Contract pilot finds key to success in customer service

 - May 6, 2008, 4:43 AM

Louisiana-based contract pilot Doug Lea is technically on vacation, watching the Sunday afternoon airshow at the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-in in Lakeland, Fla., when his pager goes off. Seeking a location somewhat sheltered from the overhead noise, Lea whips out his cellphone and returns the call, knowing it is one of the seven clients for whom he is currently flying. This client, it turns out, is seeking some advice on where to take his King Air 200 for maintenance. Though this is an issue that Lea and his client had already addressed before Lea’s vacation, he spends approximately 15 min talking the client through various options.

“Accommodating my clients is my number-one priority as a contract pilot,” Lea told AIN. “My being accessible anytime, anywhere, is very important to my clients. I try to deliver the best service possible.”

Juggling seven concurrent contract flying jobs and keeping all clients happy keeps Lea very busy indeed.

Lea began his career in 1988 when he worked as a production manager for a Louisiana oil company that is no longer in business. A private pilot, Lea used his personal Cessna 177 Cardinal for transportation to various job sites and to check pipelines. He enjoyed the flying aspect of the job so much that when the company downsized, he found a combination corporate pilot/sales position for American Well Control, another petroleum-related company in Louisiana. At American Well, Lea flew both himself and others in the company’s two aircraft–a Cessna 210 and a Beech 18 with the Pacific Aircraft Tradewind tricycle gear conversion. In the meantime, he purchased a Beech Baron B55 for his personal use. But he was not destined to stay at American Well for too long.

“American Well wanted me to work more in sales and do less flying,” Lea said. “When I made the commitment in 1988 to begin flying, I wanted to continue flying as a career. Because of my oilfield background, I had the ability to do many things–engineering, quality control and sales. But instead I kept my focus on flying.”

In 1990 Lea moved to Dallas to take a corporate flying job, while his wife and child stayed in Louisiana. It turned out to be a good decision not to uproot the family as the job lasted for only six weeks.

“When things got slow, since I was the first one hired, I was the first fired,” Lea said. That’s when he decided to take matters into his own hands. Within two weeks, Lea landed contracts for part-time pilot services to two different oil companies in Lafayette, La.

Seven Clients, One Pilot

Lea was sure that his part-time pilot services made good economic sense to his clients. Both companies owned aircraft and needed some additional pilot services, but neither needed another full-time pilot. By offering his pilot services on an as-needed basis, Lea allowed the companies to minimize their overhead expenses. Now he just needed to tackle the scheduling.

“This was the first time using contract pilots for all of us,” Lea said. “But the two customers knew each other and worked with each other and me to come up with the scheduling. It wasn’t a problem.”

Located midway between New Orleans and Houston, Lafayette is “a big oil town,” according to Lea, who has been based in Lafayette since that fateful decision in 1990. “Aviation is well established in Lafayette,” he said.

One of Lea’s indirect competitors based at Lafayette is Petroleum Helicopters Inc., one of the world’s largest commercial helicopter companies with a fleet of more than 200 helicopters flying in support of petroleum, corporate transport, aeromedical and international operations. But Lea has found that there is enough business to go around, especially in the local area. Although some of his past and current clients are based in other oil towns, such as Houston and Baton Rouge, La., most of his clients are based in and around Lafayette. He currently juggles seven clients on different levels of scheduling.

“Several companies have requested that they have first-call rights, which I term a primary customer,” said Lea. “The primary customer pays a retainer fee for my availability. If I get a call for a flight from another customer, we have an understanding that I’ll call the primary customer first and make sure that they don’t need my services for the duration of the second customer’s flight. Primary customers usually schedule my services a few weeks in advance, but I still call to make sure nothing has come up.”

Most of Lea’s flights are day trips to Houston or Dallas, which allows greater flexibility to service his many clients. He estimates that a mere 20 percent of his trips require overnight stays. However, on those occasions that he cannot take a requested flight, or has scheduled time off for himself, Lea will find another rated pilot to take his place.

“It’s all part of the give-and-take process,” Lea said. “Clients understand that if they want someone who will always be ready to go at a moment’s notice, that will cost a lot more. But if they can be flexible and I can be flexible, it works out for everyone.”