Every industry has its own challenges and nuances. Since our client base is widely varied, we routinely partner with our clients to tackle unique, industry specific obstacles as they build out customized employee benefit programs and strategies. When it comes to the airline sector, a specific pain point relates to adequate long term disability coverage for their licensed pilot employees.


Pilot union contracts typically require airlines (the employer) to provide long term disability (LTD) insurance to their pilots, but this coverage has become nearly impossible to procure in the traditional LTD market, for a range of risk reasons:

  • Volatility and financial hardships in the airline industry, with bankruptcies and federal bailouts not uncommon
  • Pilot unions, such as ALPA, APA, and SWAPA, can be litigious in fighting for their members, making pilots less favorable in the eyes of insurance carriers
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight regarding the fitness of a pilot complicates claims processes
  • The nature of the job poses special risks, including:
    • Consistent exposure to high altitude
    • Safety considerations
    • Prone to illness or injury due to physical and mental demands

Pilots are humans like the rest of us, but given the stressful nature of their job and the consequences of their environment, they might be in greater need of LTD coverage than the average worker. For example, the FAA estimates the prevalence of substance misuse is 8.5% among pilots, with other sources placing that rate as high as over 15%1.

Sensibly, the FAA’s regulations around pilot licensing are very stringent, so there is a large risk that a pilot will lose their license over a medical condition, including the substance issues referenced above. As a result, the gap in the market for conventional LTD coverage has yielded a specialty market specific for pilots, which is based on the loss of a pilot’s license instead of the traditional definitions of disability, which are based on the ability to perform either the material and substantial duties of one’s own occupation or any occupation which could be reasonably expected to perform in light of their background. Since these loss of license plans are generally structured either as a monthly benefit while a pilot is grounded or as a lump sum, pilots who do not lose their license essentially have no product option available that provides income replacement as a traditional LTD plan would. In addition, even when the specialty coverage would provide a benefit, it is limited in availability and, with very little competition, premiums are high and there is minimal, if any, room for customization.

Potential Solution

At Spring, we often say that captives are the whiteboard of insurance, meaning that they can be leveraged and crafted in a diverse range of ways to solve for unique and evolving challenges. LTD coverage for pilots can be added to that whiteboard.

Most airlines currently have a captive insurance company, which they may only be utilizing for property and casualty (P&C) lines of coverage. Even when an airline does have employee benefits in their captive, they are typically not leveraging the captive for long term disability insurance or other voluntary benefits.

Long tail risks such as disability are particularly beneficial for captives. Traditionally, when premiums are paid to carriers they hold and maintain any investment income earned on reserves. When funding these long-term liabilities through a captive, the investment income earned is held until the time of loss and stays within the captive.  These investment returns are substantial and serve as yet another benefit for placing disability coverages into the captive.

Having employee benefits (including LTD) in a captive provides the following advantages:

  • Cost savings and improved cash flow
    • Increase cost certainty and support budgeting
    • Reduce operating costs
  • Control over underwriting and funding
  • Flexibility in terms and conditions
  • Better claims management
  • Improved access to data

The biggest benefits for airlines placing LTD through their captive program is creating greater control of customization of coverage and are less susceptible to market volatility and pricing by moving away from the commercial market.

Having a combined P&C and employee benefits captive program, which incorporates LTD, would further strengthen the airline’s overall captive and risk management strategy by offering risk diversification, since LTD risks are unrelated to the existing P&C risks underwritten in the captive. Along with projected increased profits of the LTD line of coverage, this approach increases the number of statistically independent exposures, which improves the stability of the overall program. In addition to LTD, medical stop loss could also be added to the captive to protect against catastrophic claims and create more predictability.

Action Plan

LTD insurance for pilots has been an issue for years in the airline industry, and no optimal commercially available solution has come forth. Captive insurance has long been a strategic approach to niche or especially challenging insurance obstacles and essentially how and why captives were born. The LTD commercial market is prime for disruption, and for those willing to move towards a more flexible and beneficial program, a captive insurance company can provide an answer.

1 https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/4336555-the-faa-must-prioritize-pilot-well-being-to-improve-flight-safety/#:~:text=The%20FAA%20estimates%20the%20prevalence,identify%20these%20grave%20health%20concerns