Who should be the boss at a corporate flight department?

 - October 8, 2007, 7:19 AM

Who’s the best choice when a flight department manager position opens up? For the past 50 or so years, the people who usually got the nod were pilots, whether or not they were the best candidates.

Senior executives seem to be realizing just how important the person they choose to run the department can be to the overall success of the operation, or lack of it. With the goal being the best-qualified candidate, the career pendulum is beginning to move toward another group of aviation professionals–people who started their career not in the cockpit, but turning wrenches on the shop floor.

It is with good reason that management has begun to look at more nontraditional solutions to day-to-day operational problems that now arrive in a variety of sizes and shapes, from OSHA to local building codes to EPA troubles that are often not easily solved by people without experience on the business side of aviation.

So why the sudden interest in maintenance people for these top slots? The most apparent answer is awareness by senior management of talent, regardless of how people garner it. Pat Cunningham is Pepsico’s manager of aircraft maintenance at the company’s base at West Chester County Airport, White Plains, N.Y., where he oversees the daily operation of the soft-drink company’s two Falcon 50s and two Challenger 601-3As. He’s been a technician since his start in business aviation 29 years ago.

“What has slowed maintenance people from evolving to flight department managers has for years been the image of the mechanic with a rag in his pocket,” Cunningham said. “They simply were never perceived as management material. Also, pilots are traditionally the people who were right there with the boss all the time. They are the people the boss would think of when it came time to promote someone. But the next person now might very well not be a pilot.”

Ken Peartree has been the aviation department manager at Hewlett Packard since 1986, where he’s responsible for a staff of 30 and seven aircraft. “Today, many more technicians are achieving a much higher level of education beyond the A&P certificate, which makes them much more selectable.” Peartree does not have a degree and rose through the ranks by starting at HP 30 years ago as an aircraft cleaner. “I think a management track today would be pretty difficult to achieve the way I did.”

Chicken-and-egg Issue

Another maintenance technician said the reason few mechanics rose to the department manager slot in the past may have been a chicken-and-egg issue. “Many technicians just never thought the manager’s slot was available because so many pilots seemed to be headed in that direction. Really, though, we should be looking for the best-qualified individuals to fill these positions. Today, executives are looking outside the box to fill these jobs.”

Mark Dietrich has risen through the Chalk Hill Winery ranks after graduating from
San Jose State University’s A&P program and working four years in the Navy on Sabreliners and DC-9s. He’s been that company’s aviation department manager for 10 years and flies the turbine Cessna 206 floatplane, but leaves the Citation X to his other two full-time pilots.

“Pilots are professionals and know what to do in the cockpit,” he said. “But the real day-in-and-day-out business is all about facility management and things like insurance and OSHA compliance. There are so many regulatory issues, especially if a department has its own building on the airport, that I would not want to be the guy gone flying who needs to deal with these things when I got back. When our flight department expanded, it seemed like a natural progression to give the job to a person who was on site most of the time.” Cunningham said, “One thing about hiring a maintenance technician as a manager, rather than a pilot, is that a technician brings much broader operational perspectives to the facility.”

Nothing can be quite as excruciating as working for a boss who didn’t ask for the job, but merely accepted it as the next step in his career. All too often, the manager’s slot was seen as a reward for someone who had survived in the department the longest, a good example of the Peter Principle in action. NBAA’s director of technical operations, Eli Cotti, himself a maintenance technician, explained the fallacy of that development track. “There are people out there who work on airplanes, as well as fly them, who don’t want to be in management and who don’t belong there,” he said. “These are people who long for a simpler day.”

Management Training

Cunningham opined, “The classic problem is being thrust into management without the training or preparation. But more and more companies are seeing that technical proficiency is not necessarily going to give them their best manager. It is incumbent on the person who enjoys management then to prepare himself for the tasks.”

Jay Evans is NBAA’s director of operations and also the association’s professional development program liaison to the certified aviation manager (CAM) program, which gives business aviation professionals the education they need to get the manager’s job. NBAA’s CAM program leads to an exam and official recognition. “We offered the first CAM test at the NBAA Convention last fall,” Evans said. “Of the 21 people who sat for the exam, one-third were aviation maintenance professionals.”

NBAA believes the CAM program and myriad professional development courses offered to support the certification by institutions such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University can point a potential manager in the right direction. Cunningham, who originally used his skills as a maintenance technician to pay his way through college (he holds a political science degree), eventually came to enjoy the work immensely. He returned to college for an MBA and passed the CAM exam last year. “I learned lots about business along the way, but the people issues were the hardest. People don’t all communicate the same way, or think the way you do. Simply knowing this can help make you a better manager.”

The CAM program developers surveyed 1,000 aviation professionals to compile the topic list for the certification program. They asked what skills are required to accomplish all the day-to-day tasks in a flight department. These outlines gave potential managers the opportunities to match their own skills against those of current department managers. The topics and the questions developed were spread across a wide spectrum of the aviation field, including:
• Leadership
• Personnel management
• Operations
• Technical and facilities services
• Business management

Cunningham said academic credentials alone today do not qualify a person to be in charge of much of anything. “The rewards in a management job are both psychological and monetary. You must have a predisposition to working with people and understand that everyone is an individual in the way they need to be spoken to. Although people are attracted to others who think and act like themselves, a good manager needs to recognize there are other styles.”

The need to think about the results of his actions from a people perspective, rather than simply from an action/reaction perspective, can be eye-opening to a new manager. Cunningham said, “Some are more successful at the people end than others.” Peartree noted, “You can trend to the technical side, but the softer issues are very necessary. Of course, those people skills are sometimes intangible and much more difficult to measure in candidates, no matter what their background.”

Peartree believes maintenance-track aviation department managers are no fad. “Corporate aviation is only 60 years old and continues to evolve. It takes time for the community to change its attitude about who might be a strong candidat