Pilot Lifestyle: Harmonizing your life's work with the rest of your life

Aviation International News » September 2001
May 8, 2008, 6:47 AM

Ron flies a Gulfstream IV based at Dallas Love Field and he loves his job–most of the time. But the 42-year-old married father of two young children has found the on-demand culture of delivering teams of executives, who make decisions on a dime, is wreaking havoc with his family life. His wife says she’s in for the long haul, but despite her commitment, Ron is more troubled than ever about how to balance the needs of his boss with those of his family. Ironically, even though he knows the Gulfstream is a quality-of-life tool for his passengers, he believes his own quality of life is very much in doubt.

Ron (not his real name) doesn’t want to look for another job, but he’s giving it serious thought. He’s also not sure exactly what his next move should be. Many other pilots feel just like Ron, but they don’t like talking about it.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year that “nearly 90 percent of people questioned by SurveySite Inc., a Toronto-based provider of online market research, want both career opportunities and flexible work arrangements…80 percent expect their employers to be flexible when it comes to setting daily work schedules.”

The problem of balancing work and the rest of life is a challenge aviation department managers and the employees alike struggle with every day. The reason is simple. Employees with a good sense of balance in their lives perform better at their jobs and are less likely to look elsewhere for work. The company’s financial and emotional costs of losing a good employee are also incredibly high.

Tom (not his real name), a corporate aviation manager in Detroit, called the work/life balance a “squishy issue.” It’s no wonder. Trying to balance the lives of flight department personnel is like juggling cats. No matter how well you do it some cats won’t be happy. Adding to the problem is that many pilots (mostly male) don’t realize their lives are out of balance until they’re really out of whack.

What Is a Life Out of Balance?
Paula Moscinski, a certified professional coach in Chicago, detailed some of the symptoms of a life out of balance. “People see a hundred things on their plates and just start attacking them rather than trying to figure out what is most important. They simply react. People may feel angry and more and more disconnected from work and relationships.”

And that’s just the emotional side. “A life out of balance may also appear as aches and pains in the body, as well as a sense of being stressed out,” she added.

Worst of all, people are called upon to make decisions about their lives when they are least ready to do it effectively, said Moscinski. “Ninety-nine percent of people actually have no idea what is really most important in their lives.”

The solution to a life out of balance begins by understanding one fundamental point. “Everyone has a choice, even if they don’t believe they do,” she said. “Once they realize there’s a problem, people must consider what not putting their lives back into balance is really costing them at work and at home.”

Identifying and solving life imbalance issues is a daunting task for aviation department managers. Jeff Lee, director of flight operations for IBM and NBAA’s chairman of the corporate aviation management committee, said, “People are paying attention to balance and quality-of-life issues now because pilots have choices. When you look at the dynamics of this new workforce, you realize young pilots are not thinking about 20-year careers.”

The realities of the solution are not lost on Lee, however. “We are all moving through this life balance issue together,” he noted.

Susan Anderson, a contract Learjet captain in Lake Worth, Fla., said, “I think pilots are finally coming to the realization that they have rights as people, too. They should not have to indenture themselves for the privilege of flying someone’s airplane. I think family factors and multiple aviation-induced divorces tend to be a factor.”

Some managers question the hard dollar cost of quality-of-life demands, while others seem more in tune. Abbott Labs’ chairman of the board, Miles White, is “concerned about taking a pilot’s weekend away,” according to the company’s aviation director, Steve Hawkins. “He respects a pilot’s private time with his or her family.” Adding to the work/life balance problem is the fact that imbalance means something just a bit different to everyone.

Work/life balance, quality-of-life and retention issues are on NBAA’s radar screens, too. At the NBAA’s 10th annual leadership conference this past February, the theme was “Your Most Important Asset? People!” The conference focused on the intensity of competition within the industry to attract and retain qualified flight crewmembers.

One of the conference’s participants, David Butler, another performance coach said, “If you look at what it costs to hire someone, wait a few months, discover they’re the wrong person, let them go and start over, you’ll realize the amount is enormous.”

Lee added, “The key today is not just how much I’m paid, but how much of a life I have. The ideas of lifelong employment are dashed against the rocks, but we do need some security. To get good people, you have to focus.” For pilots themselves, like Ron in Dallas, the concept of work/life balance is often a distant one at best.

Identifying the Problem
Sometimes one of the biggest problems with work/balance issues is simply identifying them. Line pilots may see the imbalance as a short-term issue, such as a lack of a regular schedule, poor pay or long work days. Hawkins confirmed that even in his department “we still suffer from an inability to get hard schedules. You might not know your schedule more than two weeks off.”

Thinking a schedule will solve their problems, many pilots have jumped the traditional business aviation ship for the fractionals. Jan Barden, president of Aviation Personnel International (API), cautions pilots to look carefully before making the move. “Pilots at the fractionals have a schedule, but they’re always gone. They’re simply trading more time off for more time away from home.”

Some aviation managers don’t believe quality of life is even an issue. Surprisingly, one regional airline executive said the concept of work/life balance for pilots was one he had never before been asked to even consider, much less a problem in search of a solution.

Barden disagreed. “The work/life balance conflict has always been a part of the aviation business. Management will say to pilots, ‘At least you’re not working 90 hours a week.’” Employees outside of aviation often look in awe at a pilot’s quality of life, since salaried office staffers often work 12-hr days, five days a week, with no set days off either.

Not surprisingly, the importance of the work/life imbalance problem depends on the type of flying, as well as the pilot’s age and marital status. Hawkins said, “When I began my corporate flying career, a good percentage of us were single. Quality of life wasn’t something we worried about. In some respects, perhaps we were taken advantage of a bit. Today we do what we can to retain good people, but expectations are different.”

Anderson added, “When I was younger I was hungry for experience and the right opportunities. I sacrificed my personal life to get where I am today. The result is I have a great career, but no life. This has to change because I do not want only ‘working hard’ to be my life.”

Those interviewed by AIN confirmed that pilots over 40, as well as those who are married, seem to care more about time off than their single comrades.

Pilots with full-time working spouses will often bring new sets of conflicts into the work/life mix. The need to coordinate a pilot’s dynamic work schedule with that of a working spouse, especially one working outside the home, can be a daunting problem for both the pilot and the employer, not to mention the spouse.

Women are for the most part still the primary childcare providers, although fathers are now taking a greater role in childcare than ever before. But corporate daycare centers are normally located a long way from the airport, often making that resource useless to a pilot and his family.

Part 135 on-demand charter pilots fly a true 24/7 schedule with little hard time off. Kevin McCullough, president of Aero Air, an aircraft charter company in Portland, Ore., struggles to keep his crew schedules in balance. “Our company’s target for pilots is 14 days flying or away from home per month.” Unfortunately, charter crews seldom know which 14 days that might be, not to mention how the trips might be backed up against each other, hence the imbalance. McCullough admitted, “Scheduled time off is what pilots want,” but some of this imbalance is simply the nature of the on-demand business.

May I Have Your Attention?
Pilots often hope their bosses will simply notice how hard they’ve worked or how long they’ve been away from home, especially when something unexpected shows up.  The goal for all flight departments should be to offer a great working environment, not simply a job. For pilots, this means that some work/life balance solutions may require more interaction with their managers and less time looking for a quick exit from their current job.

Can there be a true balance to the work/life issues pilots face today as they struggle to blend their love for the skies with their concern for their family? Certainly. But in general, pilots need to become more involved in the solution.

Phil, a Gulfstream pilot based at Teterboro who asked that his real name not be used, glimpsed an important insight into the work/life balance issue. “Sometimes pilots are their own worst enemies. We need to stand up and say we’re just not going to do some of this stuff any longer. I need more than two weeks off during the year. Our day is not an eight-hour one. Fourteen- and 16-hour days are pretty standard. That’s much more physically demanding than sitting behind a desk.”

But he also added, “If I leave my job now, I must often go back to square one with a new company. I think that’s a problem that is also the pilot’s fault.”

Rick, a Part 135 captain living in Denver, said, “When I was single, our operations people knew that no matter what time they called me for a trip, 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., I’d go. That was my job.” Now that this same captain is about to be married, many long discussions with his fiancée have changed his attitude considerably.

“I don’t want to be gone as much as I was. But now that I’m fairly senior and captain qualified on two aircraft, the company wants me to fly all the time. So I’ve probably cooked my own goose by standing up to help once too often.”

This pilot, who like most of his colleagues interviewed for this article wished to remain anonymous, said he felt his options are limited now as well. “Our people are so used to me jumping every time they press the button that my chances of successfully backing off from some of the work are slim. I really think my only option to have any quality of life will be to find another job where my new employer comes to know me as a married guy with all the needs and responsibilities that come with that category of pilot. And the worst part is that I really like the adventure and the autonomy of charter flying.” Aero Air’s McCullough confirmed this problem: “Pilots need to understand that moving up into a big jet may not be an upgrade. They need to choose a lifestyle first.”

John Johnson, a Hawker pilot in Seattle, added, “Too often, quality-of-life issues take a back seat when the candidate is in need of a job, or some particular type of experience.” Pilots obviously must be a part of the answer to the balance issue. Chuck McLeran, TAG Aviation USA’s vice president of flight operations and standards, said, “I think pilots know what they like and what they don’t. But they need to ask a lot of questions during the interview process.”

Coach Moscinski said, “It is critical that employers look closely at the cost of not solving the work balance problems.” There are certainly dollar costs in training alone that must be considered, not only for those wasted on the pilot who left, but also the fresh costs of training a new crewmember.

Then there is the cost of temporary help to run the operation while the new pilot is in training. There is also an emotional cost when an employee leaves. How does the rest of the pilot group feel, especially if the termination was hostile? Especially when the termination is at the manager’s insistence, there will always be the idea that “I might be next” floating around in people’s heads.

IBM’s Lee noted, “What is a manager measured against really? It’s retention. Most of what we offer our customers, what makes us different is the quality of the people we have, the extra services we deliver. If we lose that advantage, customers might just decide to go fractional.”

There are potential safety concerns when a department loses a pilot as well, especially if part of the solution involves spreading the extra work out among the pilots who are left. This may only exacerbate some of the issues the department already faces.

A 1997 Flight Safety Foundation study on scheduling in business aviation warned that “night work, irregular work schedules, unpredictable work schedules and time zone factors…can result in performance-impairing fatigue…and are a risk to safety.” But just how many additional people are needed to cover unscheduled problems?

Dennis Olson, of aviation-consulting firm Olson & Associates, repeated the need for pilot involvement in the solution. “Unless someone brings quality-of-life issues to light, no one outside the aviation department, or possibly even inside, is likely to do anything about it. Let’s face it, executives are used to asking for an airplane and expecting it to show up. The more entrepreneurial the company, the less they consider the lifestyle of their aviation staff. These hard-charging people don’t have much of a lifestyle either.”

Hawker pilot Johnson said, “Pilots must be willing to educate those who they report to about where the quality-of-life issues are. They can’t help fix them if they don’t know about them.”

Olson added, “Employees have to understand the issues as well as managers. An aviation job will never provide them with a truly stable or predictable schedule. But there does have to be give and take.”

Therein lies a part of the problem. The thing that often makes pilots good at what they do– their egos–can get in the way of solving work-balance issues. If those egos didn’t get in the way, it might be easier for a crew to say no when they’re fatigued, like after 13.5 hr of duty or when called in the middle of the night. Pilot egos almost always want to say “yes.”

Johnson countered the earlier concern about the hard costs of solving work-balance issues. “A rested and contented crew pays huge dividends in the realm of safety and dependability.” But Phil from Teterboro added another concern: “Owners who have lots of money don’t want to hear that the pilots have other things to do when they’re called.”

For some aviation managers, it is simply not great for long-term job security to admit to their boss that the airplane and its crew cannot accomplish some special mission, such as flying into Aspen, Colo., at night, because of a safety issue.

Airline pilots flying under Part 121 rules have strict operating rules that limit the decisions and duty days of cockpit crewmembers. But business aviation has only guidelines that are often open to interpretation.

After a grueling road trip, some pilots, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, simply fire up their PCs and apply online to NetJets. “Sometimes pilots simply think too short term,” said Scott Armstrong, a standards captain with 7-11 Corp. in New York.

Solving the work/life balance issue doesn’t require a 12-step program. There are best-practice parallels in the corporate world for attracting and retaining good employees while offering them a life that is both financially and emotionally rewarding, according to IBM’s Lee. “There are many corporate cultures, like Southwest Airlines, that have a high focus on mission and are still enjoyable places to work that can be replicated.”

But there are also realities of flying that must be considered as well. TAG’s McLeran added, “Owners of business jets are always going to own them because of the flexibility they provide. If pilots want to be in this industry, they will need to respond to that flexibility. They’ll need to find that happy medium.”

A Paycheck Is Just the Beginning
Money is only a part of the solution. David Moll, chief pilot at Hotel Aviation in Atlanta, said, “The larger flight departments will continue to hire the best of the available pilots since they offer the best of what corporate aviation has to offer.”

Hawkins echoed Moll’s comments when asked how they cope when things get too busy. “We closely track our duty times and days off for everyone to see to begin with. We hire another pilot if we have to, and that really helps. And yes, we have had to hire some of our pilots away from other companies. We think the quality of life here is pretty good.”

He said that the solution to the balance issue is often reminiscent of a cat chasing its tail. “When you look at the vacation and training needs of our department, you’re almost never dealing with a full-time staff.”

Negotiations through dialogue are another important solution to any work-balance issue. Mike Floyd, CEO of Altrua America Jet Services in Tallahassee, Fla., said, “Pilots need to give their employers an opportunity to fix things before they just up and leave. I’ve lost good people because they assumed we wouldn’t accommodate their needs before we were even aware there was a problem. When good people leave, we all lose something.”

NBAA senior vice president of operations Bob Blouin said the best flight department is one that “supports lifelong learning, professional development, moving toward some sort of certification...and helps the employee develop a long-term road map toward their career.” That requires a considerable proactive effort on the part of pilots. But again, it’s a two-way street.

Some pilots are happy to take all a flight department has to offer and never once turn around and ask what they can do to improve the quality of life for those around them, including their boss. They’ll gladly accept a raise in pay, additional 401(k) cash or even additional time off and then turn around and complain when asked to come in to help out in the hangar when there’s paperwork to be done. Pilots who view their job as taking the trip and going home can make managers exhaustedly wonder, “When is enough enough?”

All professional pilots often work long hours and erratic schedules because they believe they must pay their dues to succeed. The unspoken hope is that eventually, when a pilot has paid enough dues, he or she will be rewarded with something of value–a raise, additional time off, a promotion or some other form of recognition.
When that expectation doesn’t appear, many pilots simply begin looking for a new job, often only because they can. Some pilots said it was too costly, in time and effort, as well as personal career risk, to engage management in a debate over quality-of-life issues.

But often it’s unclear when employees leave whether they are moving on simply for better things or because they are simply trying to extricate themselves from a bad job. Hawker pilot Johnson said, “If you are unable to effect a change in your company you must be willing to accept your situation or make the decision to look elsewhere. In my mind, proper staffing is the key to providing balance on quality-of-life issues.”

Contract Learjet pilot Anderson countered that argument: “I don’t think hiring more people will necessarily solve the quality-of-life issue. More people gives you more resources to work with when vacations and training come due, but they need to be utilized properly. It does no good to have enough staff if pilots are on call 24 hours a day. When flight department managers appear to make ‘the impossible happen with nothing’ on a routine basis, usually by sacrificing someone’s quality of life, this becomes the expected norm. That’s quite a Catch-22.”

Far too many pilots treat every cockpit position as just a job, something to be cherished, but just for a while. Pilots next must decide what they really want out of their flying career besides the chance to fly airplanes. How can anyone–pilot or manager– possibly achieve something that an employee can’t articulate?

Before that next interview, pilots need to sit down and have a serious look at their career–not their job–plans, if they even have them. They should have an honest discussion with their families about where they are now in their careers and where they truly want to be in just a few years.

Pilots also need to realistically explore the reason they’re leaving their current positions as well. What kind of quality-of-life issues–or lack of them–contributed to the problem, for example?

One somewhat shortsighted pilot said the best jobs she’d ever had were the ones she’d already left behind and the one she hoped to find. That attitude may be the fault of our own human nature, however. We prefer to concentrate on what we want rather than taking a serious look at what we hold in our hands.

What Pilots Want
Let’s face it. What pilots and managers really want when discussing work/life balance and quality-of-life issues are options, flexibility and some element of control over their lives.

A great many flight department managers and human resource professionals are working hard through organizations like NATA and NBAA, struggling to solve the problems of work/life balance and quality of life because they see a direct correlation between these issues and the retention of their organization’s best people.

7-11 captain Armstrong admitted, “I know I don’t have all the solutions. These are difficult problems to solve because every pilot seems to want something different.” A fractional pilot added this advice: “If you want it all, get out of aviation.”

Aviation department managers need an honest evaluation system in place and must be constantly vigilant for any signs of disharmony before serious problems develop. They need to ask themselves questions like, “Why would a line pilot stay with this company?” as well as reasons they might leave. “Am I, as a manager, as approachable as I think I am?” “How can I verify this?” “What will it cost me to change?” “What will it cost me if I don’t?”     Likewise, pilots need to communicate their quality-of-life concerns in a fashion that supports the goals of the organization. For instance, how sending a junior domestic pilot to an international seminar might hold some future benefit for the department.

In addition, ask what sort of aviation-traditional boundaries may be preventing simple solutions to work/life balance issues from being implemented, such as new ways to purchase or sell back extra days off. Consider offering pilots incentive pay to fly trips others don’t want. Think about creating part-time or job-sharing opportunities to keep pilots on board.

IBM’s Lee added, “One resource that has been often overlooked is the age-60-plus labor pool.” Managers can also be proactive by suggesting extra time off to pilots, or by offering professional development opportunities, rather than waiting for the employees to ask for them.

The key for managers and pilots to realize is that each pilot is an individual with unique skills and abilities. In a 12-person department, a manager might have to devise 12 different interactive solutions to find the right balance. And no matter how hard everyone tries, some work/life issues may not have solutions.

Lee said, “I have run into a few pilots I would like to hire, but they only want part-time positions. They say their quality of life is more important than anything else.”

Pilot headhunter Barden said, “We’re not operating with 1970s rules and procedures any longer. We’re looking at new professional ways to solve problems.” New and unique solutions are no longer the exception, but rather the norm. But it calls for unique thinking on everyone’s part.

Hotel Aviation chief pilot Moll concluded, “Business aviation has the talent and the means to change this trend. But there is not just one solution to the problem.”

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