FedEx is offering retirement-age pilots bonuses from $40,000 to $110,000 to stick around through the holiday shipping season, Reuters reports. FedEx pilots with 30 years’ experience already make around $300,000.
The bonuses are the latest salvo in a global campaign waged by airlines, militaries, and flight schools to recruit and retain more pilots. FedEx and its rival UPS did record business both of the last holiday seasons, a perk of the booming U.S. economy and massive growth in e-tailing.
Federal law has long required commercial pilots to give up their wings at age 65. In 2013, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began requiring commercial co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time, a big jump from the previous requirement of just 250 hours, along with some additional safety-focused rules. The rules forced commercial airlines to poach more experienced pilots from neighboring sectors, such as the private jet industry or the military. They would have had to do something anyway, since about half their workforce are baby boomers due to retire soon.
And global demand for pilots has been rising elsewhere, too, as emerging economies outpace pilot training. Boeing estimates that the world will need some 800,000 pilots by around 2035, while Airbus’ estimate is lower, Forbes reports. UPS and American Airlines have announced new internship and training programs aimed at recruiting pilots. American and European pilots are getting enticing offers from Asian or Middle Eastern airlines.
The tightening of the pilot labor market has enabled even RyanAir’s pilots, who were previously encouraged to register as self-employed or to set up single-person entities in Ireland, to unionize and go on strike. RyanAir expects to hire 1,000 pilots a year for the next five years. California’s aerial firefighting department grounded some planes this season for lack of pilots. Small airports served by regional airlines may also lose commercial service, Council on Foreign Relations fellow and retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Marty Reynolds wrote for Fortune last year.
In an economically rational world, airlines would just offer more pay, savvy students would sign up for flight school, and the problem would go away. Regional airlines were until recently paying just over minimum wage to fledgling pilots, who could take years to find better-paying jobs in the national airlines. Now they are partnering with flight schools to offer guaranteed jobs on better terms, in an echo of pre-9/11 go-go times.
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Demand for experienced pilots is so high that as soon as flight instructors rack up the necessary hours, they are switching to better-paying airlines jobs. That has created a new choke point in the training pipeline. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report notes that some flight schools have had to turn away students for a lack of instructors.