This year’s NBAA BACE includes a very important topic for those of us in the business of hiring and retaining high quality professionals. “Cash Crunch: Resetting the Salary Bar” makes it clear the emphasis on keeping people is with the checkbook. While the combination of forces of inflation and airline competition makes this a timely topic, I think there are other aspects of personnel retention that deserve equal attention.
— James Albright
I remember the first time I heard a business jet pilot was making “six figures,” something at the time we thought reserved for the people in the back of the jet, not those of us in row one. It was as if we had finally made it into the ranks of professional elites. When we crossed the $200,000 annual salary level, that too was a cause for celebration. At $300,000, I thought, “Really?” A new operator just moved into our airport and announced all new hire pilots would start at $400,000. Good news? It was terrible news for three long established operators because they each lost highly experienced pilots to the upstart.
The news only gets worse. Business jet operators are becoming farm clubs for the airlines and that trend will accelerate now that one of the country’s largest airlines announced a 21% pay hike and a competitor decided to up that by paying a percentage point higher. In my flight department we’ve tried our best to remain competitive, but now that our youngest first officer draws more salary than many of our passengers, I wonder how much longer this can go on. There comes a point a flight department can price itself out of business. So how do we compete when the checkbook becomes a limiting factor?
A more predictable schedule
We assume that being on standby for our passengers is a part of the job and getting a call late at night to “report to the airplane as soon as possible” is a necessary evil. One of my predecessors at a flight department I used to manage was fired after he demanded at least 24 hours’ notice prior to accepting any flights. I wasn’t going to make that mistake! What I did instead was put two pilots on official standby from 0700 to 1700 with the hours before and after off limits. The company balked at first, but soon agreed that they didn’t want to place their lives in the hands of tired pilots. The pilots also resisted, but eventually accepted that this made their lives more predictable. We eventually went to a four-pilot staff, making the entire two pilots on standby situation more palatable. We cannot compete with the airlines when it comes to “set in stone” schedules, but we can offer schedules with more time at home despite having to be on standby for some of that time.
Actual crew and duty rest rules
Many flight departments operating without the benefit of an outside management company can suffer from “flexible” crew and duty rest rules. If there is no one to say no to an extraordinarily long duty day except the crew, the word “no” may not be received favorably. When forced to make an exception, I make it known that it is an exception and say it will have a long-term impact on personnel retention. When people do leave, I make a point that we are losing a highly experienced person that took years to train and that unpredictable schedules and uncertain crew and duty rest may have been a factor in causing the person to leave.
“Out of the box” education opportunities
Having to match salaries and improve scheduling policies are necessary first steps, but they are defensive moves. You can go on the offensive in the battle to retain your people by offering benefits the airlines don’t. A unique method is to pay for education that may not be specifically job related but broadens the employee’s value. We have, for example, paid for our mechanics to become private pilots. Another great idea is to pay for pilots to attend glider and seaplane training. You could argue these opportunities make the employee more marketable to your competition, and that is true. But it also engenders loyalty. When being priced out of the labor market, loyalty might trump salary.
I once worked for an aircraft owner who routinely fired pilots who asked for pay raises or refused limit their vacations to times the aircraft was down for maintenance. With such turnover I quickly ended up in charge and found it difficult to find pilots because we had such a bad reputation. I eventually quit, just like everyone else. I later worked for a company that would keep employees on full salary even if medically disqualified from flying for months and even years, agreed to hire an additional pilot to bring some stability to our standby schedule, and readily agreed to every career broadening education opportunity I could come up with. While we have had pilots quit, it was rare for us. Most our people understood the company was loyal to them, and they were loyal to the company as a result.