Corporate Aviation vs. Airlines: Two Pilots Weigh In
In two recent blogs, my colleague, Jenny Showalter, and I turned our attention to “job-jumping” in aviation. Jenny’s blog, Look Before You Leap, urged pilots and others who are seeking greener pastures to exercise some caution before making a radical career move. And my blog, Hangar-Hopping, summarized some discussions I’ve had with a pilot who told me he regretted leaving his job at a corporate flight departments to fly for an airline.
The topic of aviation workforce issues is highly relevant right now, and I continue to find it intriguing on many different levels. That’s why I decided to interview two pilots who left their corporate aviation careers to fly for an airline. As they describe them, their experiences (at two different airlines) are eye-opening.
One of the pilots worked for a regional airline before going to corporate, and is now a first officer at a major airline. The other left a major airline after working in corporate operations, and is now back as a captain.
In our conversations, I wanted to know their rationale for making the moves they made.
Corporate Aviation vs. Airlines
One of the pilots mentioned how many flight departments were closing, and how his own department was on the brink of closure, so he became worried about stability. With all of the talk about the pilot shortage, and many bizav pilots leaving for the airlines, he decided to take a chance and return to his former airline.
He told me: “If you want seniority with the airlines, you need to take it when you can,” by which he meant he wanted to get back into the airline while he was still young enough to secure tenure.
His reasoning was for the stability the job offered and the perceived set schedule, but not compensation. In fact, he took a massive pay cut to go back.
Before he left for the airlines, he didn’t talk to anyone in corporate who had similarly left their jobs for the airlines. Instead, he told me he only spoke to airlines professionals who talked glowingly of their jobs. It’s clear to him now that they didn’t know what they were missing by comparison.
Once they had made their moves, it didn’t take either pilot long to realize how different the culture at the airlines is. They shared a lot with me, and following are some of the highlights.
The “Team” Culture
I asked one of them what he missed the most. He replied: “Working with people. The camaraderie. The relationships I built. In business aviation, your co-workers are teammates; they are people who know you intimately. In the airlines, you’re flying with someone new every single time.”
The other pilot had a similar reaction. He said: “The personal side of corporate flying makes the professional side more enjoyable. That comes back to the relationships you form with your coworkers and principals alike. The family is trusting their lives to you. They know your name and shake your hand and greet you.”
He also said he missed the camaraderie. Now that he’s back flying captain after only a year and a half, he says he’s only flown with the same co-pilot three times.
“The job [in corporate aviation] was done by a team,” he noted, “and everyone has the same goal: the safe transportation of our principal. We’re all working together. The airlines don’t have that. Gate agents want an on-time departure. Mechanics sometimes have their own agenda. Baggage handlers are there for a whole shift and typically move at their own, pre-determined pace. And besides all that, airline employees in general are very much a transient work group.”
“In business aviation,” one pilot told me, “you can park right at the hangar and proceed to the jet. In the airlines, you park far away, board an employee shuttle and go through extensive security. Then, afterwards, you wait on the curb for a shuttle bus to the hotel, and you’re stranded there with people that you don’t know.”
He also commented on how the airline cockpit doors are locked (post 9/11), so it can limit your ability to take a break on longer legs.
The “Excitement” vs. the “Stress”
“Flying corporate airplanes is a lot of fun,” one told me. “Flying an airliner feels like a lot of work. The intensity is immense. And the complexities of getting out of the terminal are significant.” The other pilot said that the stress and monotony of airline piloting can take its toll. “You fly from A to B, two to three legs a day, and then go home. I find myself wanting to be rewarded, and not just monetarily. In business aviation, your passengers shake your hand at the end of the safe and comfortable flight, and the principal shakes your hand, too. I find that fulfilling.”
I wanted to know what pointers the pilots would offer to others like themselves who are contemplating a move to the airlines.
“Be educated,” one pilot told me. “Before you make the decision about which you think is better [the airlines or corporate], make contacts, find people who can share the pros and cons, and be real. It’s difficult to find that education.”
The other pilot told me that he would advise others to . . . “Keep your resume up to date, keep your suit pressed, and make sure your API Registered Professional™ account is current.” He also said to talk to others in the industry about the pros and cons of the Part 91 vs. Part 121 lifestyle.
“Do your homework,” he advised. “Understand that you could be in for a totally different lifestyle. Really research the organization you’re considering working for. All corporate jobs are different with different cultures, work schedules, benefits etc.”
“And,” he said, “be sure to have a hobby if you do choose the airlines. Working for an airline is a bit like a partial retirement. What do you do with eight days off? If you don’t have a lot hobbies, it’s an interesting challenge to stay busy when the kids are in schools and your friends and family are at work. There’s only so much yard work you can do.”
One thing they both emphasized, in business aviation, neither pilot knew his schedule beyond a week or two. But there were typically enough pilots that if they were assigned a trip they didn’t want or couldn’t take, they could talk to their team and generally work out a change.
Contrastingly, they said, airline pilots go through a complex bidding process to create their own schedule. “It’s daunting,” one told me. “If you’re good at it, and know the ins and outs, you can get the best schedule. Junior pilots get the bottom of the barrel, often flying reserve. But it’s not as easy as being a Part 91 pilot, and walking into the scheduler’s office to request a day off.”
One of the pilots admitted that he didn’t have a balanced work/family life while he was working in business aviation, but in hindsight, he only blames himself for it. He explained that he was always working—or thinking about work—even when he wasn’t flying. “Knowing what I know now, I could have made it work.” He went from flying during the business week at his corporate job to flying international airline trips on holidays and weekends. “I’m missing my kids growing up, and missing many of their sports and school activities,” he lamented.
Do Your Due Diligence!
What’s the takeaway from the experiences and advice of these pilots? Bottom line, pilots and other bizav pros contemplating a move to the airlines (or even vice versa) need to be very diligent and circumspect in their planning.
They need to exhaustively research the potential implications of such a move, and talk to peers and colleagues about their own experiences. Perhaps most importantly, remember that, indeed, “the grass isn’t always greener” on that proverbial other side of the fence.
Are you a corporate pilot or professional with some experiences of your own to share regarding a career move? Or do you work for one of the major airlines and have a story to tell about it? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.