Unlikely as it might seem, in many ways, the pandemic has been an awakening. It’s temporarily relieved the pressure valve on the pilot shortage. It’s gotten companies to innovate in remarkable ways. It’s brought in a slew of first-time aircraft buyers. Military professionals are rejoining our industry. And flight departments are starting to hire again.
Now that enough time has elapsed, we can look at some of these alterations in our industry and take action to ensure that we’re not caught off guard during the next downturn. The following are a few of my observations.
One of the changes we’re witnessing is the emergence of a new set of business aviation customers who, for the most part, are buying preowned aircraft. This new group is comprised of high-net-worth individuals and businesses that previously had been using charter and fractional.
Equipment-wise, we’re seeing this shift as it affects a range of aircraft. As a result, there’s been an increased demand for pilots and maintenance professionals to support the aircraft for this new segment of owners. Most of these aircraft have been moved to management companies that offer turnkey “plug-and-play” solutions.
Meanwhile, corporate departments haven’t been doing as much hiring over the past year, but they’ve done an excellent job of retaining their talent. Now, with the promise of some relief, these companies realize that they have positions they’re going to need to fill when they resume flying.
So I predict that once our country—and the world—opens up, there will be a flurry of hiring in the business aviation community. In fact, my company has just received multiple engagements to identify line captains. This is telling us that the market is picking back up.
Historically, business aviation has had a flow of retiring military professionals joining our ranks. But since 2016, more military retirees have opted to join the airlines or cargo/freight segments, without any consideration of our industry.
But now, in 2021, those retirees are looking at business aviation and saying, “Wow, what a great career this is.” I truly believe this is one of Covid’s silver linings.
Impact on Compensation and Benefits
This past year would seem to be an opportune time for aircraft operators to take advantage of an industry slowdown. They could have reduced their compensation and benefits spend, yet most did not. Throughout this period, I’ve had employers ask me, “Do we need to make changes? Can we hire at a lower rate than we were doing just a year ago?”
My advice to them is no. This is a temporary pause. Since 2017, business aviation has made such amazing strides in compensation levels, bringing it to a point where it now can compete with the airlines.
I sincerely hope that we continue on that path, and I think we now have a story to tell about the fact that we’re not only competitive, but we can be an employer of choice as well.
I’ve also been asked recently how I think the events of the past year will play out in our industry as we move into the next three to five years. I think the development of a talent pipeline and “fluid hiring practices” will be key.
If we look at pre-Covid developments, we saw things like airlines initiating cadet programs, and United Airlines purchasing a flight school to train its own pilots. These need to continue to meet future demand.
That leads to us asking how business aviation can develop a fluid pipeline of professionals coming into our industry? How can we offer them a head start into business aviation earlier than we typically bring in pilots and maintenance professionals?
Expansion of internship programs is key. But what about adding a third crewmember with lower time at a lower cost? Might your organization benefit from hiring an emerging pilot to accrue flight hours under the close tutelage of seasoned captains? Would this create more work-life balance for overworked crews?
Right now, as I talk to directors of aviation and employers of pilots, I advise them to do everything they can to keep their best people on the payroll. Train and develop them, keep them engaged and a part of the organization. And I would be looking now, as much as possible, at opportunities to hire the best and the brightest. Because I think it's going to become very competitive once again in a very short amount of time.
Business aviation is a great industry, and even in this mostly negative time, we have a great story to share. Let’s all be evangelists of this awesome career path.
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 chair of the NBAA advisory council.