This week, we watched the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine depart via air from Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was amazing—and gratifying—to witness aviation play such a big role. The culmination of that flight with the vaccines had to involve the cooperation and coordination of countless organizations. I can only imagine the sense of pride experienced by everyone involved, along with the crew members on board of the historic mission.
Needless to say, the delivery of the vaccine is an incredible milestone in what has been a perilously challenging year. Personally, I can barely wait for my turn in the vaccination line. It can’t come fast enough. But we all have to be mindful that once we’re vaccinated, things will not immediately revert to the status quo.
The idea of getting back to normal—especially after a crisis—made me think back to a major ski accident I had years ago. While I recuperated with my leg in a cast for nine weeks, I expected to dance right out of the doctor’s office once he took my cast off. Little did I know that I would spend months rebuilding my atrophied joints and muscles.
Flexing our Flying Muscles
Let’s be clear: just as our muscles weaken and atrophy when they’re not in use, so do pilots’ skills when they’ve been out of their typical flying routine. That’s why, as we try and get back to normal, flight crews need to focus on not just being current, but being proficient as well. Sure, the FAA sets minimum standards for currency, but what about being proficient and competent? They require flying trips with multiple variables.
In the mid-to-late summer, we started to see business aircraft being used for critical employee transport. But all that has now changed again as Covid-19 resurges. It’s alarming to see that so many of the corporate operators once again find themselves “grounded by default” due to corporate no-travel mandates.
Yet some “grounded” business aviation operators are flexing their flying muscles by taking advantage of the dozens of opportunities to transport passengers in need. As you know, there’s the Corporate Angel Network, the Veterans Airlift Command, and a host of other humanitarian groups that rely on charitable lift. I’ve spoken with organizations that are actively seeking opportunities to keep their crews and aircraft current by taking these kinds of “special duty” trips. A flight with such purpose far outstrips a hamburger run or three takeoffs and landings. And what’s more, the variable costs are likely not very different. What an awesome way to remain proficient while in the service of those in need!
Overall, there continues to be solid optimism. The silver lining, we find, is the number of people who are turning to business aviation as a travel solution. Membership and fractional operators, such as Wheels Up and Flexjet, have all seen major increases in new customers. This certainly strengthens our industry.
One reason for this industry segment’s rapid resurgence is the fact that business aviation is demonstrating an “end-to-end health and safety solution.” I applaud the bizav operators who’ve proactively identified and implemented stop-gap measures, such as expanding their business use policy beyond the C-Suite. It’s all of our responsibility to continue to promote this message up the chain to our corporate decision-makers.
Keeping the Ball Rolling
Due in part to limited (and safe) air travel options, there are a plethora of first-time buyers acquiring pre-owned jets. We’re seeing the pre-owned market shrink to a new historical low. And almost all of these new entrants to our industry are being supported by management companies. As a result, we continue to see those firms hiring pilots, flight attendants, and maintenance professionals.
Meanwhile, our corporate flight departments are trying to stay ahead of what will certainly be “pent-up demand” once the world starts to return to work. Many have open positions but are not activating them until things pick up with some consistency, likely in the first or second quarter of 2021.
So, industry “atrophy” isn’t as much of a given as we might expect, especially as we get back to demonstrating the level of resourcefulness that we tapped earlier this past year. And if we continue to exercise our hard-earned proficiencies, there’s some real light at the end of the tunnel.
Sheryl Barden 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.