Nearly 200 pilots have chosen to stay in the U.S. Air Force as major airlines operate in a limited capacity during the COVID-19 outbreak, sharply reducing the number of commercial flights around the world.
While the service is still gathering data, "171 pilots have been approved to stay past their original retirement or separation dates" since March, Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Malinda Singleton said in an email Thursday. She did not provide a breakdown of the types of pilots -- fighter, bomber, airlift, etc. -- who have extended their duty.
The service is also preparing for the possibility that furloughed airline pilots will submit requests to return to active duty in the Air Force come Oct. 1, the spokeswoman said. Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, passed in late March, airline jobs have been safe as companies are prohibited from cutting their workforces until that date. However, experts foresee a dramatic reduction in airline jobs when the restriction is lifted.
"At this time, it is too early to tell what those impacts may be as the CARES Act prohibited layoffs and furloughs in the airlines until Oct. 1," Singleton said. "We are keeping a close watch on the situation; recognizing the challenges the airline industry is facing, we are providing options for rated officers to remain on active duty who otherwise had plans to depart."
Airline hiring efforts had been the biggest factor driving problems in pilot retention and production in the services, officials said in recent years. Commercial airlines became the military's main competitor during a nationwide pilot shortage.
The Air Force came up 2,100 pilots short of the 21,000 it needed in fiscal 2019. In February, the service said it would also fall short of its goal to produce 1,480 new pilots across the force by the end of fiscal 2020.
But in April, the head of Air Education and Training Command said the COVID-19 pandemic might slow the rate of pilots leaving the force.
"We tend to see those [service members who] may be getting out, or those [who] have recently gotten out, want to return to service inside of our Air Force," Gen. Brad Webb told reporters during a phone call from the Pentagon. "I expect that we will see some of that to a degree, which will help mitigate [the pilot shortage]."
Webb compared the pandemic to the 9/11 attacks, after which many service members returned to duty or extended their tours. The military also saw a surge in new recruits after the attacks.
"This is another [scenario] that we're going to be assessing on a weekly, if not daily, basis," he said, referencing the outbreak's possible effect on retention and recruiting.
"While it's too early to know the full effects of COVID-19 on the flying training pipeline, we know it will be impactful," Webb said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.