As an aviation recruiter, I’m often asked about compensation levels for pilots. A typical question is, “What do I have to pay for a mid-cabin pilot?” And I’ll respond with, “How long do you want this pilot to work for you?”
Traditionally, pilots have always been paid by the size of the aircraft—the heavier the iron, the more the compensation. And, conversely, the smaller the airplane, the smaller the pay.
But today, in our highly competitive world of experienced pilots, a mid-cabin pilot simply needs the training to fly that heavy iron. And as potential employees to those flying larger jets, they are extremely attractive.
So, I’ve been thinking for years: is it time to decouple the airplane size from compensation rates?
To help me answer this question, I reached out to Chris Broyhill of AirComp Calculator. In addition to being an ATP and having a Ph.D., Broyhill is an expert in aviation compensation data.
His short answer was, “Yes,” agreeing with me that the status quo dictates “the bigger the jet, the bigger the paycheck.” However, he added, “When an operator pays less than the market rate typically dictates, the organizations assume a lot of risk.”
I then asked, “Could a flight department get by with paying a pilot in the 50th to 75th percentile to fly a super-midsize jet?”
Again, he answered yes. But he cautioned that flight departments run the risk of losing pilots, be it to the airlines or to another business aviation operator that perhaps flies a bigger aircraft and pays more.
Further to the topic, Broyhill said that, typically, as you get into flying the bigger iron, you're flying international. And international flying experience requires a higher degree of expertise. So that also drives the higher salary component.
For Love or Money?
Here’s a relevant case that bears consideration. A Southwest U.S.-based flight department has decided to pay their pilots in the 90th percentile of the super-midsize range. They’ve made this decision because they think it's more important to keep their people than it is to align with the status-quo market compensation.
With this policy, they are competing head-to-head with the larger aircraft departments on their airfield and holding on to their people. And their pilots don’t have to be on the backside of the clock regularly, so it’s a win-win.
Broyhill went on to say that we have to be mindful that it’s a part of the job of business aviation managers and their compensation professionals to support employees’ love of this industry. To that end, we can't ask aviation pros to ignore financial common sense.
There is an argument in favor of the situation, though. It’s when a pilot reasons: “I’ve got X amount left in my earning life and I’m fairly comfortable where I am, so I have to factor that in. Maybe I'd be making more at the airlines, but I love this job.” And so they stay because it fits.
That loyalty works well, until, for whatever reason, it’s time to hire, and the organization can’t attract talent because its compensation has fallen too far behind the curve.
A Line in the Sand
It’s very likely that nearly every aviation manager has made a business case to their compensation professional that illustrates what the industry is paying pilots and the costs to replace them.
When those well-thought-out cases hit a line in the sand, however, a vicious cycle can begin. Hiring criteria change, and the job becomes a stepping-stone for the new pilot.
Five- and six-figure investments are made in new type ratings—if you can even get a class. And, within a few years, the pilot moves on in order to move up again. Contractors need to be brought in to fill the gap, hiring starts all over again, and that’s followed by another investment in a type rating.
And all those costs are a part of the deal. The bottom line is that by trying to control salary and bonus costs, you’re likely accepting a lot of risk with a low ROI.
Those who are flying midsize jets with early to mid-career pilots, consider them “at-risk” employees.
After all, they can easily be recruited by another operation and upgrade to a bigger jet, get their type rating at no expense to them, and potentially get a higher salary. They might not make much more right away, especially in the case of the airlines, but over time the bigger the aircraft, the more salary they’ll command.
Broyhill likens the aviation industry to a polarized voting bloc. “On the one hand, you've got the people that, no matter what, are probably never going to go to the airlines,” he explained. “The thought of that repels them. And, on the flip side, you've got the people who are going to lean toward the airlines regardless of the situation. In between them, you’ve got all the undecided voters.”
Clearly, it’s up to us to reach out to those undecided and do what we can to keep our business aviation pilots content. It’s our job to try and stabilize turnover in our operations. Decoupling the size of the aircraft from compensation could be one of the steps toward that goal.
Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and NBAA’s advisory council.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.