two pilots in jet - flexible schedules

Schedule flexibility is cited as the number-one benefit to business aviation employees, according to a recent survey conducted by NBAA. CD In fact, being able to flex one’s work schedule is cited in the survey as being more important than salary, company stability, benefits, and long-term potential.

And the data matches up with what I hear from job-seekers. I am seeing this have significant effects, particularly on single-airplane, two-pilot operations.

As individual aircraft owners and corporations return to flying, many departments have increased their operational cadence. And these two-pilot departments are especially at high-risk for employee turnover.

After all, a two-pilot team with a robust flying schedule cannot easily schedule time off. And if one of the pilots gets sick, the operation could end up temporarily grounded.

But affecting schedule flexibility in aviation department work schedules might not be that simple. Doing so almost requires an aviation department, especially a small one, to be overstaffed. If not, the department relies heavily on contract pilots, who happen to be a bit harder to source these days, thanks to the pilot shortage.

Contract Solution

During the Covid slowdown, due to cutbacks, an aviation director of a single aircraft department I know had to let his second-in-command go, leaving him as the only pilot. But as flight demand increased, they’ve now doubled their flight hours from 200 to 400, and he is the only pilot.

This director, while trying to hire a second pilot, is exclusively relying on contract help. In the interim, he’s only getting one day off every 20 days. For legal reasons, he now has to fly every flight. Of course, this situation is not sustainable.

Flight departments, regardless of size or scope, are challenged when they are unable to match competitive salaries and/or cannot meet the essential work/life balance that everyone is seeking. And when both are in question, hiring is impossible!

In my discussions with clients, I find myself too often saying, “If you don’t like the message, please don’t shoot the messenger.” That said, I’m sorry to say, but aircraft owners can no longer get by with just the basic staffing. That is if they want to ensure that their pilots aren’t leaving within six to 12 months.

Let’s face it—we’re in a staffing shortage and this is a jobseeker’s market. If an employee isn’t getting his or her basic needs met (i.e., a manageable schedule) and they’re not compensated competitively, they’ll seek out another opportunity or an airline career, no matter how much they love their boss! Trust me on this.

Outsourcing to Contract Pilots

It’s true that many operators are supplementing their staff with contract pilots, who are in high demand. To find out how challenging it is to hire contract pilots right now, I reached out to Jennifer Guthrie, the CEO of In-Flight Crew Connections.

“Common aircraft types are fairly easy to crew,” she told me. “However, it does take us longer to crew trips. One of the primary difficulties in hiring contract crews is when an aircraft is unique—the plane has special avionics, is a brand-new model, or is an older model. For the latter, you’ll find that experienced, current, and qualified contractors are no longer flying these aircraft.”

The majority of the contract pilot pools consist of employed, full-time pilots who fly contract on the side. And as we noted before, aircraft owners are catching up on their business travels, therefore limiting the number of contractors available.

In this market, for departments that require “half” a pilot or a full-time or part-time contract pilot–it’s better to be proactive than reactive. The demand for contractors has increased tremendously since July. And contract day rates have increased, just as the demand for contractors’ services has increased.

Operators are competing for the same contract talent not only in day rates but also the commitment to not cancel. You must get out ahead of it proactively.

Here’s some great advice regarding contractors from Guthrie: respect their time (avoid cancellations), give them as much advance notice as possible, pay competitively, and communicate expectations up front.

Data’s the Key to Schedule Flexibility

If you find yourself in or heading to this place, you must identify the problem before it manifests itself. The most important aspects of advocating for the needs of the flight department—be it headcount, compensation, hard days off, contract labor, or any other competitive benefit—you need to present hard data.

A business case must be made outlining the current reality, the options, recommendations, and consequences of not implementing the recommended change.

This article was originally published for Aviation International News.

About the Author

Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving the needs of business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden serves on NBAA’s board of directors and is the former chair of the NBAA advisory council.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.

  • Love your article Sheryl! Captured the essence of the problem and who would have ever thought we’d have this kind of a problem a few years ago? And too often, relying on “just any contract pilot” might not be the best solution if they’re not able to be Argus and/or Wyvern current.

    • Bert – Great to hear from you. And we all knew this problem would some day come to fruition. I agree that “just any contract pilot” is not an optimal solution.

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