The “gig economy” is alive and well in business aviation. Case in point: the typical going day rates for contract pilots are between $1,800 and $3,500. And qualified Gulfstream G650 pilots can earn up to a whopping $4,500 per day.
What’s more, there are equally lucrative side-hustle opportunities for maintenance professionals, schedulers, and flight attendants.
With contractor rates at an all-time high, one can make a great living working full-time for their employer while earning extra income on their vacation days, hard days off, or paid time off (PTO). The challenge for these hardworking professionals is being rested and prepared when arriving back at their “day” job.
But working a side job is not for everyone. For example, those people who are already well compensated are often the last ones who want to work on their day off. And, for many, company policy prohibits employees from working for another aviation employer. This is often due to inherent risks to the company and to the contractor, which is a whole other topic!
That said, there are several aviation employers who permit their employees to work on the side, as long as it’s known in advance and that the employees return well-rested and prepared.
In particular, one corporate aviation leader I spoke with doesn’t see his team experiencing work-life balance issues and is okay with them earning extra cash. “Some of our pilots, flight attendants, and one of our techs do freelance work,” he explained. “Either our aircraft have to be flying [with other crewmembers to cover on-the-road injury or illness] or they have to take PTO. The intent is not to leave our internal customers without lift and to protect our dispatch function by always having enough people to crew our aircraft.”
Of course, this option can only be exercised with appropriate staffing, and the director realizes he’s lucky in that respect. “Our people understand that we come first, so they need to leave themselves a buffer between a contract flight and one of our flights,” he emphasized. “Things happen, and they need to expect the unexpected when it comes to aircraft breakdowns or airline cancellations to get home.”
In this case, he views the ability to contract as a competitive benefit. “Plus, I’m confident enough in our operation and how it works to give my staff the opportunity to see if the grass is greener on the other side,” he noted.
Read the Fine Print
Another director I spoke with whose company allows contracting has a policy where outside work isn’t authorized for a minimum of 24 hours prior to assigned on-call or standby duty periods. “Our colleagues would need to know they are off duty for a sufficient amount of time to preclude any negative impact,” he explained.
Additionally, his staff must receive written approval to contract and all activity must be reported monthly. It’s a policy that serves as a safeguard to gauge the potential fatigue impact on the operation.
He added, “We reserve the right to rescind the authorization as necessary, we prohibit any Part 135- or Part 121-related activities, and our colleagues are advised that we disclaim any responsibility for liability or expense arising out of service not directed by us.”
He agrees that contracting is a great gig but remains “focused on providing the quality of life that our colleagues desire, with compensation commensurate with their skill set. Our attention to the needs of our colleagues, along with maintaining a very busy schedule, strongly reduce the need and desire to perform outside work.”
On the flip side, many of the aviation leaders I surveyed told me that contracting is strictly prohibited in their operations. This is often to due concerns about liability.
One leader shared with me his company’s rationale, which is understandable. “We are paying people for their undivided attention to their career,” he said. This policy is clearly communicated to every employee and discussed during the hiring process.
He also shared that some pilots he’s encountered have an ironic view of the issue. “Many are of the mindset that they’re underpaid and work-life balance is at issue [which is why they want no part of ancillary duties as part of being in a Part 91 operation], yet a few of them want to fly contract on the side. They don’t see the disconnect.”
Recently, I’ve discovered a few flight departments that have found a creative win-win when it comes to contractors. The arrangement meets both the employers’ and the employees’ goals. These departments invite their own personnel to contract back to them on hard days off, rather than fly for someone else.
Let’s say, for example, that your pilot has three hard days off. They’re rested and rejuvenated on two days off and volunteers to fly for you as a paid contract pilot on the third day.
The advantage—the bonus—is that by hiring your own staff, you know up front that they’re going to be a seamless fit. You won’t have to deal with training them to your SOPs, culture issues, and so on. And you don't have the expense of a third-party employer.
This creatively addresses what most employees want: hard days off with an opportunity to earn an additional income should they choose to do so. It’s a win-win for all.
A Word of Caution
What doesn’t qualify as a win, in my book, is when a team member asks their employer for more time off to achieve “life balance” and then, because contracting is so lucrative now, they take that time to work for someone else—only to arrive back at work exhausted and burnt out. In this case, it’s likely that they’ll need even more PTO to achieve balance.
It points to the fact that, as a contractor, you can have your cake and eat it too, but you just can’t complain about being too full!
While cases such as these are few and far between, I think it’s the double-edged sword aviation leaders need to be mindful of. After all, the business aviation industry is a small world, and word will eventually get around if you’re not upfront about your extra-curricular work activities.
So a word of caution: if you’re one of the many who are “making hay while the sun shines,” just be sure your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed when it comes to your personal and professional responsibilities.
Most definitely, protect yourself by working through a respectable employer of record. That means a third-party company that has your back with worker’s compensation, withholdings, and other benefits. Trust me, from a liability perspective, your full-time employer will appreciate it, too.
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 its advisory council.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.