classroom -- allowing trainees to maximize their time in Florida. It is scheduled to open in March.

"They'll be able to come over and practice any time they want," said Corey Gagnon, a JetBlueU instructor.

TERMINAL 312

Gagnon teaches tomorrow's ticket agents. His learning laboratory, known as “Terminal 312,” looks identical to an airport.

"They're real ticket counters,” he said. “They have all the technology behind them."

A hum of noise builds as students practice checking-in pretend passengers and handling special requests, such as flight changes, seat assignments, and refunds.

Both the agents and the customers are students.

One minute, trainee Chris Taylor is acting as an airport employee. The next, he's on the other side of the counter. With a cellphone affixed to his ear, he barks at a classmate – bordering on (realistic) rude.

"I have to reschedule this whole entire flight," Taylor tells her.

Gagnon likes it this way. He said he tries to make the lab experience as realistic as possible for the 13 days his trainees are under his wing.

He's also confident JetBlue's 30 million annual passengers are unaware of JetBlueU and the strict curriculum required to staff a ticket counter.

"I think they'll be blown away," he said. “A lot of students come here surprised themselves."

It's 1 to 1 scale. But downstairs, the scope of the coursework genuinely takes off.

30,000 FT. AT SEA LEVEL

JetBlue University includes flight simulators for both its Embraer and Airbus planes. They're stark white, and hoisted off the ground by hydraulics. Two stories high, they gently contort in an oddly hypnotic fashion.

To step inside one is to climb aboard a real passenger jet. The only elements that are simulated are the view out the widows and the subtle movements. Everything else is real.

"It's real aircraft parts,” said Christian Popp, Manager of Flight Training. “Very expensive... that's where the $15 million comes from."

Popp allowed me to pilot the simulator for a half hour or so – a nerve racking 30 minutes.

Flight 671 flew from New York's JFK and back. It was nothing more than a big loop. Nonetheless, Flight 671 was a rough ride.

The landing -- a hard touchdown that included a simulated smack to the pavement -- felt real. The gravity of my many novice mistakes drove my emotions, even though I knew I was safely seated in a box on the ground.

Popp says that realism is why JetBlue invests millions in its simulators.

"It wouldn't be a good learning experience if we would go and cut corners here," he said.

In addition to training new pilots, JetBlue requires regular retraining of its existing crew. Popp said the simulators sometimes run 20 hours a day.

OPEN AND OUT

JetBlue University also certifies the airline's many flight attendants. Their training occurs inside two full-size cabin mock-ups – which aren't really mock-ups at all.

The cabin is compressed from back to front, but the width is real. The seats are no different from the ones new hires will police. And the overhead bins are just as stubborn as those in service.

Although the windows are covered with screen that simulate a plane in flight, the rest of the plane is real.

For a pungent taste of the authentic, Popp allows me to open a genuine emergency exit door.

I have sat next to the handles many times. It stirred my stomach to actually touch one.

As it fell toward me, the door proved too bulky to gingerly move and too heavy to just toss aside. That's a poetic way of saying it was overwhelming.

“That is not light,” I said.

Popp shook his head in the affirmative.

"This is exactly how it feels,” he said -- letting the dead weight lie in my lap. “Nothing is simulated about this one."

Next, Popp instructs me to jump out the window and slide down the wing. The step up is high. And the wing is narrower and slipperier than it appears out the window.

It's a short trip once gravity takes over. Yet, it's an easy journey that I hope to never repeat in real life.

"When it becomes real, it's not that easy," he said.

That sentiment is true of everything at JetBlue University – from ticket counters to simulators to slides to overhead bins.

“It begins here,” Christie added.

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