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Up in the Air


Empty Cockpits: Corporate Flight Departments

Erika Armstrong - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Editor’s Note: Advanced Aircrew Academy (AAA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) are collaborating on how best to gather the needs of business aviation, address the pilot shortage, and find innovative ways to provide solutions. Since each category of operations impacts the other, we will analyze the challenges of each category of operations – Part 91 Business Aviation, 135 Charter and 121 Airline - and then see how each category influences the other.

Pilot shortage. These two words trigger an opinion based on your perspective, and the issues will be different depending on which side of the cockpit door you are sitting.

If you ask a corporate pilot what they think about a shortage, they’ll scoff and say there is no such thing. Competition for pilot seats has been, and will always be, fierce. The aviation industry demands a higher level of qualifications for entry than most other sectors and intense competition means safer skies. But, if you ask a corporate flight department hiring manager or chief pilot, they’ll admit there are pilots, but there is a lack of qualifications for the position they are trying to fill while the number of resumes to choose from has diminished. So, we’ll begin to address the pilot shortage by acknowledging that we need to narrow the definition down to a qualified pilot shortage, but even that clarification is not focused enough to understand the industry’s challenges.

The term “pilot” should not be culled into one category. Within the aviation industry, there are unique niches of operations, and each must be analyzed separately because each has a different solution—even though the issues are shared across the spectrum. We need to pull apart the challenges one at a time so that we can put the industry back together, see how they are interrelated, and then find solutions. 

This is a series of articles, beginning with private business/corporate flight operations ruled by Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. In this article, we will delve deeper into corporate/business aviation and the articles to follow will address charter Part 135 operations, Part 121 regional carriers, and then the major airlines because they are interrelated.

Part 91: Supply and Demand

The challenge starts with simple supply and demand. In 1980, there were 827,000 active, certificated pilots. This lumps pilots into one category (there are a variety of levels of certification), but consider that this same comparison in 2016 is 584,000 active pilots. With 243,000 fewer pilots in the pilot herd, it begins with a dwindling supply while at the same time, we have a growing demand of pilots in general.

As each generation moves through the frustrations of the industry, there are fewer pilots encouraging the next generation to follow. The image of the major airlines trickles through the industry and affects those even thinking about entering the industry and climbing the pilot ladder. The potential new pilot population born in the 1990s have grown up with the aftermath of 9/11 in which airplanes were used as weapons, barbed wire was strung up around airports (including general aviation), and the media highlights only what is wrong with aviation; onboard fights, TSA lines, crammed seats, overbooked flights, and the simple experience of aviation being turned into cattle car transportation.

But what goes on behind the cockpit door is what matters and the industry itself needs to change the image and share with the upcoming generation the deeper experience that makes pilots’ lives extraordinary. What is lost in translation is that a pilot’s life is unique, filled with gratifying challenges, complex connections with other pilots, identity fulfillment, a workday that never happens twice, and a view of the world that few ever get to experience. 

The majority of pilots surveyed began with the idea that they want to become an airline pilot, but something happened over the last twenty-five years that changed the destination: Business/Corporate Aviation. This sector’s roots began with the idea of chartering aircraft for company travel and has evolved into corporations owning their own aircraft and employing their own flight crews. This sector is the most sensitive to economic changes because airplanes can be one of the first assets sold when the economy tightens. But for the well-established corporate powerhouses in the world, these flight departments are the new “destination” pilot jobs. 

Part 91: Hiring

The feedback from hiring managers in corporate flight departments gives an interesting perspective on pilot hiring. For larger charter companies or the airlines, the filtering process is based on simple numbers in a logbook. How many total hours, jet time, multi-engine, PIC, instrument, etc. But for corporate flight departments, while experience is still important, it’s more about the character of the pilot.

Most of the flight departments we talked to were more interested in finding a candidate that had the right attitude and were willing to invest in a pilot’s training if they fit the profile. The pilot shortage hasn’t affected this sector as intensely since this is where many pilots begin their professional pilot life. However, this once pass-through sector has now become many pilot’s destination. This filter has kept many potential airline pilots in the business aviation sector and has even lured airline pilots back into corporate aviation.

Jeff Steiger is Chief Pilot and Safety Manager for two Gulfstreams based in New York. He says that business aviation has unique hiring requirement because, “Pilots in this category must be able to handle C-suite level clients who often have high demands and little patience. These pilots must possess a high level of emotional intelligence because when you tell your boss that they must miss their meeting because of weather or a mechanical problem, these pilots must be polite yet firm. They’re not just telling a customer ‘no’, they’re often telling the owner of the company they can’t go. There can be intense pressure to complete a flight despite abnormalities and these flight crews must have a high level of aviation skills as well as people skills. Our pilots help wash dishes, set up catering, coordinate ground transportation and make coffee. We are willing to put money into a pilot if they don’t have a Gulfstream type rating because we can teach pilots how to fly our specific aircraft, but we can’t teach them how to have the right instincts when it comes to dealing with people and egos. Our biggest challenge right now is keeping our pilots current with their training because it’s hard for us to pull our pilots out for training and recurrent training.”

Training was a reoccurring challenge for most of the managers we spoke to. David Marques, Chief Pilot of Bonaventure in Salem, OR says, “Hiring a pilot with the right qualifications and experience is hard to do for any flight department. I honestly believe for smaller flight departments, it’s even more of a challenge. Smaller flight departments typically can’t afford to train pilots in a revolving door fashion. This holds especially true for new flight departments as they often start building their foundations of the quality of their pilots and how they conduct themselves in and out of the cockpit. Hiring the right person is pivotal, not only for the safety of flight, but for the future of their flight departments.”

Part 91: Solutions

The survey revealed that everything is negotiable and there is no blanket solution. The vulnerability of business aviation departments on the economy was highest on the list of concerns, but there are no solutions here for that.

A few departments mentioned they tried using contract pilots or independent pilot contractors. Once a proverbial term for unemployed pilot, this has become a significant segment of the professional aviation community and there are now companies getting a foothold on the concept and mediating the gap between flight department and pilot. Some pilots are finding ways to pick up contract trips when their own aircraft are not in use. There are a myriad of issues with taxes, insurance, and interpretation of the rules so the industry is still oscillating on best practice guidelines, but this niche has provided solutions for both pilots and flight departments.

The budget challenge for all flight departments is training and the associated costs. While many flight departments we heard from have some variable of training contracts, many had a one-time pro-rata training contract upon the pilot’s date of hire. After the first year, most departments considered training just the cost of doing business and accepted that they might lose their training investment if the pilot should leave.

Most flight departments were keenly aware of what it takes to hire and retain their pilots. They were upfront during the hiring process of what exactly the demands of the job entailed. If the pilot’s position had no set schedule, which meant pilots could be traveling most days of the month, they made sure the pilot knew that ahead of time. Honesty was/is key because it’s too easy for a flight department to sink tens of thousands of dollars into a pilot, but then have them leave because the job was not as advertised. The cliché work/life balance was the key to happy flight departments and there was a wide variety of options. Some departments offered hard days off to pilots, but this had to be negotiated with those who utilized the aircraft. The president of the company had to be agreeable to the idea that there are just some days that the company aircraft couldn’t be used.

Even though they operate under Part 91 rules, most of the corporate flight departments we spoke to self-impose stricter rules and register with the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) . IS-BAO was launched in 2002 and introduced standard operating procedures and best practices for business aircraft operators. This equates to safer pilots using more focused training.

Since most of these departments have three or fewer aircraft, their one shared challenge was keeping pilots current on required training while not adding more days to their schedule. Their solution is incorporating eLearning Modules into their training program so pilots can maintain training schedules while on the road, instead of pulling pilots in during their days off. This is a benefit for both the pilot and department since most pilots prefer the flexibility to complete training while already on a trip, and the department doesn’t have to take an airplane offline while pilots finish ground training. The captain for a flight department in Minneapolis summed up their eLearning as, “The eLearning has set a standard for our training, made it efficient and provided tracking, which is important for safety, company, regulatory and IS-BAO requirements. Crews can access the training and complete it when it works for them. When adding a new crew member, we can assign the most time critical modules first and then have them fall into the training schedule with the other pilots. Our crews typically have a busy flight schedule during a time of onboarding a new crew member, or we wouldn’t be adding a new person. Using an outside source helps ease the burden on the tasks required when bringing a new person up to speed.”

Looking Forward

Karen Henriques and Dave Keys (committee chairperson) are on the NBAA Part 91 Small Flight Department Issues Subcommittee (SFD) and they conducted their first survey in 2016 identifying the unique concerns for operators of three or fewer business aircraft. Nearly 200 small fleet operators representing 376 aircraft responded which helped establish two-way communication between the backbone of business aviation. By understanding the needs, the rest of the industry can step in and help provide solutions and they would like to hear from you. If you’re able to help the NBAA with providing more information or solutions, Dave Keys, also chief pilot of Peace River Citrus Products, can be contacted at davidk@prcp.net.

Based on feedback from flight departments, Advanced Aircrew Academy has designed eLearning Modules to streamline pilot training and ease the burden of safety managers to help make sure they are complying with IS-BAO requirements and recommendations. For more information on how AAA can help your flight department will all your training needs, click here or go to aircrewacademy.com

From the front desk of an FBO to the captain's seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything aviation has to offer. She is the author of "A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT" , professional pilot columnist for 7 magazines, an aviation professor and SME at Advanced Aircrew Academy. can be reached at Erika@achickinthecockpit.com

 

FAA. “U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics.” FAA.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/civil_airmen_statistics/ (accessed May 24, 2017).

NBAA. “NBAA Domestic Operations Committee.” https://www.nbaa.org/about/leadership/committees/doc/20161006-new-nbaa-survey-highlights-issues-faced-by-small-flight-departments.php (accessed May 25, 2017).

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