By Wayne Risher -- The Commercial Appeal
FedEx is aggressively hiring pilots to keep pace with growth and accelerated retirements of senior flight crew members, pilots say.
The Memphis-based delivery giant notified its pilots' union April 1 it wants to hire as many as 600 pilots over the next 18 to 24 months, a union leader said.
The push comes amid ramped-up hiring efforts by major U.S. airlines and a pilot shortage that has hit small, regional airlines particularly hard.
FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said, “Our hiring of pilots has increased over the last couple years to fill vacancies caused by retirements, as well as to accommodate business growth and our fleet modernization program as we continue adding newer, more efficient cargo aircraft.”
It was unclear how many pilots FedEx is losing to retirement and what hiring levels have been in recent years.
FedEx has plenty of competition in the cockpit labor pool, said aviation consultant Kit Darby of KitDarby.com.
Major airlines will hire 3,000 to 4,000 pilots this year, with Delta, United and American expected to hire 750 to 1,000 each, Darby said. Compare that to 2009, when 30 pilots were hired in the recession's depths, Darby said.
"This is a shortage like we've never seen before," Darby said of the industrywide hiring effort.
He doesn't think big companies like FedEx will have trouble attracting pilots. "They are one of the top pay and benefits companies in America."
Pilots said FedEx slowed hiring in the Great Recession, but staffing levels didn't suffer because Congress in 2007 raised mandatory retirement age for pilots to 65 from 60.
Coming out of the recession, FedEx in 2012 launched a multi-year profit improvement program that combined cost-cutting and upgrades to new, more efficient aircraft, designed to increase FedEx Express profits by $1.6 billion a year by May 31.
Last October, FedEx Express' 4,300 pilots accepted a six-year contract with industry-leading pay in most job classifications. The first-year increase brought FedEx pilot pay to more than $257,000 a year on average.
The union expects FedEx to hire about 60 pilots a month, said Captain Chuck Dyer, chairman of the FedEx unit of the Air Line Pilots Association.
"There's a lot of catchup on our pilot staffing situation taking place, so I know the company's scrambling to add pilots," Dyer said. "They just put out the word last month they're looking for 600 now. They've got a very robust authorization to hire pilots."
Dave Brown, an Airbus first officer, said, "I think some of that was brought on by the contract we finally resolved in October. That has kind of opened up the floodgates for the company to proceed with hiring. We're late doing that."
The staffing pinch appears to have led to increased outsourcing of flights, an arrangement called ''wet leasing,'' Dyer said. He said the company notified the union it was using wet leases to cover 10 routes in December, and he believes those arrangements are still in effect.
The company has offered some pilots the opportunity to be paid to forego scheduled vacations in recent months, an indication of the staffing crunch, Brown said.
Airlines have been concerned about a pilot shortage for several years. A 2014 Government Accountability Office study said not enough people are entering the field because of education, training and experience requirements and costs that sometimes top $100,000 a pilot.
Airline representatives told the GAO a downsized U.S. military is supplying fewer pilots to commercial airlines. The military, which pays pilots to train, supplied 70 percent of pilots before 2001, but the number has declined to about 30 percent, the GAO was told.
Dyer said the military once accounted for as much as 85 percent of FedEx's pilots.
Even with the company hiring at a faster clip, Dyer believes it will take four to five years to get caught up. "The problem is the time it takes to train pilots," Dyer said.
The company alerts ALPA as a courtesy when it's hiring pilots, Dyer said. FedEx doesn't really need to advertise the positions because it has thousands of applications on file at a given time, he said.
Brown said he's not sure about FedEx's recruiting success rate, but he's confident the company will do what it needs to do.
"A lot of other airlines are hiring now, so FedEx has a lot of competition," Brown said. "The next challenge is how do you train X number of pilots a year to join the company. That's exercising a system or pipeline that hasn't been exercised in quite a while. It's going to be a challenge, but I'm quite confident the company will solve the challenge."
To keep pace with training needs and new aircraft deliveries, the company built a new flight simulator complex on Airways south of Winchester. The project was listed as costing $141.8 million and creating at least 333 jobs when it was approved in 2012 for a partial freeze on Memphis and Shelby County taxes.