Business Aviation Has a Caregiving Problem

 - March 3, 2020, 10:27 AM

Unlike the seniority-based structure of the airline industry, business aviation pilots are able to move from one company to the next with relative ease. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see competitive incentive perks used as retention tools. From bonuses to tuition reimbursement—even gym memberships—these benefit packages are aimed at recruiting and retaining top talent. In the balancing game of career fulfillment vs. quality-of-life, are these handouts enough to keep business aviation pilots from transferring to the airlines? Or do the airlines hold the winning card? Providing better support for business aviation pilots' caregiver obligations could be an ace in the hole for our industry. And there is a pathway to get there.

When we compare the percentage of female student pilots (13 percent) to airline transport pilots (4.3 percent), a negative trend reveals that 67 percent of these women aren’t making it to the top rung of the pilot career ladder. One might assume that time would remedy this destructive trend, yet four decades have proven that the statistic remains relatively static. Understanding the exodus of female pilots across the industry may be the key to understanding why business aviation continues to lose pilots for the greener pastures—or bluer skies—of the airlines.

I surveyed 100 female pilots, asking them to identify a singular policy initiative that would reverse this trend. Fifty-five percent said that “better schedule predictability” would keep more women in aviation. Caregiving, whether it’s for a child, an aging parent, or for oneself, requires predictable days off. Some women explained that they knew of fellow female pilots—or that they, themselves—navigated the caregiving vs. unpredictable schedule predicament by deferring career advancement, bypassing a captain upgrade, leaving business aviation for the airlines, or by never having kids at all. Schedule predictability and caregiving responsibilities are not solely a gender issue, however.

Nationwide, slightly more than 50 percent of millennial dads say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in their lives (up from 42 percent of Gen X dads). More and more dads are opting out of careers in favor of caregiving responsibilities.  Millennial dads are now twice as likely to be the primary caregiver than previous generations. Over the past few decades, a family with two working caregivers has become the norm.

To meet this demand, other industries have adopted family-friendly initiatives. Campbell Soup Company and Patagonia offer in-house child daycare, while Netflix offers unlimited paid time off (as long as employees meet their work responsibilities). Twenty percent of AT&T’s employees work from home, and Microsoft found that a four-day workweek results in a 40 percent increase in productivity. Large companies recognize employees' needs for caregiving responsibilities and have adapted their policies to meet this growing trend. While business aviation may not be able to offer all of these initiatives, it behooves the industry to take note of the zeitgeist of the modern working class.

I interviewed dozens of pilots who explained that the nature of business aviation has been difficult on family life and that their successes could not have been possible without their partners' taking on the primary caregiving responsibilities. One millennial chief pilot explained why his wife decided to stay at home when they had kids: “As a result of my career moving us twice, schedule, and workload, she had to leave various positions. It became clear to us that the best solution was to have her at home, especially with young children.” He remarked that “these decisions really are personal preferences” and believed that it is possible to have two working spouses as long as you have a “strong home support network.”

A Gen Xer dad, manager, and senior captain substantiated this trend by explaining that his schedule was “too unpredictable and inconsistent to contribute to daily caregiving in a meaningful way.” It was a family decision to put his wife’s career on “pause” when they had a child. This problem is not gender-specific.

I am a captain on a business jet and a mom of two young girls. For me to have this career, my husband, also a pilot, gave up a traditional flying role to become the lead parent for our kids. He explained, “Business aviation has a volatile schedule and it's too unreliable for us both to operate in that facet of aviation.” The trend reveals a depressing piece of advice: no matter your gender, if you want to have a family and succeed in business aviation, you better marry someone willing to modify their professional goals for yours.

But due to an unwelcome trend initiated by corporate pilots swapping private jets for airlines, we have watched business aviation pivot, ever so slightly, to compete for new talent. The National Business Aviation Association's compensation survey indicates many flight departments are increasing their pilots' pay. While this is certainly part of the solution, Aviation Personnel International, a recruiting company providing “people-based business aviation recruiting solutions,” explained that there’s more to offer than just more money. Now, the industry must address the elephant in the room—the “stable working hours” predicament.

The airlines offer a host of quality-of-life initiatives that provide schedule predictability and somewhat stable working hours. Most of these advantages can be narrowed down into two distinct benefits: planned days off and the ability to vary one’s workload.

Planned Days Off: The average American gets 104 non-vacation days off per year to make plans, attend birthday parties, run races, volunteer, and manage a variety of caregiving responsibilities. While the term is unfamiliar to many pilots, these days off are commonly referred to as “the weekend.” Airlines allow pilots to bid on their schedule and have some control over their days off for the upcoming month.

More often than not, business aviation pilots' days off are scheduled with little predictability, are assigned without input from the crewmember, or can be canceled last-minute. Occasionally, days off end up being retroactive—as in, "You didn’t work last Wednesday, so that was your day off." This type of scheduling doesn’t work for the average caregiver. Business aviation could adopt a process similar to the airlines' by allowing their pilots to request monthly secure days off. 

Utilization Variation: Each month, airline crewmembers bid on how much they want to work. If caregiving responsibilities increase, one could bid for a low-utilization workload (11 days, for example). If the crewmember wants to make a few extra dollars, they have the option to bid a high-utilization schedule (19 days, for example). While this type of monthly variation would be complicated to implement in a smaller flight department, the concept is viable on a quarterly, bi-yearly, or yearly schedule. Let’s say crewmember A has a young child or an aging parent resulting in the need to become the lead parent or primary caregiver for a period of time. Conversely, crewmember B is a recent empty-nester and would like to make a bit more money for a house renovation or a second honeymoon. Crewmember A could take a 10 percent reduction in workload while crewmember B could pick up the 10 percent workload. In this example, there is no extra financial expenditure from the flight department. 

Flight departments come in all shapes and sizes. Some have already implemented family-friendly initiatives like rotational schedules and the ability to bid secure days off.  But, we can do more. One’s success in business aviation should not be contingent on one’s lack of caregiving obligations. For too long our culture has inflated the importance of breadwinners while neglecting the value of caregivers. We do have the tools, it’s just a matter of action.

It’s your move, business aviation.