Whether your discussions come in the lobby of a well established FBO, en route to the fuel farm, or in the cockpit, the words “pilot shortage” are bound to be featured in your conversation. Those words have become synonymous with “epidemic” in the aviation industry. Business aviation is certainly not immune, as corporate pilots are beckoned to join the airlines, leading their flight departments to devote increasing funds and creativity to developing retention packages. Blockages in the pipeline appear to come from three elements: increasing competition in corporate flight department hiring and retention strategies; a growing deficit of flight instructors and qualified pilots; and the constant need to attract the next generation of aviators and maintainers.
Plenty of Underqualified Pilots
The term “shortage,” according to Don Haloburdo, senior vice president of flight services at Jet Aviation, oversimplifies the situation. He maintains that “there is not a pilot shortage, but rather a shortage of pilots who meet the current job requirements for positions that are available across the industry.” Haloburdo explained there are plenty of pilots listed on the FAA registry as certified, but those pilots do not necessarily match up with the open positions and associated requirements in business aviation.
“In business aviation, when we have a customer who buys a large-cabin aircraft, the expectation is that when the aircraft is delivered, they will have a crew and can take the aircraft anywhere that its operational capabilities were designed for. The owners are not of the mindset to take a less qualified pilot and feel comfortable that the pilot is the most qualified individual they can have flying their 50- to 70-million-dollar asset,” said Haloburdo.
While customers are willing to pay more to ensure they have a safe and qualified crew, Haloburdo said salaries do not solve the larger problem at hand. “If there are 25 jobs available, but only 20 people to fill them, it does not matter how much you pay them. You still have five open positions. It is getting to the point where we are shuffling different people across the industry into different jobs. As more and more airplanes are being delivered into the marketplace, pilot production at the right experience level is not keeping up,” he explained.
The current hiring process has become increasingly difficult for corporate flight departments as the threat of pilots leaving for the airlines remains rampant. According to a workforce retention study conducted by NBAA, pilots are leaving business aviation for the airlines for four reasons: predictability of schedule, compensation, retirement benefits, and job stability. “It costs more to hire people now. When people have folks who leave their organization, they suddenly begin to look at salaries. If they realize that they have not been keeping up with marketplace, then they may have a group of crewmembers who are paid under what the current market is calling for,” said Haloburdo.
Increasing salary costs are especially challenging for smaller businesses in the industry. “I think there is added pressure in our industry, because so much of it is small business. If you are a 30-something-year-old pilot and conduct an economic comparison for what you can make in business aviation versus what you can make working for a major airline right now, there is a disparity. If the overall economic situation is dramatically different, people will pick the path that will better serve their needs in the future,” said Haloburdo.
The standard hiring practices of the past appear to be dissolving as corporate flight departments struggle to fill open positions. “I think the days of simply posting positions, reviewing resumes, calling for interviews and expecting that by doing so you are hiring the most qualified people…is [not] where we are currently sitting,” said Haloburdo.
Corporate Flight Departments Get Creative
Staffing and recruiting efforts in business aviation are continuing to be challenged as flight departments become increasingly creative in their retention package offerings. GrandView Aviation, a private jet charter operator, recently announced a five-year retention package of up to $80,000 to attract highly qualified flight crews for its Phenom 300 fleet. According to GrandView, a signing bonus of $5,000 to $10,000 commensurate with the pilot’s experience will be paid upon completion of training and company onboarding. The company also has a retention bonus program that pays up to $60,000 after five years of service to the company.
Other operators are making similar offers. Keeping up with the competition, however, is not always achieved through retention packages and sign-on bonuses, as explained by Elaine Lapotosky, director of staffing operations at Jet Professionals. “People are trying to be as competitive as they can, but at some point, you just can’t compete at that level, so you have to be creative with what you offer,” said Lapotosky.
That creativity, she said, can sometimes be found through “really getting to know your employees and candidates. Sometimes people want to know they are more than a number. Value doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone. You can certainly throw a bunch of money at people, but that doesn’t always equal value to everybody.”
Candidates’ awareness of their importance in the current market has also provided recruiters with an added challenge of convincing them to change companies. “This is not a naïve market. This is a group of individuals who are professionals and understand their value in the market. They are interviewing the company as much as they are being interviewed. They know exactly what they are looking for and where their line in the sand is. Every check box needs to be marked for people to move,” said Lapotosky.
Five years ago, Lapotosky explained, the situation was much different, as people were more willing to have open discussions about new opportunities. “From the recruitment side, just finding qualified candidates interested in making the move has been more challenging. Never mind the fact that it is hard to find people because they are leaving for the commercial industry. People are fearful that the grass is not always greener on the other side.”
The pool of candidates is the same for staffing companies and “we can only separate ourselves by our customers and team members. We’re all struggling. There is not a conversation in this industry that doesn’t turn to staffing, the shortage, and how we can find and retain talent. This needs to continue to gain momentum and actually see some programs put in place to support the really good conversations that are happening. This is a grassroots effort and everyone needs to help the situation,” said Lapotosky.
Flight Schools Struggle To Retain CFIs
While often cited as a costly training requirement and direct contributor to the pilot shortage, the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate continues to be required for a pilot with a Part 121 airline and is recommended by the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations (CAPA) as the minimum standard for Part 135 operations. Capt. Lee Collins, president of CAPA, said the ATP requirement is not to blame for the shortage.
Collins explained the shortage the industry is facing now is a result of pilots who are retiring after being hired in the early 1980s when “the U.S. airline industry had the largest ever rate of growth in its history. We’re not having a shortage because of the ATP being in place. We need to solve the needs of the massive airline industry growth right now versus the big trough of people leaving because they’ve been in the industry for 30 years and are ageing out. Those two lines are heading in the wrong direction at the same time, and we’ve got to find a way to get more pilots.”
In an effort to address the issue, CAPA “went to the source. We went to the flight schools, the big academies, and the universities and asked them to tell us what was going on,” said Collins.
The overwhelming response from those institutions, according to Collins, came down to three key areas of need: better training aircraft, more instructors, and more pilot examiners.
“They said, ‘Please do not change the ATP requirement,’ because all of their instructors are students who are completing the program and [then] sticking around for about a year until they get enough time to go to the airlines. If you get rid of the [ATP] requirement that makes them stay here, then we won’t have any instructors. We are having to cap enrollment because there are not enough flight instructors—and aircraft fleets are ageing, and there are not enough Designated Pilot Examiners [DPEs] from the FAA. These three choke points are causing a slower throughput than what we need to meet the demand, none of which has to do with the ATP certificate,” said Collins.
Collins said students are often left waiting for a month or two at a time to take their check rides because of the need for more DPEs across the country. CAPA is continuing to ask flight schools how they can help to generate more instructors and is going to begin a pilot program that will reach out to retired military and airline pilots across the country to drive interest in mentoring opportunities. Additionally, Collins stressed the need to work with GAMA to develop newer, better, low-cost trainers that can be brought to market quickly to re-equip flight schools with better equipment.
“If people want to talk about what we can do to fix the problem, they need to stop focusing on getting rid of a rule from the FAA and start fixing things…and finding new ways to train new people how to fly and fill the cockpits,” said Collins.
Kenneth Byrnes, chairman of the flight training department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), echoed CAPA’s findings of a flight instructor deficit that would only be worsened if airline requirements were lowered. “If the rules change and all of a sudden you can go straight to the airlines with a commercial multi again, the supply will stop because most of the students will want to go straight to a jet after their primary training. I surveyed my group here and about half of them said they would not get their CFI if they could go straight to the airlines.”
Not gaining experience as a flight instructor, however, is something Byrnes sees as a detriment to a pilot. “They miss out working for us and the experience they gain as an instructor. The highest level of learning is to teach. It’s kind of like a finishing school for pilots. You have to have the knowledge, skills, certificates, and the ability to teach someone else how to acquire those things with the right demeanor and attitude. When you do that for a year and then go to the airlines, you are better for it,” said Byrnes.
At ERAU, high turnover of flight instructor staff has proven to be a turbulent problem. Byrnes explained, “it’s definitely not difficult for us to recruit flight instructors, because it’s a transient position that serves as a stepping stone to the regional airlines or corporate aviation. It’s not a destination career. I have more than 200 flight instructors at any given time, which creates a lot of training standardization. They come and work for us for about a year and then leave when they get their minimum requirements and move on to the next career step. We have about an 85 percent annual turnover rate of our CFI staff. We are definitely seeing that there is not a shortage of people, but an incredible amount of turnover and shortage at the upper end with CFIs and flight standards personnel.”
ERAU is not alone in dealing with tremendous turnover of flight instructors. “Where everybody is having the most difficulty is retaining flight instructors who are able to teach multi-engine and are able to teach future flight instructors how to be flight instructors. That is the choke point for us. Part 61 requires a person to hold a flight instructor certificate for two years before providing training to another initial flight instructor applicant. Last summer, we submitted an exemption request to the FAA from that requirement,” said Byrnes.
The Petition for Exemption submitted by ERAU seeks exemption from the requirements of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations CFR § 61.195(h)(2)(iii) in an effort to permit ERAU flight instructors who have held a flight instructor certificate for less than two years to be able to train flight instructor applicants. “The most critical piece of the pipeline, if you look at the industry as a whole, from the majors to the regionals, and even military and corporate aviation, is the pilots really come from two places. They come from flight training providers, which need instructors, or from the military. About three quarters of pilots need to come from the civilian side where the flight instructor workforce has to be viable. If there is a critical point right now with the pilot shortage, it is the flight instructor cadre in the nation. If we don’t have the instructors to train the next batch of students, then the faucet gets completely shut off,” said Byrnes.
The Next Generation of Aviators and Maintainers
While retaining qualified flight instructors may be a challenge, student interest at ERAU continues to rise. “There is definitely not a lack of interest in pilot professions at ERAU. Our student numbers are up and continue to climb because there are good paying jobs at the other end. It’s a viable career field with a good return on investment,” said Kenneth Byrnes, chairman of the flight training department ERAU.
Awareness of the aviation industry and trade career paths, such as becoming an aviation maintenance technician, is being instilled as early as the grade school level and is being promoted at aviation career fairs that target younger audiences.
Roxanne Ober, director of admissions and outreach at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, said, “We want to be appealing to middle school and high school students who want to be problem solvers, troubleshooters, and critical thinkers. That is what the aviation industry needs. I have seen our program change individuals’ lives, and the feedback we get from graduates is so rewarding. I heard a recruiter at the last career fair I attended say that now is the best time to get into this field.”