commercial aircraft in sunset - corporate aviation vs airline pilot jobs

Several aviation workforce issues are hot right now. And retaining our business aviation professionals is chief among them. 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, predetermined pace. And besides all that, airline employees in general are very much a transient work group.”

The Convenience

“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.”

Their Advice

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.”

Schedule Flexibility is Key

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.

Your Turn

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.

  • Good read. What about pay. I thought people were going to the airlines for longevity and the pay. Would have loved to have heard their take on that.

  • Dear Sheryl:

    Never more in my entire professional aviation career have I been compelled to respond. I find this article incredibly lacking in facts and relying on the subjective narrative of two individuals versus the droves of pilots that left business aviation based on hard data. I have addressed several points below:

    “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.”

    Please elaborate. Did he initially take a pay cut, or will his airline career earnings still massively eclipse that of his corporate job? After conducting a W-2 analysis at my airline, I’ve found that most First Officers will make more than most “Senior International Captains” after about three years at a major airline. Captains (attainable within 5-10 years) are generally earning $350,000 – $475,000. All corporate salary surveys indicate that few – if any – corporate pilots are commanding this type of compensation.

    “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.”

    Pilots must be at their stations unless physiological reasons dictate otherwise. Augmented crews are used far more often in the airline world to mitigate longer legs. Airline cockpits are far larger than corporate cockpits, allowing for more movement.

    “The intensity is immense. And the complexities of getting out of the terminal are significant.”

    I’d be surprised if this came from someone doing the “airline thing” for more than a year or two. This isn’t hard and gets easier with time. I’d argue it’s far more stressful to be pushed by a principal to land at a small uncontrolled airport with questionable NOTAMS/ramp strength in a large cabin business jet.

    “Be sure to have a hobby if you do choose the airlines”

    The majority of “engaged” airline pilots volunteer, do committee work for their airline, or get involved with technical/project pilot jobs (which pay even more than regular line flying). There is no shortage of work at the airlines should one want to get involved.

    “He went from flying during the business week at his corporate job to flying international airline trips on holidays and weekends.”

    This is a choice. The individual could bid to smaller equipment and gain significant seniority. Or, they can simply wait a couple years and get senior on their current airframe as mass retirements haven’t even kicked in yet. Additionally bidding is much simpler than stated if one takes the time to learn the system.

    Lastly, show me the data: are these two returning to their corporate jobs? How many major airline pilots have willingly left their own ranks to search for a corporate position?

    I would love to return to corporate aviation and agree that it’s a rewarding job, but it’s a suboptimal career. The data in terms of finances, longevity, and overall schedule control doesn’t support it. I’m sorry, but this article was a swing and a miss.

  • Dear Reader:

    I appreciate and thank you for your comments. I knew that not everyone would agree with these two professional pilots. Yes, I am keenly aware that both of these professionals would like to return to corporate aviation. I think there are many in this career as well as many happily and comfortably retired from business aviation that would argue with you that it is far from a suboptimal career. Just as things have changed with airline seniority allowing pilots to move up the ranks faster, the corporate world is moving in lock step.

    My Mom use to always say “every pot has a lid” meaning that each of us is unique and what fits you might not fit the person sitting next to you. For some, corporate flying is a better fit, while airline is for others. They are both great careers and aren’t we lucky to be a part of the great industry of Aviation!

    I gather that those who follow my blogs, know that I am a big baseball fan! I appreciate that while you think it is a “swing and a miss” perhaps those who will heed the advice to seek input from a variety of resources might consider that they got thrown a hanger!

    Again, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

    Sheryl

  • I have to agree with the last poster. The article seems “biased” and when you consider the source, it makes sense as to the why. We called it “evidence based management” in business school. Always consider the sources.

    As a former corporate (10yrs) guy that made the jump to the 121 world, I couldn’t have made a better decision. Most of the points made on the article seem a bit “embellished “.

  • Great article, Sheryl! Like most everything in this world, different opinions can make for a good discussion. The basis seems to be the age old adages of “the grass isn’t always greener” and as the article simply states “do you homework” as times are changing, for both corporate and airlines. I think both Dan and anonymous missed the point of the article. If your goal is simply just a paycheck, then by all means, head to the airlines. I have flown with plenty of people where that’s all they cared about and no one wanted to be around them.

    As for anonymous, talk about a swing and a miss. I think most of his opinions are a complete strikeout. Talk about not understanding the article. “Most” captains are NOT making what you state (the W-2 analysis was pretty funny. I guess he had a booth set up in ops). I’m sure both pilots meant breaks on long legs being flown by non-augmented crews such as the 737 Max and 757. They are routinely doing 6+ hour legs, and he completely contradicts himself with the “bidding is a choice” remark.

    I left the airlines for corporate. With my bonus, I am making FAR more than “most” captains and I live in my hometown away from the busy mainline airports. For anonymous, I am sorry you didn’t have a successful career in corporate and, as a “senior international captain”, only made what 3rd-year airline FOs make…maybe you should have valued yourself more.

    And that’s the lesson I have learned, and where ALL corporate pilots need to get to…value yourself, and let your principals know that value. And we all shall be better off.

    Looking forward to more articles, Sheryl. We all enjoy all that you do for corporate aviation.

  • Dave:

    Having previous access to Gallagher, NBAA, and Professional Pilot salary survńeys, you are an outlier if you’re making more than a major airline captain.

    I think the world of corporate aviation as far as the job. Great equipment, people, and destinations. That being said, I could never tell an aspiring professional pilot with 30-40 years of runway ahead of them that it’s a viable career at this point.

  • Hi Dave. Your reply to Dan and Anonymous interests me. You state, “…and as the article says ‘do you homework’”, yet degrade the validity of Anonymous’s opinion for doing exactly what you quoted. Did he set up a booth in ops? No. There are plenty of other ways to collect information. Did he contact several individuals at multiple carriers collecting data to support his position? Yes. I know this because I provided him with data from the 121 carrier I’m employed by.

    I like that you assume a pilot’s goal by applying to the airlines is “simply just a paycheck”. In fact, people enjoy having control of their schedules, defined work rules, standardized procedures, generous retirement packages and bonuses, and many other benefits, all to manage time for their personal lives. Which cargo or legacy airline did you leave for your current gig? As far as you having to fly with people nobody wants to be around, it sounds like your department needs to hire better people.

    I appreciate that the W-2 analysis made you laugh. Anonymous has a great sense of humor although I’ve heard him tell better “jokes”. I doubt the pilot flying international in Sheryl’s article was on the junior equipment at his carrier. To play devils advocate and support your argument, let’s assume he is on the junior equipment and/or seat locked for a period of time. How many years did you work weekends and holidays before landing your gig that pays “far more than ‘most’ captains” and affords you all holidays and weekends off? I bet it was longer than the example in Sheryl’s article will have to unless he CHOOSES to stay on the senior equipment.

    Your choice-supportive bias is expected when the rejection of data prevents you from realizing there may be a reality different than the one you believe to exist. I know there are some great corporate gigs out there, but I also know there are far far more great airline gigs out there. That’s likely why there are more corporate pilots fleeing to airlines than the other way around.

  • Good article. Thanks Sheryl and API.
    I’m currently a FO with a major airline (3+ years). There is no ‘perfect’ job, but the people you work with make the difference between a good day (or job) and a bad one. I’ve only been with my airline a short time (in my mind), but have yet to fly with any crew I couldn’t get along with. I feel fortunate, but also miss the personal side of flying in a more close knit, corporate-like environment. I flew helicopters, King Airs and Citations in the USMC for 17 years in the US and SE Asia. It was the best job I’ve ever had. Working with FBOs, coordinating flight schedules, diplomatic clearances/landing approval and getting customers safely to their destinations on time isn’t the same as working at an airline. At an airline you have the same goal of getting customers safely to their destination on time, but there are some days where you are a small cog in a big wheel. My schedule is good, the pay and benefits are good and I like the people I work with, but there’s less camaraderie and feeling of teamwork in big companies like airlines. It’s not good or bad, just different than the corporate like feel of a 20-30 person flight department of my experience.
    The grass is definitely not always greener, but doing your homework (as stated in your article) before any major career changes will help you live with any decisions you make and,hopefully, ensure you make the best choice for you (and your family if that applies).
    Happy New Year

  • I have a suggestion…Make a personal pro/con list. Here is a short example:
    Starting Pay = Corp
    Ending Pay = Airline
    Retirement= Airline
    Schedule= Airline
    Equipment= Corp
    Destinations= Corp
    Rewards/Points= Corp
    Longevity= Airline
    Live Where You Want= Airline

    In the end, build a list of your own pro’s and con’s and make a decision that works best for you (and your family). I agree, everyone is different and finding what is important to you is a process. And of course, be realistic, the airlines are still not hiring everybody, however, it’s better than it has ever been.

  • This is a very interesting conversation.

    I have left my job at a Fortune 500 company as an international captain. The job was in my home town. I worked from my teens, 20s and into my early 30s to get the job. It was a very hard decision to leave. It was my dream job.

    In the end I have tremendous respect and value for coporate aviation and the pilots that are employed by it. But for as much “fun” the job is, the only thing my family notices is how much I’m home and how much money I’m taking in.

    Some people might make as much as an Legacy airline captain at a coporate job, but I did not. The people I worked with plead with management for years to try to compete. But they would not even attempt to come close.

    Some people here may have convinced their owners and management to compete on pay and quality of home life, but we could not.

    In two years as a narrow body FO at my legacy carrier I will make as much I did flying as a heavy international coporate captain with 7 years tenure. I also have loss of medical insurance until I’m 65, my retirement package blows coporate out of the water, and in 10 years I’ll be making 100,000 more base pay then my friends who stay in coporate aviation. Once you tack on the 401k and you arent in the same universe. After a 30 year career the difference in net worth is staggering. After a while you can buy quality of life with increase in pay by dropping and moving trips.

    If the business owners in coporate aviation decide to value their college educated experienced aviators as much as the traveling public does then I will gladly go back. But until that happens my hand is forced to take the job security, and financial stability of the airlines.

    Is coporate a more fulfilling job? To me, absolutely . Is airline flying unfulfilling? Not at all, it’s a great job. The gap simply has gotten to large.

    I’m hopeful that maybe someday the NBAA will come to its senses and realize that the men and women in coporate aviation are worth as much, and sacrifice as much if not more then their airline counterparts. Rather then making excuses for the lack of reciprocity.

    There are many things the industry can do. And in my opinion, if they can make some adjustments airline pilots will start going back to part 91 flying.

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