Commercial Airlines May Siphon Pilots From U.S. Air Force, Creating Shortage of Military Aviators

For Release

July 12, 2016

An increase in the hiring of pilots by major commercial airlines could cause more U.S. Air Force aviators to leave the service for the commercial sector, producing a shortage of qualified military pilots, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The commercial airline industry will be hiring pilots in increasing numbers over the next 20 years to replace its aging workforce. Recent changes to federal regulations that tighten regulations on pilot rest and qualification standards for new pilots also could add to this demand, according to researchers.

In addition, the commercial airline industry has seen large increases in pilot pay since 2014, with American, Delta and United raising pay by more than 20 percent.

Compounding the problem, Air Force aviator pay and aviator retention pay — which the Air Force has used to manage its personnel levels — are now discretionary programs under U.S. Department of Defense guidelines and budget requests for them must be justified.

“Former military pilots aren't the only hiring pool for commercial airlines, but our research shows that when commercial airlines hire more pilots, the number of Air Force pilots leaving military service also tends to rise,” said Michael G. Mattock, lead author of the study and an economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

Researchers found that commercial pilots who are military veterans earn 10 percent to 15 percent more than nonveteran pilots, possibly because pilots leaving the military are more likely to work for a major airline.

For military pilots, the best opportunities for salary growth are when they leave at the end of their active-duty service commitment of 10 years, rather than after a full 20-year military career.

“So these would be fairly young pilots who could be very valuable to the Air Force if they remain in the force,” Mattock said. “But within five years of leaving the Air Force, a pilot could be earning more than $180,000 per year with a major airline.”

RAND researchers examined the effect of increased airline pilot recruitment by simulating different scenarios using RAND's dynamic retention model, a state-of-the-art tool that supports decision-making about workforce management policy.

The RAND study used information about Air Force pilot retention for aviators who entered the military from 1990 through 2000 and incorporated new estimates of the civilian age-earnings profile of ex-military pilots employed by major airlines. Researchers simulated the effect on pilot retention of increases in civilian pay and airline hiring, as well as the elimination of the military's aviator pay for pilots assigned to nonflying positions.

The findings vary by case, but a range of foreseeable increases in major airline hiring and pay would require annual increases in aviator retention pay to at least $38,500 and potentially as high as $62,500, well beyond the current cap of $25,000 per year.

The study, “Retaining Air Force Pilots When the Civilian Demand for Pilots is Growing,” can be found at Other authors include James Hosek, Beth J. Asch and Rita T. Karam.

Research for the study was sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel and Training program of Project AIR FORCE. RAND Project AIR FORCE, a division of the RAND Corporation, is the U.S. Air Force's federally funded research and development center for studies and analyses. Project AIR FORCE provides the Air Force with independent analyses of policy alternatives affecting the development, employment, combat readiness and support of current and future air, space and cyber forces.

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