Facing Pilot Shortage, Airlines Begin Recruiting Retirees

Feb. 7 — Travelers may soon notice more gray hair in airplane cockpits when they board their flights, thanks to a wave of recently retired pilots trading in their beach chairs for seats on the flight deck.

A recent change in federal law, which raised the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots from 60 to 65, means some retired pilots can return to the skies. Airlines, facing a growing pilot shortage, are already beginning to recruit retired pilots who are younger than 65.

"There are lot of pilots who love flying, it's an absolute passion for them, and they may be interested in coming back," said Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. "So we want to give them that opportunity."

The change, which was approved by Congress in December, came as many newly retired pilots were adjusting to living with far less retirement income than they had planned during their careers. The termination of most airline pension plans cut deeply into pilot nest eggs, forcing some to turn to non-flying jobs to bring in more money.

"Many of these pilots are living on just 25 to 30 percent of what they thought they were going to have," said Kit Darby, a pilot and president of consulting firm Air Inc., which helps pilots with career decisions. "So they're a needy group, and some of them are going to jump at the chance to go back to flying."

According to Air Inc., retired pilots have been interviewed for jobs at Delta Air Lines and EOS, which flies between New York and London, as well as Southwest.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines has no plans right now to recruit retired pilots, said spokeswoman Sue Gordon. American still has more than 2,000 pilots on furlough, who are first in line for new jobs that open up. Southwest created a team to contact retired pilots who are still young enough to fly, and interviews will begin this month. King said there are about 200 retired Southwest pilots under the age of 65 eligible to return.

"We have no idea how many want to come back," she said. "Obviously some of them are enjoying their retirement and don't want to go back to work."

Pilots who want to come back would go through a two-week interview process, and then undergo additional training before returning to flight duties.

"It would be all the things that a new pilot does," King said.

There are drawbacks to return to the skies, however. The law mandates that retirees who return to their old jobs must be placed on the bottom of airline seniority lists and treated the same as new hires. That means retired captains will come back as first officers, and will likely earn less than they did before they retired.

They will also fly smaller airplanes and won't get to pick the choice routes.

"That could be frustrating for some pilots who were at the peak of their careers," flying as captains on the biggest airplanes and earning the largest paychecks, Darby said.

Still, he added, many older pilots may still choose to resume flying, particularly if they're already working to augment their retirement income.

The new pool of veteran pilots comes as the industry is struggling with a growing shortage of pilots. Many regional airlines have slashed their hiring requirements during the past year to meet the demand for new pilots, and some, including American Eagle, have had to adjust flight schedules because of fewer pilots.

That's why "every airline is looking at this right now, and at some point I think all of them are going to be (recruiting retired pilots)," Darby said. "It's a group with a lot of experience and a lot of them want to come back."