When I first broached the subject of a looming pilot shortage at NBAA-BACE in 2013, people in the audience told me I was crazy and said it would never happen. As I recall, I was even heckled by a few tenured pilots in attendance.
Well, it has indeed happened, and the situation continues to snowball.
Compensation for aviation professionals, and especially pilots, has been increasing at an unprecedented rate since mid-2018. It was then that the airlines began offering long-dormant pilots—those furloughed up to 17 years—the opportunity to come back with seniority. It was as if they had never left.
Subsequently, business aviation employers have had to react to the increasing demand for pilots. In the ensuing four years, flight departments have stepped up again and again, revising compensation and employee benefits to try and keep up with the airlines. And, today, with the new compensation offers from some of the regional carriers, flight departments will likely need another round of adjustments.
In recent discussions with both hiring managers and candidates, I’m hearing about more and more employee demands. Especially when it comes to compensation. It’s an employee’s market, and business aircraft pilots are threatening to leave if their flight departments don’t show them the money.
Yet it leaves me to wonder if these aviation pros are turning their marathon-length careers into a sudden burst to reach the top. As my son would say, they’ve got “FOMO”—fear of missing out. The grass sure looks greener on the other side.
Industry in Flux
In 2020 and 2021, during the height of the pandemic, so many flight departments were on “idle.” Pilots, maintenance professionals, flight attendants, and schedulers either stayed home or worked at a fraction of the pace. But they were all still paid. They all received benefits, and many, still, were rewarded with bonuses. (I‘ve heard of a lot of companies whose bonuses far exceeded target by as much as 200 percent!)
During the pandemic, the same airlines (that are now promising higher wages, better schedules, and profit sharing) retired a large percentage of their employees earlier than they expected. Others—particularly pilots—ended up getting their hours cut and even experienced furloughs, all negatively impacting their net worth.
As we appear to be staring down the barrel of a recession, I’m wondering how we can strike balance in business aviation. What can we do to ensure that we are focusing on the marathon and not the sprint? How can we remind employees how well they were treated during the pandemic?
There has to be a means of opening these aviation professionals’ eyes to the realities of a “get-it-all-now” point of view.
One reality is that commercial flight costs are rising due to the hikes in fuel and labor costs—and deep losses from shrinking revenue during the pandemic. At the same time, disposable income is decreasing.
So, do these conditions set the stage for the American public to ratchet back their airline spend? And what’s more, will businesses rely more heavily on Zoom and other electronic networking platforms for lower-level, non-executive meetings? I believe the answer is yes.
But, at the same time, I think that executive travel will likely grow higher in demand.
I believe that—if it comes—this recession will be very different than the one that befell us in 2009. Back then, we downsized and closed flight departments because we were publicly shamed by congress. This time, however, as airline customer service continues to erode, business aviation support for executive travel will likely be in higher demand than ever.
With these new challenges to meet and overcome, I’d advise pilots—and aviation professionals of all stripes—to consider their career paths from both sides of the equation. Do not allow situational opportunism to rule their decision-making.
Instead, consider the same fairness extended to them by their employer during the pandemic. If the company didn’t make a snap decision (and perhaps even fought for them) at an unprecedented time—during a crisis with no veritable end—perhaps it’s fair to offer them the same grace?
Yes, everyone deserves to be paid what they are worth. But we must all consult our own personal values before pushing our employers beyond realistic, and often hard-fought, thresholds.
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.