Do you think there’s a ceiling in business aviation?

Meaning, if you’re a corporate pilot or maintenance technician, is there a limit to your career growth?

Unless you’re waiting for your boss to retire, the answer is resoundingly “yes.”

It just so happens to be the nature of the beast in our industry.

Whenever I think of issues surrounding career advancement in business aviation, I often think back to a conversation I had years ago with Steve Ripley. (If you’re not familiar, he’s the Aviation Director for a large, Fortune 100 consumer product goods company).

Steve told me that, as a matter of course, his company trains its Brand Managers and other upwardly mobile employees for future leadership positions.

“We give them greater and greater managerial experiences, in a step-by-step fashion,” he said.

I’d like to refer to Steve’s example as he described it to me, because I believe it represents a really accurate case in point for advancement “ceiling” and compensation issues facing our business aviation industry.


The Root Problem(s) of a Ceiling in Business Aviation

The challenge for most of us in business aviation is that we don’t have the requisite structures in place to be able to do the same for aviation employees as is done for professionals in other corporate areas.

If we take a look at the typical corporate flight department, we see that it usually has one director, one chief pilot, one maintenance director and so on.

Graphically, the department looks like a pyramid with a lot of activity and movement at the wide base. But, as it ascends, it narrows considerably, because it reflects the fact that there isn’t the same upward mobility. Corporate aviation doesn’t have the same opportunities for going higher that’s typically available in other areas of the corporation.

And that situation goes hand in hand with the issue of business aviation compensation.

The very same lack of step-by-step growth development can keep our aviation professionals from enjoying appropriate compensation growth.

They continue to train and develop and become more competitive in the outside market, but they don’t hit milestones that trigger compensation change in their own flight departments because, sadly, there may be none in place to trigger.


Implementing Strategic Change

Going back to my conversation with Steve, he told me that: “At our company, we looked at the typical career progression path within R&D, engineering, finance, etc. Then we compared it against the path of a pilot. And it didn’t make any sense.”

And that’s precisely the issue.

In other areas of his company, he said, there is a career ladder in place. Employees can develop and move up rung-by-rung throughout their tenures.

It’s true.

Historically, a corporate flight department might hire a first officer or co-pilot. Then after some undetermined number of years, he or she would magically be promoted to captain.

But that promotion could take eight or nine years!

A specific career progression plan that recognized the employee’s growth, experience and future potential did not exist.

It became apparent in our industry that we needed to change the system. But, as it is an all things, that change didn’t come easy.

Many flight departments were mired in doing things the way they’ve always been done, and they didn’ have much flexibility or openness to trying out new ideas.

In Steve Ripley’s example, he said this is how they got the ball rolling: “We’re lucky to attract a wide variety of entry-level pilots with vast levels of experiences. So we started to look at what they came to the door with [in other words, what experience they had]. Using that as a basis, we were able to accelerate the time it takes to become a captain. For example, a new hire could get promoted to captain within one to three years. Far less time than that eight-year ‘magical’ number.”

So, as Steve described it, pilots no longer merely “occupy space” for a certain number of years before they’re considered for a promotion to captain.

Another factor he mentioned is that his company participates in the “Pearl Meyer IBM Corporate Flight Operations Compensation Survey.”

This tool has served as a vital source of market data and practices for almost 20 years. It focuses on base salary and short- and long-term incentive data for nearly 30 flight crew, maintenance, scheduling and other support positions. Plus, it offers detailed compensation and benefits, and aviation department policies and practices information.

Benchmarking against the IBM/Pearl Meyer survey ensures job duties and requirements are consistent among all participating companies. Steve then works with his HR and compensation groups to ensure department personnel are placed in the correct compensation ranges.

“We do our best to match the survey data (within the last 1.5 years), and we learned that we’d started to fall behind the ‘named’ position,” he explained. “So we adjusted those compensation levels to be competitive.”

Addressing Retention

I wanted to know from Steve how the policies his department was implementing affected employee/talent retention.

After telling me his company has experienced very few retention problem issues, he brought up one of the most topical subjects bizav professionals are discussing today—quality of life.

A few decades ago, Steve said, his department was losing pilots to the airlines, and they determined that one of the main reasons was that the “quality of life” they were offering their pilots wasn’t cutting it.

So what did they do about it? They instituted a program called “Supplemental Time Off for Pilots,” or “S.T.O.P.”

“This means that pilot’s STOP schedules are distributed at the beginning of the calendar year so individuals can plan accordingly,” Steve explained. “Sure, they may have to fly a trip here and there, but, all in all, we do a pretty good job of sticking to the schedule. This was a significant change—one of the best in corporate aviation.”


Competing with the Airlines

It’s no mystery that airlines and cargo carriers are hiring at a very rapid rate, and that the pilot shortage we’ve been talking about for years has finally arrived.

To that end, Part 121 operators are making substantial offers to lure pilots and other bizav professionals: high salaries and lucrative, employer-funded 401K programs. (Some 401K programs allow up to 16 percent direct contribution).

As Steve mentioned, one of his company’s pilots recently took a job with a major cargo carrier because their compensation and retirement far exceeded what his company could offer.


Airlines vs. Corporate Flying: It’s a Choice

Let’s face it: a corporate pilot has a very different career path than an airline pilot. As I said earlier, it’s the nature of the beast. It boils down to a choice that career-minded professionals have to make.

Steve made a comparison about the dilemma that put it in perspective for me. “I look at it as being similar to a doctor,” he said. “You go to med school and put your time in and get your degree. After you earn your M.D., there are several different areas you can choose. A psychiatrist and plastic surgeon are both doctors, but one is going to make more over his or her career. It’s a choice. Corporate aviation vs. the airlines is also a choice.”

So what should you do?

If you’re a flight department that hasn’t addressed quality of life / time-off issues, you’re at risk. And compensation? Well, it’s a rarity for anyone to ever claim he or she is being paid enough. Participating in corporate aviation benchmarking, and remaining competitive within those ranges, is key.

If you’ve addressed both of these factors, and you continue to maintain and keep pace with these programs, it becomes a very different career path, and offers some worthwhile rewards.

Within corporate aviation, if you have the desire to get involved in the operation and business, there are several opportunities in addition to flying. For example, you can get involved in standardization, training, safety and security. Among other things, you can develop and manage the emergency response plan or get involved in budgeting.

And, if you just want to come in and fly the airplane, great. You can do that, too.

Comparing corporate flying to the airlines, Steve says, “You can lose touch of the people that you fly. It’s a very sterile environment. You’re not worried about passenger’s meetings, catering, ground handling operations, etc. You board and turn left. It’s a career choice. They’re in it because they choose it.”

But hitting the “choice” issue one last time, Steve ended by telling me: “It boils down to career, and what you want to do.”

I don’t think it could be more plainly stated.