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What Happened to the Pilot Shortage?

What a difference a year – and a global pandemic – can make.

It wasn’t long ago that many business aircraft operators were scrambling to find qualified candidates in the face of an ongoing personnel shortage. However, among the many changes wrought by COVID-19 has been a near-complete reversal of the employment market, with dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants – many of them furloughed airline pilots – seeking to fill each open business aviation job.

“Of 182 resumes on my desk right now, 60 are from airline pilots,” said the chief pilot for a Fortune 250 company based in the western U.S. “And of those 60 applicants, I’ve got 27 different airlines represented.”

Jennifer Pickerel, vice president of industry recruiting and consulting firm Aviation Personnel International, has seen a similar rush of applicants looking for placement. “Prior to this crisis, we might have seen a retired airline pilot who wanted to register with our services maybe three or four times a year; now, I would say 30% of our applicants are airline pilots.”

“All pilots, and especially those from Part 121 operations, must be able to convey in the interview process the desire to take on additional duties and responsibilities beyond the scope of flying the aircraft.”

Chief Pilot of a Midwestern Fortune 100 Company

That may seem an enviable situation for business aviation hiring managers, but it also creates a delicate and potentially divisive situation, as those furloughed airline pilots may be seen as “crowding out” applicants from within business aviation.

It also brings to light concerns about pilots seeking temporary employment in business aviation, only to return to the airlines after a few months or years once commercial aviation rebounds, leaving business aircraft operators to once again grapple with filling those positions in the face of a shortage of qualified candidates.

“Right now, hiring managers on the business aviation side have their pick of the litter among pilots coming from the airlines,” said a recently furloughed airline pilot with prior experience in business aviation. “The question of whether or not you can convince them to stay once they get recalled [to airline service], though – that might be challenging.” 

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How Long Will They Stay?

The question of longevity is always a factor when hiring pilots or other aviation employees from any background. However, it weighs particularly heavily on managers considering furloughed airline pilots. Many of these airline pilots would have continued with their carrier were it not for COVID-19, and they may be eager to return to Part 121 flying once conditions improve.

“We ask our [employer] clients if they’re open to looking at potential candidates from the airlines, and some do not have confidence they’ll be able to recoup their investment in training,” Pickerel said. “A candidate may insist they’ll stay [if called back from furlough], but there’s simply no guarantee. Situations change, and while that’s understandable, it also poses quite a risk.”

Jason Herman, CAM, chairman of the NBAA Domestic Operations Committee and himself a soon-to-be-furloughed pilot for a major airline, noted that hiring managers may understandably prefer candidates with previous business aviation experience.

“Furloughed airline applicants who don’t have previous experience in business aviation may find it challenging to gain the attention of department managers,” he said. “Hiring managers should consider assessing each applicant individually and make sure they [the candidates] really understand what the position involves, and that they’re open and willing to learn how the particular organization functions.”

“All pilots, and especially those from Part 121 operations, must be able to convey in the interview process the desire to take on additional duties and responsibilities beyond the scope of flying the aircraft,” added the chief pilot for a Midwestern Fortune 100 company. “They should also possess soft skills and attention to detail, and their customer service must be on point.”

Pickerel also noted this potential difference in skill sets. “Passengers don’t necessarily have the same level of interaction with airline flight crews that they enjoyed before 9/11 now that the cockpit door is locked for security purposes,” she said. “But that sort of communication and customer service are very important in business aviation.

“Of course, many pilots welcome the chance to engage with their passengers,” she continued, “and that role is at the forefront when hiring managers are considering the person who will not only be flying their aircraft, but also serving as an ambassador for their flight department and interfacing with the principal, CEO or executives.”

The recently furloughed airline pilot acknowledged that those coming from the airlines may find it difficult to adapt to the business aviation lifestyle. “When I started out [as a business aviation pilot] I liked the rental car, the nice hotel and the expense account,” he said. “But it also took me a while to get used to waiting around the FBO for six hours before flying someplace else. I got bored pretty quickly at first.”

That said, “I think flight departments have done a good job in the past five years of making changes, fixing their payment structures, addressing quality-of-life concerns and leveraging their strengths,” the pilot continued. “If you really want to grab somebody permanently from the airline, you really have to keep your foot on the gas for that.”

Adding Value to the Operation

While the aforementioned issues are understandable concerns, many other factors besides retention and longevity should be considered by business aviation managers looking to bring on furloughed airline pilots.

“I never go into a hiring thinking that they’re going to leave in a year or two, but I’m also looking at the economics,” said the chief pilot at the Fortune 250 company. “Are they rated in our airplanes? Are they local? What’s their job history and longevity with former employers? Are they recommended by someone in the [business aviation] industry?”

Regardless of whether a candidate comes from a business aviation background or from the airlines or both, “at the end of the day, hiring managers should consider highly qualified, professional pilots that can add meaningful value to the department, regardless of where they’re coming from,” said Herman.

If Pilots Return to the Airlines

Pilots with an airline background may also be able to assist with administrative and oversight tasks, or help a business aviation operation further develop the organization’s SOPs and bolster its safety culture – areas in which airlines typically have robust programs and policies, Herman said. He further noted that a candidate who is upfront about their intent to eventually return to airlines can also prove beneficial.

“These individuals may be able to provide you with the smoothest transition to hiring a new pilot you’ve ever seen,” he explained. “Most of the time, pilots may give three to four weeks’ notice, and some as few as 14 days. A pilot returning to their airline from furlough some years later may be able to give you significantly more notice and say, ‘Let me help you hire and train someone and get them up to speed before I leave.’”

While noting the importance of hiring people committed to remaining with a business aviation operation, particularly when considering possible training expenses, the Fortune 100 company chief pilot also emphasized that shouldn’t be the primary consideration.

“Building a strong team requires people with different skill sets and diverse backgrounds,” he declared. “Above all, I want someone who’s going
to embrace our culture and bring the organization to another level.”

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