This is a story about the wisdom of greening up the grass in your own backyard, rather than gazing over the fence at your neighbor’s lawn. If that sounds cryptic, please read on.
My tale begins in 2019, with an Atlanta-based pilot who was lured into leaving his coveted, top-tier corporate aviation job to fly for a major airline. In that pre-Covid era, his corporate flight department had been very busy and his job demanding. He was struggling with the fact that he had a wife and three-year-old at home, whom he felt he wasn’t seeing often enough.
So his main motivation to switch jobs was to establish greater work-life balance. With a more predictable schedule, he reasoned that he’d be able to spend additional time with his family.
He was aware of the potential downsides. He knew it wasn’t going to be as satisfying or fulfilling at the airlines as it was in his former job, but he felt that would be offset by having a bit more control of his flight schedule. As it turned out, at the airline he ended up having to work one- to two-months reserve from a base in Miami, but he had 13 days off a month.
As he discovered, due to ever-changing travel requirements and staffing levels, the airlines can’t always provide a clear picture of the position demands that affect your quality of life. Still, he tried to bear up under the constant strain of having to commute on many of those precious days off.
In fact, our pilot ended up moving to southern Florida to help make things more manageable for his family life. But he still found the job repetitive and, ultimately, unfulfilling.
Then, in 2020, everything changed. When Covid hit, the airline furloughed 2,000 pilots, and he was about 1,000th from the bottom. Fortunately, he was able to move his family back to Atlanta and kept flying for the Air Force Reserve.
Fast forward to a year later, in March 2021, when he was called back to the airline as a low-seniority pilot, based out of New York City. Again, he found he had to balance his work and life while commuting.
Often, a four-day trip would turn into five or six days of work when adding in the front- and back-end commutes. And due to the booking loads on commute flights, he was susceptible to missing flights while he was trying to get to his job. As it happened, cancelations abound.
Our pilot found the airline job monotonous. He flew from terminal to terminal to terminal, and then to an obligatory hotel. He felt like he was a small cog in a massive, churning machine.
He started to reminisce about all the reasons he loved working for a corporate flight department.
For one, it gave him more of a sense of belonging. “I loved being part of a team,” he said. He also enjoyed the social aspects of the corporate environment, and how it gave him the opportunity of working toward solutions and solving problems.
“I missed the camaraderie, and the relationships I built working within my flight department,” he lamented. “In business aviation, your coworkers are teammates; they are people who know you intimately. In the airlines, you’re flying with someone new every single time.”
Finally, our friend the pilot received an offer to interview for a well-known Atlanta-based airline, but after a lot of thought he turned it down. Instead, he accepted a position with that same corporate flight department he left in 2019. He felt like he was back home, in his own backyard.
The moral of the story? As he noted, “The grass isn’t always greener. You only see the good stuff on social media. So my advice is, if you love your job, water the grass where you are.”
He added: “The airlines might look attractive. And, if everything plays out perfectly, it can be great. Especially if you live in your base city and don’t have to commute. But when you throw in a commute—particularly when flights are oversold—the stress of not making it to work gets real—real fast.”
He told me that he also realized that the job gets much better regarding schedules and trips as a pilot accrues seniority and time with the company. Still, however, his position with the airlines would have been far from ideal. As he mentioned, “The years I care greatly about my schedule are when my daughter is young. I care about weekends, holidays, soccer games, vacations, and I care about those things now.”
What we can gather from all this is that there certainly will be times in one’s career when commuting is not necessary. But, on the other hand, upgrading from a first officer position to captain, you’re likely to find yourself at the bottom of the seniority list again at an airline.
Our pilot mentioned this caveat to his fellow pilots who might be facing similar circumstances. “The bigger deal for pilots making this decision is that, regardless of the commuting factor, the two jobs are very, very different on a day-to-day basis. I tell people that the only similarity between the two is that they both involve airplanes. Everything else is different.”
He added that pilots need to thoroughly examine and prioritize what they find most valuable and rewarding in their position, and then pursue what they feel best aligns them with their needs and goals. “For me,” he added, “the airline did not check those boxes.”
So, taking the advice of our pilot friend, let’s remember to focus on watering the grass at home and helping it green up to rival anything on the other side of the fence. That may turn out to be one of the keys to a happy, more content career.
Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.