Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly says two major factors threaten pilot retention: The high operations tempo of recent years and the lure of private- sector jobs. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
The Air Force is afraid the commercial airline industry’s long-awaited hiring boom is right around the corner. And for the second year in a row, the service is planning to pay big to keep airlines from poaching their fighter pilots.
Eligible fighter pilots who agree to serve for nine more years can receive $225,000 in Aviator Retention Pay, the Air Force said June 25 — a hefty bonus that was first offered last year. Fighter pilots and other valuable pilots and combat systems officers who sign up for five more years can also get a bonus of $125,000.
The Air Force is turning to such generous bonuses to ensure it doesn’t lose its cadre of pilots and CSOs after spending years and millions of dollars training them, Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of force management policy, said in a July 1 interview at the Pentagon.
“We want a predictable, stable inventory of rated officers who are well-trained, experienced and seasoned in the midpoints of their career,” Kelly said. If “we can have 500 people sign up for a period of time that we know and can predict, [it] takes out some of the dynamic nature of choice for separation or retirement at different points in time. Those can be very dynamic. If we don’t have a predictor on how those are going to happen, we could, all of a sudden, one year have large [amounts of] folks separating out of the force.”
Kelly said the Air Force is facing two major factors threatening pilot retention: The high operations tempo of recent years and the lure of private-sector jobs. There’s not much the Air Force can do about operations tempo, he said, so his office is focusing on enticing pilots to pass up job offers from the private sector.
Air Force studies and other industry studies have concluded that airlines are on the cusp of a major pilot hiring boom, Kelly said. Beginning as early as next year, airlines are expected to start a decade-long hiring wave for between 25,000 and 50,000 new pilots.
“We’re just beginning to see that uptick start,” Kelly said. “It hasn’t gone to the high levels yet, but we certainly predict all the models are going to be right.”
The airline industry is coming out of a period of consolidations, Kelly said. And now that the industry’s turmoil of the last few years is settling, he expects they will turn their attention toward hiring again.
What’s more, a generation of airline pilots who earned their wings in the waning days of the Vietnam War and then went to fly for the private sector are now approaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. Those pilots must be replaced, and airlines are bound to look to the Air Force’s ranks.
The Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 updated rules that limited the maximum amount of time airline pilots can be scheduled on duty, to keep them from getting fatigued and potentially causing deadly crashes. But if pilots can’t work as many hours, Kelly said, that requires the airlines to hire more pilots to meet the same schedules, increasing their need to lure Air Force aviators.
“Military aviators are, of course, a great draw for them,” Kelly said. “The training bill becomes far less, and they get a very seasoned aviator who they can bring right in.”
About 843 airmen are eligible for the bonuses, including 245 fighter pilots. The Air Force hopes around 500 airmen in all will take the bonuses this year, and expects about 115 of those will be fighter pilots. Kelly expects that roughly 80 percent to 85 percent of fighter pilots taking a bonus will sign on for the nine-year, $225,000 bonus.
Last year, 132 fighter pilots signed up for Aviator Retention Pay, Kelly said. Of those, 108, or 82 percent, took the $225,000 bonus. Another 483 pilots took the $125,000, five-year bonus. These bonus programs typically have a take rate in the mid- to high-60 percent range.
For the first time this year, the Air Force is allowing airmen to sign up for Aviator Retention Pay before their undergraduate flying training active-duty service commitments have expired. Previously, airmen would only be able to sign up in the year their ADSC expires. But now, airmen whose ADSC will expire in fiscal 2015 can sign up for a bonus a year ahead of time. They will start to receive their bonuses next year, Kelly said.
“The opportunity to get into the program a year ahead of time guarantees them a line at the stand next year,” Kelly said.
In the past, Air Force officials have said the high operations tempo has limited the pipeline of new pilots who can be trained. In 2012, Gen. Hawk Carlisle said instructor pilots had been needed for combat missions, leaving them unavailable to train other pilots.
Kelly said the Air Force now is not facing a shortage of instructor pilots. The Air Force can only produce about 950 new pilots a year due to factors such as how many training airplanes are available, Kelly said, but the amount or availability of instructor pilots has not been a problem.
By the time airmen who sign up for this year’s bonuses have finished their five- to nine-year commitments, the Air Force will have spent nearly $74 million on their bonuses.
The first round of bonuses for airmen signing up in 2014 will total $23 million. The Air Force will spend another roughly $40 million on this year’s round of annual payments for airmen who signed up in previous years, Kelly said.
Spending $63 million on bonuses in a single year “is no small chunk of change,” Kelly said. But since it takes $9 million to train a single new pilot, he said, the bonus pay to hold onto existing pilots ends up being a good return on investment.
If approved, pilots and CSOs can either have the bonus paid out in $25,000 installments over the period of their commitments, or take half the money up-front in a lump-sum payment and have the rest paid out over the remainder of their commitment.