Flight Department Managers: No Longer a Pilots-only Club

 - October 4, 2014, 1:40 AM
Wendi Gavigan manages flight operations for an East Coast financial services company and hopes to become an aviation department manager.

Twenty-five years ago, aviation department manager jobs were often automatically awarded to the most senior pilot, or the person considered the best “stick and rudder” aviator. That kind of career advancement began changing as we entered the 21st century. The efforts to create smarter managers took off in earnest when aviation leaders found themselves under increased scrutiny from regulators, shareholders and investors about how they used their aircraft after the downturn of 2008 and the resulting bad press for private aviation. Accurately loading an international flight plan into the FMS of a sophisticated glass airplane pales in comparison to understanding the fine details of justifying when it’s time to replace the current fleet, or how much outside charter is needed to support a sometimes erratic need for additional lift or the numbers behind a decision to add a fractional share to the department’s mix. Today, companies on the Fortune 500 list expect aviation leaders to be fluent in the language of business: finance, human resources, logistics or marketing, topics in which most regular line pilots were never trained.

One experienced aviation department manager based on the East Coast of the U.S., who asked to remain anonymous, told AIN, “The days when the flight department manager is the most senior aviator really don’t exist anymore…they’re dead. This job has become less and less about flying and more and more about compliance with regulations and employment contracts and a host of government agencies we must interact with regularly.”

Don Dwyer, a managing partner at Guardian Jet, added, “Twenty years ago there was nothing in a pilot’s job description that demanded corporate-language skills. Pilots were good leaders, but no one expected them to understand financing, for example, or to be able to talk with senior management in C-Suite language.”

Don’s brother Mike, also a Guardian Jet managing partner, said, “We’ve seen a real evolution in the sophistication of the demands placed on aviation department managers. The flight department used to be thought of as just a necessary cost center. Now, [aviation department managers] need to fit into a company just like all the other departments. Aviation people need to speak the language of business and behave the way the rest of any corporation’s departments do to align with the company’s overall strategy.”

The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act–which holds senior management potentially liable for any company wrongdoing–added tremendous levels of new paperwork to everyone in the chain of corporate responsibility, including members of the flight department. When a company decides to purchase a major asset like an airplane these days, those occupying the C-Suite expect a solid analysis of that need first, just as they would before giving the OK to a $25 million building. Flight department people who often knew just enough about finance to comment on the annual flight budget are now being asked “to understand capital expenditures, life-cycle costs and financial projections, in addition to knowing how to adjust all of these for the time value of money,” Mike Dwyer added.

Corporate flight departments often import senior talent with some of these skills into top flight positions because “We don’t grow it organically,” the East Coast manager said. “Companies never really made the effort to prepare a path for people inside the company to take on all these new responsibilities. Many of the Fortune 100s have started changing their career progression training, but many other companies have not.” This manager said the first question he asks his pilots and other employees is whether they’re certain they even want an aviation department manager position. He added that he’s running into more and more people who are not pilots interested in rising through the ranks to become aviation department managers.

Wendi Gavigan, who currently manages flight operations for an East Coast financial services company and is not a pilot herself, is one such individual. A licensed dispatcher, she wondered why pilots would want to become aviation department managers in the first place. “Pilots set out with a dream to fly and avoid a desk whenever possible because they love flying airplanes. Then we put them behind a desk five days a week? That’s just not what they signed up for. I think pilots are behind the curve in how to act like a corporate person as well. They spend their entire career honing a completely different set of skills from managers. Sure they can learn, but I don’t think it’s the dream job they signed up for.”

Gavigan added, “So much has changed about my job. We never had to deal with SMS when I started here. My job was actually much easier 16 years ago.” Gavigan is determined, though. “I want to become one of the first female, non-flying directors of aviation someday. My boss knows I’m after his job and is very supportive of my efforts by helping me get exposure to everything I need to be ready.”

She also emphasized the value of a good mentor to help prepare for this kind of position. AIN asked Gavigan how she might fare in a department manager’s role since she’s neither a pilot nor a maintenance technician. “I think I’ll do just fine,” she said, “because pilots and maintenance technicians don’t really understand my job right now either.”

Not Just a Flying Job

How does a pilot, maintenance technician or a dispatcher prepare for a second career behind a management desk? The East Coast manager said, “Many people were self-taught when they realized some of the new challenges they began to face.” Now formal training is available, and NBAA’s certified aviation manager (CAM) program is a good place to learn some of the basics of business, according to Jay Evans, the association’s director of professional development. He supports the notion that there’s an increasing expectation for aviation people to see their department as just another in the line of businesses at their company. “It’s important for people to understand the company mission and objectives but also to clearly understand the relationship between flight and the rest of the operation. The CAM core topics represent a giant job description for a flight department manager,” he said.

CAM subjects are organized into five broad categories: leadership, human resources, operations, technical and facilities services and business management. Evans said one of the CAM’s core principles is realizing that the most senior person is not necessarily going to make the best manager. The CAM final exam is intended to evaluate the knowledge and qualifications of entry-level practitioners in business aviation management. Gavigan, one of the earliest CAM graduates in 2005, was nudged by her boss to take the training. While she encourages others to follow her lead, her endorsement comes with a personal admission: “I think the CAM final was one of the hardest tests I ever sat for, harder than the work for my master’s degree. I didn’t pass the CAM the first time either. I did pass it on the second attempt, though.”

Both Dwyer brothers endorsed the NBAA’s CAM certification as a step in the right direction toward an aviation department manager’s position. Don Dwyer said, “CAM is like an MBA degree.” Additional formal education is, of course, another potential route to an aviation management career. Don Dwyer mentioned, “Many big flight departments are sending people for a week to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. But being exposed to a classroom principle doesn’t necessarily indicate a person is fluent in a topic, such as aircraft valuation.”

The East Coast manager said, “I predict you’ll see a lot more nonpilots running flight departments in the future because flying skills alone are not enough any longer. This is just not a flying job anymore.” Gavigan said even with the best education a management candidate also needs to understand the pulse of what’s happening day-to-day at the company headquarters to be successful. That means building solid relationships with people outside the flight department. Once a pilot, maintenance technician or dispatcher truly understands the work and the qualifications necessary to become an aviation department manager, NBAA’s Evans said, “The responsibility for recognizing the details of the situation and matching those up with their own capabilities rests with each employee. They’re the only ones who, in the end, can decide whether or not to take the appropriate action.”

Comments

In my experience, managers with a strong operational background that have worked to hone their corporate knowledge and communication skills, are the most well rounded and successful. My organization has hired many middle and upper managers with great corporate knowledge and managerial experience, but little to no operational experience; the result has been less than stellar.

Pilots within a flight department that show the potential and desire to take the step to management should be afforded the opportunity to develop personally and professionally. The company will be in a much better position if it can develop managers who have operational skills and experience, as well as the ability to manage and “to understand capital expenditures, life-cycle costs and financial projections, in addition to knowing how to adjust all of these for the time value of money.”

“Pilots set out with a dream to fly and avoid a desk whenever possible because they love flying airplanes. Then we put them behind a desk five days a week? That’s just not what they signed up for.” This is a very troubling statement, as the assumption seems to be that all pilots want to be travelling, working odd hours, and away from home all of their working lives. I’m sure there are many talented individuals (who happen to be pilots) who want a normal schedule with the possibility of being home on holidays and weekends. The reality is that goals and priorities change over time. A talented, single, twenty-something pilot that enters the industry for the joy of flying and seeing the world, will hopefully develop into more than just an employee who is “accurately loading an international flight plan into the FMS of a sophisticated glass airplane.”

“I think pilots are behind the curve in how to act like a corporate person as well. They spend their entire career honing a completely different set of skills from managers. Sure they can learn, but I don’t think it’s the dream job they signed up for.” Operational aviation professionals, whether pilots, mechanics, or air traffic controllers, spend a great deal of time adapting their skills to changing environments. A talented, well rounded operational professional will be able to develop the skill set to make the successful transition to management.

When our managers and leaders have “been there, and done that” operationally, the greater the buy in from the employees will be. When the time comes to ask your employees to make some sort of sacrifice for the company (spending the Holidays 7000 miles away from home, missing birthdays, etc), you have much more credibility than if you’ve never been in the situation you’re asking your people to accept. Operational experience is an equalizer.

hcier1's picture

The evolution of flight departments and their staffs naturally evolve. Aviators who embrace change and work to meet the challenges will perceiver and provide value along the way. We have come a long way from the days when only a very few and powerful people had jets. Today there are over 15,000 business aircraft - not simply because a wealthy person can afford one, but because the aircraft contribute value to a business.

Higher demands of business prowess on aviation staff leadership makes sense; not just to drive costs down, but to better convey value being provided to the business enterprise. This may sound dry and unappealing to an aviator who wants to continue flying but also be the aviation director making the big bucks. There are aviators who want to help their fields prosper by becoming CAMs, earning MBAs, and taking senior leader positions, even without flying the line.