Many of us in the “head hunting” business of filling flight departments with quality people have concluded that competing with large airlines is a losing battle. The focus has been luring good people with high salaries and other benefits. I think that is only half the battle. Once recruited, we need to keep them from defecting to the airlines.
— James Albright
The business aviation landscape has certainly changed in the last ten years. The normal progression from newly minted commercial pilot often meant years building time as a flight instructor, hoping to get lucky enough to find a small turbine aircraft operator and then graduating to a commuter airline before getting to the “big leagues.” We in the business jet world could scavenge the cream of the crop with higher pay than airline probation wages, followed by salaries that dwarfed even what a senior flag carrier captain could make. The old business jet goal of “making six figures” became so commonplace that new goals came in multiples. For some aircraft types, salaries over $300,000 have become the starting point in negotiations. It is no wonder we were able to compete against the better-known airlines. But all of that has changed. We have fallen behind on multiple fronts.
High salaries are a prerequisite
As a person doing the hiring and firing over many years, I used to think I could throw money at the problem and keep the front seats on my airplanes filled with highly qualified pilots and our hangars with first rate mechanics. The airlines soon recognized that the business jet world is a great source of talent and have turned us into farm clubs to pillage from at will. If we want to compete, our starting pay numbers must keep up with the competition. This has led to the current crisis in many company human resources departments: how can you have the guys flying the airplanes making more money than the passengers they are flying? The answer is to divorce the aviation department’s pay scale from the rest of the company. If you want your multimillion-dollar airplane flown safely, the flight department’s personnel costs must go up.
Job security may be more important than pay
I’ve lost more than a few pilots to the airlines and the reason is usually a simple one. Flying for a one airplane flight department, I cannot guarantee the job will be here tomorrow. An economic downturn may mean my company ceases to exist. Decades ago, the airlines were more apt to suffer from the economy and furloughs were commonplace. These days it is hard to imagine any major airline throwing pilots on the street. How do we compete? It might be worthwhile to explore hybrid pilot organizations where companies agree to hire only from an agreed upon pool of pilots, making it easier for pilots to recover from one company’s demise. At the very least, paying for a pilot’s loss of license insurance can help convince a pilot that a job in business aviation can be a lasting one.
Schedule drives quality of life, and quality of life is the bottom line
Having flown half my professional career in the Air Force and the other half in business aviation, I accepted that I didn’t have a schedule and sometimes a planned vacation would have to wait. I counseled pilots that if they are uncomfortable with uncertainty and need to know what they are doing every day for the next month, they probably aren’t cut out for our line of work. For me, the lure of flying better equipment and being able to see more of the world was enough to make up for everything else. But I must admit that my quality of life was lacking and that my peers at the airlines spent more time at home, missed fewer of their children’s school events, and may have been, in a word, happier.
The quality of life problem may be the biggest challenge of all for us in business aviation. My flight department is trying to address that by hiring more pilots. We think we can schedule two pilots each day for any no-notice trips, freeing everyone else. The days off must be known well in advance, or they are no better than days spent on standby duty. Once a vacation is scheduled, it becomes set in stone. The next challenge is to convince the company that a schedule cannot be built on a 24-hour notice basis.
Our attempts to solve our manning problems with more money have failed and it is time to look at the problem from a career viewpoint. We need to lure good aviators and then keep them. I think the only way to do that is to understand these three points. First, high salaries are assumed. Second, we need to take steps to remove the idea that the security of our jobs are only as good as the quarterly reports at the next stockholder’s meeting. And finally, we need to recognize that our people have lives beyond the job, and if we don’t provide a quality of life comparable to our competition, nothing else matters.