WASHINGTON — The Air Force is flying into gale force winds as commercial airlines start a hiring spree while military aviators struggle with low morale due to cutbacks and idle jets. And the Air Force may see a shortage as pilots vote with their feet.
Over the next year, the commercial airline industry is going to begin hiring tens of thousands of new pilots as aging flyers retire and the industry regains its economic footing. That could put dark clouds in the way of the Air Force’s wild blue yonder as it tries to persuade pilots to stay in a service even as top officials worry that pilots don’t have enough yoke time.
“If pilots aren’t flying in the Air Force because of our readiness issue, we worry that a number of them are going to say, ‘I’m flying somewhere else,’” acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning told Foreign Policy in an interview this month. “If I’m looking at my jet parked on the ramp instead of flying it and I can get a job somewhere else flying, then I’m going to do that. So we are concerned that there is a sort of perfect storm approaching us in terms of flying retention.”
Fanning said current retention rates are better than historical averages. But he fears there are a number of lagging indicators that don’t tell the real story of how furloughs, the government shutdown, and lower readiness rates will affect the force over the next few years. The Air Force has publicly raised the alarm about its lower readiness rates because of sequestration and budget cutbacks. It may be using the threat of a pilot shortage to convince its budget overseers in Congress to ensure the service is properly funded. But no one disputes the factors at play are real.