The turbulent state of the corporate pilot job market

 - May 8, 2008, 11:20 AM

With the U.S. economy vacillating between recession and recovery for most of the year, no one was terribly surprised when the Department of Labor reported that unemployment figures climbed to nearly 6 percent in October. And as a wavering marketplace goes, so too does the use of business aircraft and hence the need for qualified professionals to staff them.

But with this particular recession, the traditional motivations for using a corporate airplane are a bit different as a direct result of September 11. The atrocities added a new element of security anxiety to corporate travel, not to mention increased hassles for executives flying on the airlines, where schedules have been curtailed 20 percent in the past year. This has all translated–albeit anecdotally–into increased business aviation flying, which would seem to bode well for pilots.

But whether this is a good or bad job market for pilots is not easy to measure precisely since no one regularly tracks business aviation pilot-hiring figures. George Vincent, former chief pilot at Tyco, said, “This industry is hard to read because so much of the hiring is word-of-mouth related. It is also regionalized. The industry is recession focused right now.”

However, NBAA president Jack Olcott said, “There certainly seems to be mixed signals about the job market for pilots today, but we’re not falling off a cliff yet. Although there is some downsizing, there are jobs out there for good people.” But most people AIN spoke to believe the current market for pilots is awful, much of the slump being related to the woes of the airline industry.

As of early last month the airlines had furloughed 7,200 pilots. Those are hard numbers. But the closest thing to business aircraft trend information is charter and the fractionals, where there are some statistics. Charter use has been both up and down this year, and it is expected to grow next year, according to Air Charter Guide vice president of e-services Meara McLaughlin. This could certainly be a good sign for pilots. “The number of inquiries from people who have never chartered before is very high,” noted McLaughlin. “Charter is the engine that creates the demand for all types of general aviation flying and is a great barometer for the future. Soon you will see charter travel quoting integrated into corporate travel programs [to avoid using the airlines]. The end result will be an explosion in charter demand. Once that genie is out of the bottle, charter departments will need to have the aircraft and pilots to fill those requirements.”

Word on the Street

While data from the field is probably the most accurate measure of the job market today, expert opinions on hiring follow much the same roller coaster as the economy. Kit Darby, president of Atlanta-based Air Inc., tracks pilot hiring across a broad range of the pilot spectrum, including the major fractional operators. “The pilot hiring situation [of fractionals] is a lot better than most people realize. They’ve hired 1,000 pilots in the first nine months. They hired 1,000 last year as well, and they don’t seem to be letting up.”

Challenger pilot Tim Jassak added, “There are some good corporate jobs out there…those you’d want to stay at.” Zeno Air assistant chief pilot Bruce Dunton agreed: “There are still a good number of jobs out there, but the competition is pretty stiff.”

Steve Hawkes, director of aviation services for BP in Chicago, said, “The job market for pilots has changed in the past 18 months and has pretty much followed the business economic cycle and the generally sluggish economy. We don’t anticipate being in the job market in the near future.” One pilot observed, “If it were not for the fear factor generated by 9/11, I think more flight departments might be shutting down right now.”

American Jet chief pilot Chuck Simmons noted, “I get 10 to 20 resumes a day, from pilots with 300 hours to some with 26,000. Our charter business has picked up, and we might hire 20 or 30 pilots in the next year.” Cyndy Santini, senior executive recruiter for Dallas-based CAAP, said, “We always seem to ride these waves in business aviation, but it does seem to balance out and come back. I am certainly getting lots of calls from airline pilots who say they want to get back into the corporate world because they want more stability. But who can talk about stability right now in any profession?”

Phil, a New York area GIV charter pilot, added, “We used to think corporate aviation was stable, but look at DaimlerChrysler…40 years in the business and they just disappeared.” Nat Iyengar, a Flight Options pilot, countered, “The fractionals are a secure job, and secure is a pretty good thing right now.”

At TAG Aviation, vice president and COO Chuck McLeran observed, “We’re regularly adding small numbers of pilots this year and have a few openings. We also have an active database with 500 to 700 pilot resumes on file that are updated every six months. But we want to see business aviation experience.”

Vincent, out of work from Tyco’s flight department since September, said, “My sense is that corporate pilot hiring right now is very limited, and in the near future will be almost nonexistent. The economy, corporate stock prices and profits are way off, and that always means bad news for flight departments. But perhaps my views are biased right now because I’m currently unemployed and am very nervous about any future prospects.” Vincent reports his total experience in the cockpit at around 13,000 hr, with type ratings in the Falcon 2000 and 900. He also said that of the original 11 pilots in the Tyco flight department, five have found jobs, but only two have located a position equivalent to what they held at Tyco. One pilot recently accepted a position with Flight Options for a considerable reduction in pay.

Pete Purnell, a Gulfstream G200/ Galaxy and helicopter pilot, has been out of work since September 30. “There are some jobs out there, but none are in the aircraft I have type ratings for,” he said. Purnell has 24,500 hr logged and flew 4.5 years for TAG Aviation until the Galaxy’s owner decided to upgrade to a GV, keeping TAG as the management company.

Purnell was not invited to GV school and was terminated on short notice and with two weeks severance, right after delivering the Galaxy to Savannah, Ga., to make the switch for the larger Gulfstream. “I’ve always been able to bounce back after an airplane was sold out from under me, but this time it is much harder. I’ve sent out hundreds of resumes and had no calls back.”

Phil in the New York area said, “I’ve been looking for work for a year. The charter business is real slow since road shows, heavily dependent upon the health of Wall Street, have become almost nonexistent. In my experience there are four to six qualified candidates for every Fortune 50 job today. And then there are the airline pilots willing to buy their own type ratings to get a job. I managed a GIV acquisition for a company two months ago and received 200 resumes for a pilot position in just a few weeks. The worst Part 135 operation I saw, though, was one that hired new pilots who were already current and kept them for a year. When it came time to send them to recurrent, the company would fire them and grab a new aircraft-current pilot from a resume and start the cycle over again. Today, if a pilot shows up and is willing to pay for his own training and sign a training contract, he’ll get hired. It’s that bad out there.”

“From a corporate standpoint, hiring is not as strong as it has been,” noted Sheryl Barden, vice president at Aviation Personnel International. “Some companies are being very cautious and are taking a little longer before they add staff to make sure the financial side will support them. But hiring is still going on.”

Tim Jassak flew a Falcon 50 for Pillsbury and later General Mills out of Minneapolis after the two companies merged last year. He was with the company for seven years when he learned last spring he’d be out of work by Memorial Day. This 9,700-hr pilot is typed in the Learjet, Westwind, Astra, Falcon 50 and Challenger. “The company gave me 30 days notice. At least they didn’t call us in one day and ask for our keys. I’ve heard of companies that did that. I took the summer off. But I would have had a much more enjoyable time if I’d known I had a job waiting for me in September. There was nothing available in Minneapolis and the jobs I did hear about required a move I could not accomplish on short notice with my family.”

The Airline Pilot Threat

The intermingling of airline and business aviation pilots is to be expected as out-of-work airline pilots run for whatever cover they can find. But it works both ways as a few business aviation pilots have also looked to the major operators for answers. Jassak says that during his time off he seriously considered moving
to the major airlines that were hiring–including FedEx and UPS. “I took my flight engineer written exam and looked closely at the airlines I was interested in, mainly by how they ran their flight operations.”

But during his initial look at UPS, for example, Jassak said some inside information revealed the company was holding nearly 9,000 resumes and currently had hiring on hold for better times. He continued his review of the corporate marketplace with the help of a recruiter and recently landed a job in the Chicagoland area, flying a  Challenger 601 for a privately held company.

But despite the fact that flight departments are flooded with resumes, many from furloughed airline pilots, those heavy-iron aviators might not be as much competition as some business aviation pilots believe, primarily because many flight department managers know that airline pilots will run back to their big Boeings and Airbuses in a heartbeat when the opportunity presents itself. And why wouldn’t they, asked  Darby, a United pilot himself. “That fractional pilot position has half the lifetime value of an airline job.”

Most managers AIN interviewed believed that while they might not demand resignation of an airline seniority number to win a corporate job, they would consider the question to be a good indicator of just how serious about a business aviation career an airline pilot might be. All but one of the fractionals, according to Darby, asks pilots to resign their seniority number to win a position.

Santini said, “If an airline pilot tells me he is not willing to resign his seniority number for the right position, I suggest they look into contract work.” Simmons added, “A lot of airline pilots say they’ll give up their number to get a job, but most won’t. There will never be the money on this side of the business that there is on the airline side.” Zeno’s Dunton voiced a cultural concern heard again and again by AIN: “I don’t think that someone who is flying a DC-10 automatically has the personality traits necessary to work well in the cockpit of a business aircraft.”

Looking ahead to an emerging pilot-hiring issue, NBAA’s Olcott said, “We will be facing a need for replacement pilots in the next five years as many corporations begin losing their most senior crews.” And according to Barden, the industry has done a poor job of preparing pilots to move up within a department as new openings occur. “We simply don’t have a good method in place to prepare pilots to accept leadership roles in flight departments today and provide a continuity and balance to a department as pilots leave for retirement.”

Iyengar agreed: “I think corporate aviation is doing a pretty poor job of developing the pool of future pilots. I think corporations are shooting themselves in the foot on this.”

Whether you’re out of work now or are in the market for a new position, Barden warns against grabbing the first thing that looks promising. “Pilots are still like any other professional–they can have a job or a career. It is their choice. A bad job choice can take a pilot’s career down. Pilots, not just management, need to be certain the position is a good fit. A pilot needs to manage his career the way he conducts a flight, though most don’t.” president Richard Harris observed, “Employers are often a little surprised at what comes across their desks. Many pilots are making some pretty poor first impressions by sending resumes with poor grammar and spelling mistakes. In a rush to find a job, applicants don’t seem to be thinking what that kind of product says about them–either that their education is lacking or that they don’t care.”

Barden also spoke about education: “Advanced degrees are more important now. You can’t simply hire pilots to staff a flight department any longer. You need pilots with business experience on budgets, buying and selling of aircraft and how to develop people. We need leaders who can instill in applicants that this new pilot position can help them reach their own goals.”

Looking for Work

Despite all the rhetoric, finding a flying position today is still much like it was two, five and even 10 years ago. It is often based more upon who you know, rather than simply what you know. “But if you don’t share the values of the company you’re interviewing with,” said Barden, “you’ll never be as successful as you might be, nor will the department.”

In a tight labor market, the question always arises of the differences between pilots who are after work and those after the right career opportunity. Barden concludes that what often differentiates the two pilot groups as they search for work is that some “lack the professionalism and polish needed for a corporate environment. Business aviation applicants today must understand the need for discretion in particular situations, as well as the need to be truly service oriented.”

“But,” said one pilot after months of looking for work, “I might get so desperate I’ll take anything, just to work.” Richard Harris cautioned, however, “Looking or sounding desperate during an interview can be a bad thing.”

BP’s Hawkes said, “This job market is really no different from what it was two years ago. Companies and pilot applicants alike, still need to do their homework during candidate selection.” Dunton noted, “I don’t think the process of hiring pilots will change. Word of mouth may be more valuable, but there will still be a good amount of scrutiny taking place before a job offer is made.”

But Olcott warned, “The TSA is totally consumed right now in meeting airline deadlines for explosive-detection equipment. When those deadlines have passed, it will look more closely at business aviation from a security perspective. Next year we’ll be calling this year the good old days. We might as well begin looking deeply into an individual’s background now, focusing on credit, criminal and employment history.”

Hawkes offered some tips for those in the job hunt: “All the right type ratings are OK, but the person who fits the organization is better. Hiring for attitude is important. Resumes will always tell a story of how many positions a pilot has had and if he left on his own. Downsizing happens and it is expected, but how does an applicant address those situations during an interview? We want a team player, not just a pilot.”

Santini said some recurring problems she sees with pilots seeking employment include “telling someone you are type rated in an aircraft when you are not. You should also be up front about what you are willing to accept in a position and what you are not. Telling the truth now will suit everyone better in the long run. Pilots should be very articulate about their strengths. Pilots should truly think about who they use as references, too. They should be a broad cross section of people who can attest to your strengths not only as a pilot, but as a person.”

McLeran added, “When we review resumes, we consider overall qualifications. What has this person done to further his education on managing [the aircraft] besides a type rating? Has he had stable employment? I question a pilot who moves around a lot. The efforts an individual makes on his own are very important. How computer literate is a guy, and what has he done if he is not? That’s important today. A type rating in the specific airplane is not necessarily the sole hiring criterion. An international captain who is the right fit with our client, but who lacks the type rating, might be a more valuable candidate.”

The Air Group director of training Kevin Donnelly said, “There is a certain cross section of pilot applicants who don’t recognize the state of the economy and are still asking for the moon. During the initial interview process I’m amazed at just how forceful some applicants can be. But then many of those are people who are just looking for a job.” Iyengar added, “A classic mistake I’ve seen made is that many pilots don’t realize how small the world is. They list time and experience they don’t have. Companies are much more cautious since 9/11 and really look more closely at a pilot’s background.”

Harris suggested, “Have someone else review your resume before you send it out. Run your resume through a virus scan before you e-mail it out as well. If it contains a virus, it automatically gets dumped.” Jassak said, “Even when you’re working, it is important to network. I got complacent, content and happy and believed I would retire at General Mills. When it didn’t work out, I was as blind as a squirrel in an empty field. I had no idea what to do because I had not interviewed in years. When I put my resume together, my hands were shaking and I’m sure my blood pressure went up.”

Simmons observed, “This pilot-hiring market is like any other business cycle. We’re just on the downside right now. It is still a good time to try and find a good company, I think.” Moving over from the chief pilot’s side of the desk to that of unemployed pilot has been eye opening for Vincent: “Losing this job has made me a lot more sensitive. As a manager you become a little protective of your turf when you get inundated with people looking for work. If I find that manager job again, I will be more sensitive to people who are laid off. I’ll give them more consideration. But you also have to maintain a positive attitude and get out and meet people to find work in business aviation. Personal contact will bring much better results than e-mailing dozens of resumes. You need to put a salesman cap on and sell yourself. But anyone who is unemployed can probably tell you that.”

As with all types of turbulence, a pilot must be able to read the signs and make adjustments as the situation demands. Barden said, “Change in a flight department is constant. No matter what your position, you can sit back, do nothing and watch it evolve; or help take control, build a team and a career and help manage the culture of that department. You always have a choice.” Darby concluded, “This is not the worst recession we’ve ever had…but piloting is a lifestyle, not just a job. Most pilots are simply miserable if they are not flying.” But to Purnell “it’s a buyer’s market out there for pilots right now. I know I’m desired by someone…I just have to find them.”