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Tobias Switzer, Military Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, details recommendations for improving pilot retention in the Air Force

Tobias Switzer is an active duty officer in the Air Force. His views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense or the Air Force.

The Air Force currently has 2,100 empty pilot seats, part of a growing problem for the force. That number has jumped from 1,500 vacancies in 2016, according to a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The report says about 60% of that deficit would be fighter pilots. This coincides with a drastic increase in commercial airline hiring over the past decade, a path that can offer higher salaries to pilots.

Tobias Switzer, Military Fellow at CSIS’s International Security Program, says reshaping the way the Air Force gives its pilots their Aviation Bonus – which is authorized by Congress – is one way to help retain them.

“Move that [Aviation Bonus] offer timing up to a much earlier point in the pilot’s career and pay them the bonuses when they make less money, and may be more beneficial to them,” Switzer said. “Then Congress and the taxpayers get paid back in years of service afterwards.”

The Air Force had planned to train more than 1,400 pilots this year, but because of the pandemic was only able to train 1,200 pilots, according to Switzer. He also noted pilot retention has been higher, as commercial airlines have slowed down hiring.

Another recommendation Switzer makes for better retention is to allow student pilots the ability to choose their aircraft or base location, in exchange for more years of service. Currently, most pilots in training do not know what they will eventually fly, or where they will be flying from.

“It becomes more challenging to offer career flexibility later on in a pilot’s career, but if we can start them out on the right path and the path they really want to be on, I believe it’s going to increase their satisfaction… and make them want to stay in longer,” Switzer said.

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