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The Federal Aviation Administration is considering making it easier for military aviators to transition to commercial airlines by lowering the number of required flight hours required for certification from 1,500 to 750.
"We believe these pilots can safely apply for a ‘restricted privileges' ATP [Airline Transport Pilot] certificate after 750 hours of flight time," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said in an email. "In fact, the majority of military pilots who complete their service obligations will have acquired the 1,500 hours required for an unrestricted ATP certificate."
Duquette did not know when the FAA will decide the matter.
After years of high operational tempo, multiple deployments and long stretches of time away from their families, Air Force pilots may take a fresh look at joining the airlines if the FAA approves the change, said retired Lt. Gen. Dick Newton III, executive vice president of the Air Force Association.
"Many airmen are thinking about — less themselves — but perhaps their families, in my view," Newton said. "This could be an enticement for them to go into the commercial airline industry, perhaps look for a different or a perceived improvement on their quality of life, particularly as it pertains to their family: They no longer would have to move their family from place to place. I think the average Air Force child attends, six to seven, maybe eight schools from K-12."
In the late 1980s, several of Newton's Air Force Academy classmates left the service to join the airlines, which were offering high salaries, said Newton, who considered becoming a commercial pilot himself.
"There was a slight consideration at one point whether or not to go to the airlines because what the airlines were dangling in the late '80s was a much more expanded airline industry, with a potential graying population of current pilots who had come out of the '50s and the '60s, and now they were dangling huge salaries," he said.
"Back then, ‘Hey, youngster, come fly for United Airlines and if you get on an international route, you'll end up making $200 [thousand] to $250,000 a year,' which was big money back then."
Little concern in Air Force
Even if the FAA approves the change, Air Force officials do not anticipate a significant drain on pilots, who are required to spend at least 10 years in the service.
"After 10 years on active duty, most mobility and special operations pilots will have at least 2,000 hours of flight time, and this is a conservative estimate," Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said in an email. "Fighter pilots accrue hours at a lower rate, but most will be in the neighborhood of 1,300 to 1,500 hours, as well, so lowering the threshold will not likely have much of an impact on aviator retention overall."
Still, there has been a historical correlation between Air Force retention and airline hiring, said retired Gen. Bill Boles, who commanded Air Education and Training Command from 1995 to 1997.
"But actions and attitudes within the military can influence the degree to which retention is affected," Boles said in an email. "If pilots like what they are doing and feel appreciated, most of them don't care what airlines are doing. If they and/or their families are unhappy, the airlines certainly can be appealing, but they are being ‘pushed' out by internal influences rather than pulled by the airlines."
In the end, if pilots' families are not happy or satisfied, the pilots will opt to leave the service, he said. Many reasons for families becoming disenchanted with the Air Force are driven by external forces, such as Congress and budget cuts.
"I read that the pay system should be changed, that family programs should be trimmed back because corporate America doesn't do that," Boles said. "How many in corporate America spend almost as much time deployed without their family as they do with them? The two lifestyles are completely different, and I worry that those who have never experienced it may drive us over a retention cliff."
The FAA's proposed change comes as the Air Force already faces a pilot shortage, especially fighter, attack and bomber pilots, a senior Air Force official told Air Force Times.
"The requirement change being looked at by the FAA to reduce ATP from 1,500 to 750 hours is simply a leading indicator that illuminates that they, too, are starting to face a significant pilot short in the near term," the official, who asked not to be identified, said in an email. He was primarily referring to the existing commercial pilot population reaching mandatory retirement age.
As defense spending decreases, the Air Force will not be able to offer pilots salaries comparable to the private sector, and that will also entice pilots to leave the service, the official said.
But with the days of big salaries for airline pilots long gone and the economy still weak, the airlines may not appear so attractive to Air Force pilots, said retired Col. David Schreier, a former B-52 pilot.
Years ago, Schreier was weighing whether to leave Strategic Air Command to join the airlines, he said.
"No one is going to tell you money is not important unless they are independently wealthy, but the money we were making was enough," he said.
However, Schreier acknowledges that conditions were much different when he was in the Air Force. He wasn't deploying to the extent that airmen do now.
Ultimately, he and his wife decided that he should stay in the Air Force because it was where he was happy.
"One of the things I tell folks — kids and others, young folks — is no matter where you work, there's things you're not going to like about your job or the company, whatever it is you're working with," he said. "When you get to that point about making a life decision like whether I want to stay for a career in the Air Force or go try something else, you have to decide, ‘Do I like the flavor of BS in this organization, am I willing to put up with it, or am I willing to try the flavor of BS in some other organization?' — roughly stated."