Those factors start with the commercial aviation sector. There are three issues the industry is facing that could affect the Air Force in a significant way. The biggest one is the change to mandatory retirements for commercial airline pilots. In 2007, the FAA changed the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65, keeping more seasoned pilots in the cockpits. But now thousands of those pilots are reaching retirement age and the airline industry, which is experiencing a comeback, will confront a shortage of experienced pilots across many airlines.
“That wave is just hitting,” said one Air Force official.
The FAA also increased the minimum number of flying hours pilots must have after the crash in Buffalo, NY, in 2009 of a Colgan Air commuter flight that pointed out problems with more inexperienced pilots. There are additional crew rest regulations as well that require airlines to maintain more pilots on staff.
The numbers suggest the Air Force’s fears are grounded in reality: Some worst case scenarios suggest the airline industry -- including international carriers -- could hire as many as 50,000 pilots over the next 10 years, and some estimates are even higher. If the industry aggressively targets pilots serving in the U.S. Air Force, the service could be in for some turbulence. The Airline Pilots Association, the primary trade group representing the interests of pilots and which is tracking the issue, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.