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Future Pilots

Business Aviation: How It Differs From the Airlines

Robert P. Mark

A few decades ago, pilots working in a corporate flight department were assumed to be biding time until they landed their airline dream job. After all, what pilot in their right mind would choose a career shuttling corporate executives and their pals, loading their baggage, arranging the catering, checking on limo reservations and the rest? In fact, to some pilots, corporate, or business aviation flying as they call it nowadays, was no more than being an aerial limo driver. In some cases, that wasn’t too far off the mark.

Then came the tragedy of September 11, which sent the airline industry into a tailspin. By the thousands, airline pilots found themselves not only out of work, but watching the careers they’d spent years building, simply coming apart at the seams. Salaries and benefits for airline pilots plummeted as one carrier after another slipped into bankruptcy. Post September 11, pilots didn’t just find themselves wondering how to make a living while awaiting recall. They were asking if they would ever be recalled. But that was 15 years ago and the airline industry lifted itself not only out of the muck, but to an era of profitability unseen in the industry. Then, in early 2020, the global pandemic had history repeating itself.

Thousands of professional pilots have learned that business aviation isn’t simply a place to hang their hats waiting for the airline to ring back, it’s evolved into a well-paid profession that still holds many of the benefits, such as traditional retirement plans that only used to exist at the airlines.

One reason pilots are looking differently at business aviation today is that this industry segment is now operating aircraft as sophisticated as the machines flown by the airlines. No longer the world of just piston-engine twins and light turboprops, the variety of business jets has grown to include aircraft like the Gulfstream G650, the Dassault Falcon 8X and the Bombardier Global 7000, machines capable of carrying a dozen people in comfort on flight legs of 6,000 to 7,000 nm nonstop. An increase in commercial air travel delays, due to cancelled flight scheules and routes, as well as a range of security restrictions, have also convinced many executives to either buy their own company aircraft or enter into partnerships, allowing them access to the kind of point to point, Uber-like service business aviation shines at.

Additionally, the nation’s aging air traffic control system has added new stress to travel between major airline hubs. Business aviation’s ability to avoid places like O'Hare, La Guardia and Atlanta Hartsfield has focused a new light on this segment’s flexibility. A recent Embraer forecast outlines the a need for some 9,200 new business aircraft by 2025. While some of these aircraft are counted as replacements, others found homes as additions to current fleets, or were purchased to establish a completely new aviation department. All of these aircraft, of course, need pilots to fly them.

Corporate aviation has made incredible strides in salary, benefits and schedules in order to attract and keep good pilots. In the past, job security was practically nil. Flying jobs with Fortune 100 companies were about the only that paid well, and only then to its most senior pilots. Small airplanes, mostly turboprops and light jets were the traditional realm of flight departments that often had trouble affording the expense of the fleet, let alone their pilots. And during difficult economic times, smaller companies would look first to the aviation department to cut costs. Now, however, a company aircraft is viewed as a business tool that resource management is reluctant to eliminate.

The seniority level of company personnel permitted to use the corporate airplane has reduced in recent years - and months - meaning average overall usage has increased. In years past, a business aviation flight crew that flew 400 hours per year was thought to be busy. Today, a busy airplane might chalk up around 600 hours per year.

One Falcon 2000 pilot based in Chicago and employed by a Fortune 100 company is earning a six-figure salary, flying about 550 hours per year. He told FAPA.aero the position offers good health, dental, and retirement benefits. His flight time is normally scheduled weeks in advance with few last minute changes. While most runs are those regularly flown between his company's branch locations, he occasionally is called to fly to cities not visited before, an aspect of the job he finds appealing.

Where's the Beef?

The late Janice K. Barden was an eloquent voice for business aviation over a 35 year period, since she opened Aviation Personnel International, a pilot placement service. Her daughter, Sheryl, now runs the company from a Napa Valley office.

Janice Barden explained once why a pilot might choose a business aviation career over an airline job. “If you’re a people person who likes having some say in your career, business aviation might be for you. This is a challenging career and I think you’ll work harder than you do at the airlines." One important fact that Barden pointed out is, there are no unions in business aviation and you don’t always have a firm schedule. But as a business aviation pilot, you're a direct ambassador for your employer, often with some incredibly important passengers. As the CEO's attaché it is your job to greet passengers and assure them of the professional treatment they’re expecting."

Personal flexibility is a critical aspect of this profession, says Barden. "If the crew is on the ground in Munich and the company suddenly sees a huge opportunity pop up in Africa, the airplane could well be headed for Johannesburg the very next day, rather than back home." Bardenss notes one of the primary differences between corporate and airline pilots. “On a typical trip, the boss might call the pilot, mentioning the need to fly next Thursday from Atlanta to Los Angeles with three other passengers for a dinner meeting. While vague to some, those instructions are thoroughly understood by the corporate pilot.”

Business aviation flying is unlike anything experienced by an airline pilot for the most part. First, a business aviation pilot plans the flight considering the aircraft capabilities for the set departure time, flight length, fuel stops and destination airport. Maintenance inspections and operations details will be handled. Next they might make catering, and ground transportation arrangements. It’s also the pilot’s responsibility to make arrangements for the local maintenance and layover of the aircraft, as well as being sure everyone aboard has a copy of all the appropriate telephone numbers.

The business aviation pilot is involved in almost every aspect of a corporate trip. A pilot friend who flies for FedEx likes it because, "boxes and packages don't ask for anything." He obviously wouldn't make a good business aviation pilot, but you just might.

Shane Forsyth lives in St. George, Utah with his wife and young son. Despite having recently sold his Cessna 152, Forsyth knows his future lies in the cockpit of an airplane somewhere. After a fair amount of research about his options, he’s gathered a few interesting insights. "My dad was a crop duster so I always wanted to be a pilot. But I thought being a professional pilot only meant the airlines. I started looking at the lifestyles and the kind of flying they do at the airlines and realized it just wasn’t for me." Forsyth is now giving strong consideration to a career as a business aviation pilot, especially after talking to one of his first instructors, a Learjet pilot and friend who flies a G-5 in Texas, both recommending the corporate pilot career.

Holding only a private certificate leaves Forsyth asking the same difficult questions asked by an entire generation of civilian aviators. Where do I turn for further education and certification? Will the school I attend help me find a job? How do I finance this training? And should I become a flight instructor?

Right from the start Forsyth realized that most schools he looked at were aiming their graduates in the same direction – the airlines. One school that did attract his attention, however, was Flight Safety in Vero Beach, Florida because of that company’s Business Jet Direct program. The program offers new flight instructors an opportunity to fly right seat in any of the training giant’s simulators, thereby gaining jet procedure experience.

Jan Barden mentioned an aspect of corporate aviation that’s critical for success. "Most people who fly corporate hold more than an ATP certificate. That means they’ve got some flying time under their belts to qualify for a good corporate job." And how exactly can a low-time pilot qualify for the benefits of a corporate flying position with a good company when he has just been certified as a commercial pilot from a diploma mill that focuses on airline jobs? "Consider hiring on at a regional airline," Barden says. "It provides great real-world experience with weather and high-density traffic flying that will prepare a new pilot well as she builds time." Things have certainly changed in this industry so that pilots can train as a regional pilot today in order to later land a business aviation flying job.

Finding a corporate flying job is all about networking, which is much different from the commercial airline application system. In fact, many corporate jobs are never listed anywhere. A company in need of a business pilot might, for instance, contact Aviation Personnel International for a candidate matching its needs. When they do, Ms. Barden searches through her company’s database of pre-qualified applicants to find a match. Another route involves asking current employee/pilots for the name of a person with the right qualifications. Associations like the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA.org) and Women in Aviation International (WAI.org), incidentally, not just for women BTW, offer other great opportunities to meet the kind of people you’ll find helpful in securing the right job.

If it sounds like a prospective pilot needs to become a bit of an airport bum, “meant affectionately, of course” to meet the right people, that's exactly true. But since meeting and greeting is a large part of being a successful business aviation pilot, it’s all good practice for the future.

Rob Mark is a veteran aviation journalist, pilot and public relations executive. A former corporate pilot, Mark is type-rated in the HS-125, the CE-650 and the CE-500. He's also a contributing editor to Aviation International News magazine. Robert Mark is a former vice president with Ogilvy, Adams and Rinehart public relations. He is the author of McGraw-Hill's Professional Pilot Career Guide. Mark holds a masters degree in marketing communications from Northwestern University and a bachelors degree in English from Northeastern Illinois University. In his spare time he delivers his bold opinions at his blog: Jetwhine.com