Cover: Retaining U.S. Air Force Pilots When the Civilian Demand for Pilots Is Growing

Retaining U.S. Air Force Pilots When the Civilian Demand for Pilots Is Growing

Published Jul 12, 2016

by Michael G. Mattock, James Hosek, Beth J. Asch, Rita T. Karam


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Research Questions

  1. What are the recent and likely future changes in commercial airline pilot demand and other civilian opportunities for U.S. Air Force pilots?
  2. How would such changes affect pilot retention in the Air Force?
  3. How much might aviator retention pay and aviator pay need to change to sustain pilot retention?

An increase in pilot hiring at major commercial airlines could increase the outflow of U.S. Air Force rated officers and create manning shortfalls. In addition, because aviator pay (AP) and aviator retention pay (ARP) are now discretionary programs under Department of Defense Instruction 7730.67 and budget requests for them must be defended, the Air Force requires a capability to help anticipate the range of possible changes in civilian pilot pay and hiring and estimate the level of AP or ARP needed as a countermeasure. The authors provide data and analysis of airline pilot supply, compensation, and demand and conclude that major airlines are increasing both pilot pay and hiring, which could decrease Air Force pilot retention. They extended RAND's dynamic retention model to include the choice of ARP contract length and airline hiring. They estimated the model using longitudinal data on Air Force pilot retention for 1990 through 2000 entry cohorts followed to 2012 and incorporated new estimates of the civilian age-earnings profile of ex-military pilots employed by major airlines. With the estimated model, they simulated the effect on pilot retention of increases in civilian pay and airline hiring, as well as the elimination of AP for pilots assigned to non-flying positions. The authors found the levels of AP and ARP needed to offset those effects and sustain Air Force pilot retention. The findings vary by case, but a range of foreseeable increases in major airline hiring and pay would require increases in ARP to at least $38,500 and potentially as high as $62,500, well beyond the current cap of $25,000 per year.

Key Findings

The Authors Found That Recent Trends in Civilian Pilot Demand and Changes in Supply Will Increase the Opportunity for U.S. Air Force Pilots to Be Hired by a Major Airline

  • Assuming an increase in commercial airline hiring to 3,200 hires per year (corresponding to a probability of being hired of 50 percent), a net increase in civilian pilot pay of 13 percent, and a net increase in civilian non-pilot pay of 4 percent through 2018 relative to 2014, the authors found evidence to support an increase in the aviator retention pay (ARP) cap from the current $25,000 per year to $48,500 per year, a 94-percent increase.
  • A larger range of ARP, from $38,500 to $62,500, would be required to cover net increases in civilian pilot pay from 9 to 14 percent and an increase in major airline hiring to 3,800 pilots per year (corresponding to a probability of being hired of 70 percent).
  • The dynamic retention model capability developed for this report can be used to consider an array of compensation policies for pilots, thereby providing the Air Force with an empirically based analytical platform to determine the special and incentive pays or other pay actions needed to sustain retention. It can also be applied to hypothetical scenarios, such as a near-term surge in major airline hiring.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by AF/A1P and SAF/MR and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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