Former Delta Pilot Finds Work Overseas

The pilot said he had to take drastic action before reaching mandatory pilot retirement at age 60.


Denis and Rosalyn Waldron planned to spend more time at their waterfront house on Lake Arrowhead when he took early retirement from Delta Air Lines after 27 years as a pilot.

But the couple spends many more days in Seoul, where Denis, 58, now works as a Boeing 777 captain for Asiana, a South Korean passenger carrier.

The Waldrons didn't expect to be exiled from their home or country at this stage in their lives -- but Denis said he had to take drastic action before reaching mandatory pilot retirement at age 60.

"I always considered myself extremely fortunate at Delta because I was never furloughed and never put on the 'B' scale," said Waldron, a former U.S. Navy pilot who joined the Atlanta-based airline in 1977. "I wanted to stay at Delta, and I agonized over my decision to leave. But guys like me were getting pushed out the door."

Waldron and hundreds of fellow senior Delta pilots have retired early in the last four years to protect lump sum pension payouts that often topped $1 million each and were jeopardized by the company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy court filing. With the lump sum and anticipated $7,000-a-month pension, the Waldrons could have afforded a comfortable retirement at the lakefront house they moved into two years ago.

But when Delta canceled payments to Waldron and thousands of other retirees this year, Denis decided to go back to work and make up some of the estimated $2 million hit. He signed on with Asiana, a young carrier that was looking for senior pilots with international flight experience.

About a dozen Delta pilots who took early retirement are now working for foreign carriers in Southeast Asia, China, India and the Middle East. Unlike U.S. carriers that require newly hired pilots to start at the bottom of seniority lists, some overseas carriers allow them to join according to their qualifications and experience levels.

U.S. pilots working as captains at foreign carriers typically earn about $80,000 to $100,000 a year, far less than the $180,000 a year they would earn at the top of U.S. pay scales. But most of the money U.S. pilots make overseas is tax-free as long as expatriate pilots stay largely outside the country.

More U.S. pilots could follow them if current industry trends hold.

Aerospace giant Boeing estimates the global airline fleet will more than double to 35,000 by 2024, with the fastest growth in Asia and the Middle East. The boom will require an additional 18,000 trained pilots annually, and countries like China and India won't be able to train them fast enough.

So far, foreign carriers have been seeking out senior U.S. pilots approaching retirement age, but some predict more and more junior U.S. fliers eventually will spend their careers overseas. China will need an estimated 35,000 pilots in the next 20 years, and the rest of Asia will require 56,500.

Kit Darby, founder of AIR Inc., a pilot job placement firm, said Asian and Middle Eastern carriers have begun attending U.S. pilot job fairs.

"There's quite a bit of competition for experienced captains overseas, and demand is still increasing," Darby said. "There's an acute shortage, particularly in India and China. There's almost no civilian pilot training in those countries, and military pilots stay in the military their whole careers. Those countries are going to need more pilots than they're making, and that's likely to be true for quite awhile."

The Waldrons raised their family in Cobb County and say they treasure time with family and friends in Waleska. A glassed-in porch on the second story of the couple's 3,800-square-foot house overlooks Lake Arrowhead where, on a recent visit, trees dropped fiery autumn leaves into the chill water.

"Living overseas is hard," said Denis, a tall and lanky tennis player with a full head of graying hair. "My dad's in a hospice here, and I wish I could be with him more. The jet lag and the all-nighters are brutal but necessary. I'd rather work intensively for a relatively short period of time than draw it out over a longer time frame."

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