U.S. Military Insights How can the U.S. Air Force combat its pilot shortage?

The Problem
I entered the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in March of 1984. After four years as an F/FB-111 avionics engineer, I was selected for pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base (AFB) and graduated in April of 1989. Like many of my fellow airmen, my plan was to transition to the major airlines after my eight-year service commitment. But by 1996, the Air Force was experiencing a pilot retention problem. I accepted a pilot bonus offer that was paid out over five years, and ended up staying in the Air Force for 30 years – a decision that I do not regret in any way.

Today, the USAF is cycling through another pilot shortage – but at a much higher degree. And the end result is this: the Air Force currently has a shortage of approximately 1,544 pilots, about 1,211 of which are key fighter pilot billets. Why is this happening?

The Factors
1) Major Airlines are Hiring
After coping with terrorism, bankruptcies, and consolidation, the largest U.S. airlines are facing their own pilot shortage. According to some sources, roughly half of all pilots employed by the 10 largest U.S. airlines, United Parcel Service, and FedEx will reach age 65 by 2026.

Additionally, Boeing predicts that over the next 20 years, North American airlines will need 117,000 new pilots to keep up with commercial demand. The Future and Active Pilot Advisors website shows that the major airlines have already hired 3,130 pilots between January thru July of 2107. And oftentimes, commercial pilot hires often come from the military.

2) Low USAF Retention
The USAF also faces a pilot retention issue. According to feedback, reasons for leaving include: flying has become secondary to administrative duties; airmen desire more stability for themselves and their families; they lack support personnel; and they fear the impact of service politics on their career paths.

The Solution
To stem the flow of departing pilots, the USAF is examining several paths. For example, the service began removing miscellaneous responsibilities known as "additional duties," typically assigned to airmen at the unit level. Officials are also looking at accession and promotion rates, giving commanders more freedom to think of creative solutions, and working with U.S. Transportation Command to look at deployment requirements.

In addition, the USAF has unveiled a new, tiered Aviation Bonus Program to combat the declining number of pilots who accept aviator retention bonuses. While bonuses matter, many Air Force leaders have reiterated that it's not always about the money. I agree with that assessment.

In the end, this is an issue that will need to be closely managed – not just by the Air Force, but by the major airlines as well. For those looking for a career path with longevity, I would recommend becoming a pilot. There certainly seems to be job security in this field for the foreseeable future.

Col. Jon Klaus, U.S. Air Force, Ret.
Senior VP of Business Development, Air Domain
Head of Government Relations
Saab North America

This post is part of Saab USA's U.S. Military Insights blog series, where our employees who have served in the U.S. military offer their thoughts on the issues affecting their branch.