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Air Force, airline industry working on joint solution to pilot shortage

By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 26, 2017

WASHINGTON – The Air Force is working with commercial airlines to find ways to overcome a shortage in the number of pilots needed to fly commercial and military aircraft.

Gen. Carlton D. Everhart, Air Mobility Commander for the service, met this week with top officials from Delta, United and other airlines to discuss the shrinking pool of pilots, and what to do about it. The meeting was a precursor to one planned for May to be led by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and industry executives, Everhart said.

The issue is getting high-level attention and the May meeting is expected to generate quick actions to relieve some of the pressure on the military and commercial sector, he said.

“The reality is that we as a nation are not producing the amount of pilots we need to source the commercial requirement, the business requirement, the private requirement and the military requirement,” Goldfein said earlier this month in Washington at an American Enterprise Institute conference on the state of the Air Force.

One idea discussed was to bring more predictability to Air Force Reserve commitments, so a pilot could have a successful reserve and commercial career. Other ideas included potential adjustments to required flight hours pilots need to join a commercial airline, debt forgiveness and other quality-of-life changes that would help both sectors, Everhart said.

“We are looking at all the possibilities, the ways we can increase the available pool [of pilots] that serves both the military and commercial industry, without going into direct competition,” he said.

For Everhart, the bottom line is the pace of operations on his command’s pilots – the people who fly the tankers, cargo, personnel airlifters and humanitarian aid missions that have dominated the last decade – has worn down the force.

His command has flown roughly 33,000 sorties in support of missions against the Islamic State group since late 2014. With each airstrike, there’s demand on the fleet. For example, last week, it took 15 tankers to support the two B-2 stealth bombers that conducted a large airstrike against two Islamic State group training camps in Libya.

The pace of operations for the Air Force has made it more attractive for military pilots to consider leaving the service, said Col. Chris Karns, spokesman for the Air Mobility Command. More so, commercial airlines are increasing pay to fill an anticipated 35,000 jobs through the year 2031, as private sector pilots retire and airlines grow to meet increased demands for travel, he said.

This year, Air Mobility Command is already 315 pilots short of what it needs to meet existing operational demands, Everhart said. During the next four years, the service expects to lose another 1,600. The command is made up of 7,940 pilots in active duty, the National Guard and the reserves.

Seventy percent of my tankers belong to the guard and reserves,” Everhart said. “So if you have those people leaving, where does that burden fall to? The 30 percent [from active duty,]” he said, which creates greater strain on the active-duty force and reduces the chance that those pilots will remain in service.

The Air Force has tried to counter the loss of pilots by offering bonuses to stay in the service, Karns said. But last year, only about 48 percent of the active-duty pilots eligible to leave the Air Mobility Command took the offer.

Some of the ideas being considered to ease the pilot shortage include an adjustment to the 1,500 flying hours needed by non-military pilots before they can fly with commercial airlines. The requirement for military pilots is less. They can enter the commercial sector after flying 750 hours.

The higher requirement makes the military a popular supply line for commercial airlines because of the many hours that they accumulate flying missions, Goldfein said.

“I’ve got a lot of folks who have flown 1500 hours. So I could look at, ‘how do I keep what I have longer’? Or look at this nationally and say, ‘Is it time to relook at that requirement, given the challenge we face’? Does 1500 hours make sense?” he said at the conference. “What’s magic about 1500 hours? If we were to change that, and change the incentive structure for where we produce pilots, could we change the demand and supply imbalance that we face right now?”

Another idea under consideration is altering reserve commitments, so a reserve pilot could have a more stable, combined reserve-commercial career.

“There are various periods of time where there is an uptick in air travel,” Karns said. “Are there ways to look at when duty is performed to achieve predictability?”

But Everhart said world events could affect any plan.

“You can never predict the next earthquake,” he said.

Copp.tara@stripes.com
Twitter:@TaraCopp
 

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