The United States Air Force is seriously short of pilots to fly combat missions. Now President Trump is making it easier for the USAF to recall pilots. How will this impact the pilot shortage facing the U.S. and world airline industry?
In an Executive Order signed on Friday, Trump gave the USAF the authority to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots for as long as three years. The Secretary of the Air Force is excepted to make the decision if/when additional pilots will need to be recalled.
How Can the Air Force just Recall Pilots?
Under an Executive Order signed by the President on September 14, 2001, The POTUS has asserted broad authority to:
- call up National Guard and Reserve troops
- hire/fire military officers
- bypass limits on the numbers of acitve-duty generals
Although ostensibly a temporary act in a time of crisis, Presidents Bush and Obama renewed the Executive Order each year. 16 years later, Trump did the same thing last month.
But the latest Executive Order goes further, expanding the number of pilots that can be recalled from 30 to 1,000. For what reason? According to the order, “[T]he continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States”.
How Does this Impact Airlines?
Many of the pilots eligible to be recalled for service are reservists who now fly for commercial airlines. I spoke to one last week…piloting my Ethiopian Airlines flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa.
The Air Force Times reports that airlines have been actively courting the Air Force’s approximately Air 13,000 veteran pilots for years with generous incentives and far higher pay than in the military.
Tiffany Harvey oversees pilot recruiting for Southwest and makes the following common sense point.
This is sort of low-hanging fruit. We’ve got amazing individuals coming out of the military, that are ready and excited and passionate about starting a career, or continuing a career, that we can utilize and capitalize on their experience.
A detailed RAND study seems to bear this out. Airlines will hire at least 2,000 pilots per year for the foreseeable future, with the number rising to 5,000 by 2022 (as baby boomers retire en masse).
Will airlines face an immediate threat? Not exactly. Delta employees 12,000 mainline pilots. American 15,000. United has almost 13,000.
Even so, 1,000 is not a drop in the bucket, especially as demand for pilots currently exceeds supply.
If I wanted a safe job, I’d go back to flight school. Airlines are hiring, the US Air Force is hiring, and that will mean higher wages all around.
But the question remains, will the USAF actually recall pilots? And if so, for what missions and for how long? That’s the much more important question than how many pilots Delta or United will lose.