Thriving Airline Market Saps Pilot Supply

      March 28, 2008 06:54

      A large number of Air Force pilots are retiring from the service every year, prompting worries about a possible weakening of combat capabilities. A total of 131 fighter pilots have already retired or are planning to retire this year, compared with only 47 who retired in 2003. The number climbed to 99 in 2006 and to 138 in 2007.

      Most of the retired pilots are going to work for civilian airlines. Early this year, Korean Air set the age limit for pilot recruits to 40, and Asiana Airlines to 42. Many Air Force fighter pilots, after reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, aim to retire before they hit the airline age limits. That usually means retiring immediately after fulfilling their 13-year compulsory service period. The Air Force is unhappy with the loss of so many skilled pilots, but there is little it can do to stem the tide.

      The airline market is expanding as several new budget carriers are preparing to launch, including Yeongnam Air, Daeyang Air, PurpleJet and Eastar Jet, joining the existing Hansung Airlines and Jeju Air. Korean Air and Asiana, the country's two flag carriers, have also announced plans to launch their own low-cost carriers, Air Korea and Busan International Airlines, respectively.

      Accordingly, there's a growing demand for pilots. In the past, Korean Air and Asiana used to recruit a combined total of 250 pilots annually. But since last year they have needed about 400 new pilots annually.

      The Air Force is not the only one suffering a pilot shortage -- civilian airlines are also feeling the crunch. About 50 pilots have left Asiana since early last year, finding new jobs at domestic budget carriers like Eastar Jet, Middle Eastern carriers such as Emirates, or at Chinese carriers such as China Southern Air.

      About 10 pilots left Korean Air in 2007 and found new jobs at Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates. Middle Eastern airlines, such as Emirates, are especially absorbing pilots from airlines around the world as they are increasing flights on a large scale every year.

      The current situation suggests the pilot shortage will likely become more acute. The International Air Transport Association, headquartered in Geneva, predicted late last year that airlines will need 17,000 new pilots annually for next 20 years.

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