Retention bonus pay for Air Force pilots could swell above $400,000

Air Force Thunderbirds
Andy Cross | The Denver Post | Getty Images

Fighter pilot retention bonuses could soar to record heights of $400,000 or more, if the U.S. Air Force has its way.

"Currently, we have a need to retain fighter pilots that we have," said Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force. "Whenever the economy is better, there are job opportunities that pilots can take advantage of."

According to the Air Force, the pilot shortage is expected to worsen and result in a shortfall of more than 700 pilots by the end of September. Without any action, the Air Force estimates it will be more than 1,000 fighter pilots short by 2022.

Airline pilot shortage

The Navy and Marine Corps are facing a similar challenge as the airlines offer high-paying jobs to fill cockpit positions. The carriers are looking to expand fleets and dealing with a national shortage as aging pilots approach their mandatory retirement age of 65.

Aviation continuation pay, as it's formally known in the Air Force, is for terms of five or nine years for midcareer pilots who agree to remain in the service.

The Air Force's current annual bonus of $25,000 per year for pilots who decide to stay in the service has been in place since 1999 and never adjusted for inflation. The president's budget called for that bonus to nearly double to $48,000 per year, which would mean Air Force pilots who re-up for nine years could net $432,000.

There's even a possibility the annual bonus could go higher.

Defense budget

Under a House version of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, aviation incentive pay could go up to $60,000 per year once those eligible pilots extend their tour of service. The Senate version of the bill doesn't spell out the bonus but a conference committee of lawmakers could decide to include it in the final bill.

The House-Senate conference committee last met in July to discuss the proposed $600 billion-plus defense budget. Congress is currently in recess until after Labor Day.

Meantime, the Air Force points to studies that suggest the retention bonus "take rate" goes up when the retention pay increases.

"This is not for all pilots," said Stefanek, explaining that some years there's a need for more mobility pilots or more fighter pilots. "There's been a need for it in the fighter community as long as I can remember."

'Quiet crisis'

Top Air Force brass highlighted the fighter pilot retention issue last month in an op-ed posted on Defense One.

"Aside from an airline hiring surge, there are other reasons for the Air Force's pilot shortfall, from dramatically reduced flying hours for the high-end fight as a result of Pentagon budget cuts to a perceived falloff in quality of life when they return from deployments overseas," wrote Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

Added James and Goldfein, "Make no mistake, this is a quiet crisis that will almost certainly get worse before it gets better."

US Air force plane
Dustin Franz | For The Washington Post | Getty Images

At present, the Air Force produces roughly 1,200 pilots per year.

Moreover, it's not only pilots but maintenance technicians where there's a big demand in the private sector, according to the Air Force officials.

Boeing is projecting global demand will remain strong over the next 20 years for commercial aviation personnel due to the delivery of thousands of new jetliners. In North America, the aerospace giant sees the demand for qualified commercial aviation pilots during this period approaching 112,000 aviators and globally topping 600,000. As for maintenance technicians, Boeing projects North America will require 127,000 personnel and worldwide that figure is nearly 680,000.

The airline pilot shortage has led to some regional carriers losing staff to mainline airlines. At the same time, there have been reports the pilot shortage in the civilian space has led to some carriers eliminating smaller prop planes from their fleets.