When the original Midway Airlines closed its doors a few decades ago, they took away one of the best flying jobs I’d ever had up to that point. Luckily, the opportunity to fly right seat on a business jet appeared, though I knew next to nothing about business aviation at the time. The chief pilot was nice enough to give me a chance—despite my airline experience, he said. I thought he was kidding but soon learned the only thing the two flying jobs had in common was how the flight controls moved. As it turned out, the opportunity that chief gave me opened the door to an entirely different segment of the aviation world, one that I’ve been pretty much glued to ever since.
If becoming a professional pilot to you has meant only the airlines, consider the world of business aviation as a worthy alternative to Part 121 flying. If you’re new to the industry, the term “business aviation” refers to flying nearly anything that doesn’t involve the airlines or military. That could be a private corporation’s business jet or turboprop, a fractional company such as NetJets or PlaneSense, or flying for a Part 135 charter company. The variety of the fleet is vast, with some companies operating Boeing and Airbus aircraft in corporate configurations.
The latest news says the US airline industry is beginning to see light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel in terms of passenger demand. Meanwhile, many business-aviation flight crews have been busy while their airline counterparts sat idle. Sheryl Barden, president and CEO of API—the longest-running business-aviation employment company—says: “We’ve seen a whole host of new entrants into the business-aviation marketplace, chartered and fractional shares, as well as people who simply bought aircraft. People who never flew charter before have signed up with jet cards or bought fractional shares. Fractional and charter operations have really exploded, with those companies reporting their best year in a long time as companies try to keep their people off the airlines. Some aircraft owners who might have questioned the value of their aircraft before the pandemic have realized the value [of safe, clean travel] now.” Importantly, Barden says that “quite a few aircraft-management companies have taken on new airplanes and are scrambling to find the personnel to fly them. But they want the right pilots.”
With hundreds of airline pilots becoming available over the past year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, some might question Barden’s qualifying comment about the “right pilots.” Flight-deck crewmembers from the airline industry who decide business aviation might be a good alternative to hang their hats are often surprised that they aren’t necessarily welcomed with open arms when they apply for a position. In fact, Barden says: “It’s a terrible market right now for airline pilots who are out of work—unless they were recently a business-aviation pilot. Most organizations are going to shy away from them.”
The reason is that airline and bizav flying are created around two entirely different cultures. Airline pilots are used to having most of the flight-detail work handled for them by dispatchers, ground crew and flight attendants. After verifying the dispatch release that informs an airline captain of the passenger and fuel load, these pilots essentially climb aboard, turn left and close the door behind themselves until the trip is complete. If they need to become involved in some issue back in the cabin, it’s usually not good.
Pilots Are Not Created Equal
Business aviation, however, is a very personal flying experience for owners and their friends or business colleagues. That personalization makes working life very different for a business-aviation pilot, essentially demanding they become much more hands-on for every flight. Business-aviation pilots are responsible for just about everything during the flight, from checking the maintenance status of their bird to filing the flight plans, ordering the passenger catering, and readying the cabin for everyone. One of the pilots—in a two-person crew—is also assigned the task of loading passenger baggage in the appropriate area while keeping weight-and-balance limits in mind. Most business airplanes don’t use a flight attendant, so it’s the nonflying pilot who helps get the passengers settled and delivers the before-takeoff-and-landing safety briefing. In the event of an emergency, one of the pilots will be responsible for helping the people in back once they’re no longer needed up front. If the corporate aircraft is flown by a single pilot—say, an Embraer Phenom or Cessna Citation CJ series—that person typically covers all of those responsibilities.
Bizav pilots are usually pretty darn good at the customer-service details that make this kind of flying so personal and, hence, so valuable to the people who rely upon it. It’s common for a bizav pilot to know every passenger’s name and often the names of their kids or even their pets when they travel. That personal recognition also translates into the additional security link inherent in this kind of flying. So does this make them airborne limousine drivers? Perhaps. When an airline pilot comes knocking on a flight department’s door looking for work, they seldom understand any of this. They’re all probably good pilots, but they aren’t accustomed to the workload carried by pilots in business aviation.
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Barden says airline pilots are not actually banned from the cockpit of a Falcon, Gulfstream or Global. But companies worry that “as soon as an airline pilot gets a call to return to their original airline, they’ll simply up and leave.” That becomes a tremendous liability for the company in terms of the dollars spent training a new business-aviation pilot. The final qualifier is that most corporate flight departments ask an airline pilot to resign their seniority number before giving them the final OK, an action that often turns into a deal breaker.
A clear understanding of that bizav/airline-pilot difference is absolutely critical to success in the business-aviation world because business aviation has plenty to offer the pilot who chooses that side for their career. A business-aviation job pays well, often on par with the major airlines. Salaries in the regional airlines—while much improved over the past five years—are still considerably less than what a business-aviation pilot might be offered. A good corporate job will include all the traditional items such as health insurance, a solid 401(k) retirement plan and top-notch training opportunities.
Flying the Line
Another major difference between the two kinds of flying appears in the scheduling regime. An airline pilot bids a new line of flying each month that details exactly which destinations the pilot will head to, including overnights and days off, making it pretty simple for an airline pilot to account for nearly every minute of their time a month in advance. Most airline pilots love this predictability.
Pilots who choose business aviation look at the world a bit differently. They usually dislike the relative consistency of an airline schedule that might bring them to the same city many times in a given month. A business-aviation schedule focuses on the company that operates the airplanes in the fleet. If it’s a manufacturing company that works with customers or satellite plants in cities around the world, those will be the destinations a business crew is likely see during the course of a month. Bizav crews operate between city pairs the airlines don’t even serve. Think variety when it comes to a business-aviation pilot’s schedule. That doesn’t mean these pilots have no schedule—far from it. Quality-of-life issues are front and center these days because corporations want to retain the pilots they’ve invested in and come to trust.
A business airplane is seldom based at a major-airline-hub airport. Instead, they might choose White Plains (KHPN), New York, if they’re based around New York City; Chicago Executive (KPWK) or DuPage Airport (KDPA) if they’re based in the Windy City; or perhaps Addison (KADS), Texas, or Dallas Executive (KRBD) around the Dallas area. These GA airport bases also help promote another of business aviation’s selling points: saving time. Business-aviation pilots don’t want to find themselves No. 8 in line to depart from Dallas-Fort Worth International (KDFW) or JFK International (KJFK).
Another important element of the business-aviation world is that while many companies want to hire pilots who hold an airline transport pilot certificate, there are many to whom that is not a hard requirement. So, is there a starting place for lower-time pilots in business aviation? Absolutely. I spoke to George Antoniadis, CEO of PlaneSense—a fractional company based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—for a little insight into that company’s hiring process, because they accept applications from both commercial- and ATP-rated pilots.
Back in 1995, PlaneSense opened its fractional business with just a single Pilatus PC-12 turboprop. Today, that fleet has grown to 36 PC-12s, as well as five new-generation PC-24 jets. Because the company flies nearly everywhere in North America and the Caribbean, they have learned the importance of operating multiple bases to make pilot retention easier. PlaneSense now operates from 32 bases around the US.
In order to join the 200-plus pilots already at PlaneSense, applicants must possess either a commercial or ATP certificate and have logged at least 750 hours in fixed-wing aircraft. The most highly qualified PlaneSense candidates possess 1,000 hours of fixed-wing time, a CFI-I and at least 75 hours of instrument time.
Antoniadis said: “We do all our hiring ourselves. We evaluate all the résumés we receive ourselves and then decide who we want to invite for further interviews. When somebody is hired, we also do all our initial training in-house. We have a very active and expensive training function and developed the syllabi for the PC-12 and the PC-24. My belief is that you have to invest in extremely high-quality training in order to get high-quality people.”
PlaneSense primarily operates as a Part 91K fractional company, but it does offer some flights to Part 135 standards. At the airlines, every upgrade is based on the almighty seniority number. Antoniadis proudly proclaims that at PlaneSense, “upgrades are based on merit, not simply seniority. But our pilots have to be people who really care about the quality of customer service. I speak to every one of our incoming classes and tell them they’re the face of the company.” In other words, when the customers arrive for their flight, the cockpit crewmembers need to be able to think on their feet in a way that keeps passengers coming back, whether that’s a change to the catering, a first-time flyer feeling a tad ill, or a special request for the return flight home that same day.
This story appeared in the 2021 Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine