Lingering effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the continued shortage of qualified pilots and ongoing demand for business aviation travel, have led to significant difficulties with staffing business aviation flight operations.
“Companies are now revisiting hiring and upgrade plans that worked predictably for them for decades,” said Jo Damato, CAM, NBAA’s senior vice president of education, training and workforce development.
The process of onboarding new pilots directly affects current flight crews. “Prior to COVID, we brought new persons onboard as co-captains to build experience paired with an experienced [full-time employee] captain,” said Phil Stang, a former aviation director for a large entertainment company.
“When the time came to upgrade, we as a company would have had plenty of time to evaluate them and ensure they were ready for that next step,” Stang said. “Now, though, you may need to send a new recruit out with a contract captain who’s responsible for the entire trip.”
“Maintaining a structured upgrade path with little variability is usually desirable,” said Ryan Ferguson, chief pilot for Zimmer Biomet. “In an ideal world, we’d work our PIC candidates through a series of gates requiring supervising captain sign-offs, followed by an evaluation flight with the chief pilot.
“That was a very structured process that was easy to maintain,” Ferguson said. “Looking back, that now seems like a luxury. In the present day, we’re finding that we have to be more flexible, primarily when we’re upgrading pilots who are new to our operation but experienced with the equipment.”
A Collaborative Process
Perhaps the greatest issue, even beyond finding new pilots, is ensuring all flight crewmembers receive necessary training. “The barriers to finding available training slots to meet scheduling and trip coverage needs have brought the biggest challenges to business aviation flight departments,” said Damato.
Stang agreed. “Post-COVID, you put yourself in a very bad place if you aren’t out in front of the curve in scheduling training classes in advance,” said Stang. “Otherwise, you may have a new pilot on the payroll who’s unable to perform the job you hired them for.”
“I know of a situation where a captain transitioning back to a previous type rating had to go to London for initial training! The company simply couldn’t get him a class in the U.S. in time.”
Phil Stang Former aviation director for a major entertainment venue
“If we want to upgrade a senior captain to a new aircraft, we must be mindful that we also have people coming onboard that he will need to mentor,” Ferguson said. “We have current pilots ready to move to other aircraft but are waiting to be put into initial type training.
“We have two scheduled maintenance events coming up that would usually be the perfect time to handle that upgrade, but we’re waitlisted for training during those timeframes,” he continued. “It’s challenging to be without a captain when they need to be in training.”
Stang noted similar difficulties with transitioning a newly-hired Gulfstream captain from the G-IV to the G550.
“Simple, right? Well, we couldn’t get an initial class for two months,” Stang said. “It’s the same situation even with recurrent training; you once could cancel recurrent if you needed that pilot on a trip, knowing you could get him into next month’s class. Now it could take several months.”
Stang said one class was booked more than two months in advance, and while that may sound like a long delay, the wait may be even longer for certain aircraft types. “I know of a situation where a captain transitioning back to a previous type rating had to go to London for initial training! The company simply couldn’t get him a class in the U.S. in time.”
The current situation has also revealed the risks of operating a flight department too lean. Stang pointed to one operator that had been flying an intercontinental business jet with just one pilot on the company payroll, relying on contract help to fill the copilot seat.
“Well, he’s now leaving for the airlines,” Stang said of that pilot, “so now they need to fill that position and hire a contract second-in-command.”
However, such situations can be managed effectively with some creative thinking and careful risk assessment. As one example, “We made the 25-hour requirement in our aircraft for newly hired, experienced pilots, before releasing them as pilot-in-command, waivable if they already have extensive time-in-type,” Ferguson said. “Obviously newer people will need more time.”
Damato emphasized that operators must be particularly mindful that employee turnover and training difficulties do not compromise their flight department’s safety culture.
“Flight operations must continually examine the criteria of their safety management system in this environment,” she said. “The workforce crisis may lead them to revisit tenure and currency requirements, but there’s only so far you can go while maintaining standards and avoiding pairing two relatively inexperienced people on the flight deck.”
“There's only so far you can go while maintaining standards and avoiding pairing two relatively inexperienced people on the flight deck.”
Jo Damato CAM, NBAA Senior Vice President of Education, Training and Workforce Development
Contract Pilots vs. New Hires
When faced with staffing challenges for a trip, contract pilots may be the difference between flying the mission as planned versus postponement or cancellation.
“Many pilots like to make extra money by flying contract trips on their days off, and it’s really good pay,” Stang noted. “That has been vital to us when covering for people getting sick, the inability to adjust training schedules and the overall shortage of qualified pilots available.”
However, Ferguson emphasized the market for contract help has also tightened post-COVID. “The contract pilot may not be available for your schedule, and we might need to adapt on our end to make it work,” he said. “The current environment heightens the challenge of staging permanent and contract crews.
“That said, this really hasn’t restricted our ability to fly as much as our ability to make changes to the schedule in close proximity to the planned departure time,” Ferguson added. “We can typically fill the trip as desired, but we may need a few more days than before to figure it out and lock down the specifics.”
Stang also noted potential challenges for contract pilots themselves. “While time off is your time, you must be careful that your flying for another company doesn’t cause you to miss a trip for your employer,” he said. “You obviously need to make sure you don’t time out or get stuck on the road AOG somewhere.”
Despite these difficulties, flight operations must be careful not to compromise their long-term goals and policies – or miss the opportunity to bring on new personnel.
“This ultimately all goes back to pay and work/life balance,” Stang said. “Of course, companies will always look at the bottom line, but it behooves flight departments to invest in their operation and maybe bring on a new pilot instead of relying on contractors. Make the commitment to be properly staffed up to deal with times when you may be shorthanded.”
That may also mean bringing on lower-time candidates to serve as true first officers. “I think that’s a great thing!” Stang said. “It’s also how I got started, and it benefited me tremendously. I had assumed I would go to the airlines, but was presented with a job opportunity that put me in a different tax bracket and kept me in business aviation.”
While it may be tempting to simply hire someone to fill a seat, Ferguson cautioned flight operation managers from focusing too intently on short-term solutions.
“We need to remember the ATC slogan, ‘Going slow is going fast,’” Ferguson said. “It takes time and patience to locate the right people, but if we take our time and make sure we hire the right candidate, even with these choke points, the chance of turnover is greatly lessened, and we won’t face the same problem next year at this time.”