Flying for the Fractionals

The life of pilots who fly shared ownership business jets

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Gulfstream G250

Fractionals is the informal name for companies that operate shared ownership business jets, a service that is rapidly growing. An owner purchases a fraction, typically one-sixteenth or more, of an airplane and is entitled to fly a set amount of hours in that airplane or any of its companions in the fractional fleet. The fractional operator takes care of every aspect of operating the airplane from maintenance, insurance, fuel and crewing. The owner pays all fixed costs for his share of the airplane, plus the direct operating costs for the time he actually occupies the airplane. The fractional operators promise to pick up an owner with as little as four hours advance notice anywhere in the operating area and take him wherever he wants to go.

Is flying for a fractional a good career choice compared to flying for an airline? Well, with brand-new airplanes with the latest avionics, reasonable pay, schedules arranged well in advance and the variety and challenge of flying different passengers to different airports, what's not to like?

For the most part, pilots flying for the fractionals go to work in new airplanes that are the cream of the corporate crop. When the outstanding order book for Executive Jet Aviation's NetJets, the first and biggest fractional, is filled, the company's fleet will include new airplanes from virtually every manufacturer and range from Citation Encores to Gulfstreams to Boeing Business Jets. EJA has hundreds of jets on order, and the list keeps growing.

Flexjet, a shared ownership program owned by Bombardier, fields that company's full product line from the Lear 31A to the Global Express; Raytheon Travel Air sells shares in Hawkers, Beechjets, King Airs and Challengers for international flights. CitationShares, a regional but expanding fractional jointly owned by Cessna and TAG, is selling shares of Citation CJ1s, Bravos and Excels. And Flight Options flies a wide range of pre-owned business jets in its rapidly growing fractional fleet.

Once pilots are hired, the fractionals typically provide training to get them up to snuff and keep them there. Most have an in-house company indoctrination program and then send their pilots to FlightSafety International or SimuFlite to get typed on the airplanes they're assigned to fly and for recurrent training. NetJets has the luxury of a dedicated FlightSafety Training Center at its Columbus, Ohio, headquarters, which currently houses simulators for the Citation V Ultra and Citation X, with expansion plans for additional simulators. In addition to the FlightSafety training for its pilots, CitationShares holds in-house training courses in CPR, emergency evacuation training and customer service.

Pilots flying for fractionals will not see the high salaries that the few low-seniority-number airline captains pull down, but they can eventually expect to be paid a reasonable, livable wage. Some of the fractional programs pay pilots the same salary no matter which type of airplane they're flying; others base the pay on the airplane type. Flight Options, for example, pays a captain $4,800 per month to fly a Citation III and $8,333 per month to fly a Gulfstream G-IV. The second in command on the Citation III is paid $2,675 per month, while his counterpart on the Gulfstream pockets $5,000 per month.

At NetJets, first-year pilots are paid $29,000, but overtime brings the total close to $40,000. A fifth-year captain at NetJets is paid $5,082 per month. At Travel Air all pilots are hired in as SIC and are locked in the right seat for approximately one year. The starting pay is $32,000 (regardless of the aircraft type the pilot is hired to fly); first year PIC pay is $50,000, and the company pays overtime of $400 per day for all or part of a day pilots are on duty beyond the normal schedule. A captain flying jets for CitationShares will earn approximately $64,000.

At NetJets, first-year pilots are paid $29,000, but overtime brings the total close to $40,000. A fifth-year captain at NetJets is paid $5,082 per month. At Travel Air all pilots are hired in as SIC and are locked in the right seat for approximately one year. The starting pay is $32,000 (regardless of the aircraft type the pilot is hired to fly); first year PIC pay is $50,000, and the company pays overtime of $400 per day for all or part of a day pilots are on duty beyond the normal schedule. A captain flying jets for CitationShares will earn approximately $64,000.

Although the pay at the top of the salary scale isn't as good as that for the major airlines, flying for a fractional is flying the way many pilots feel it was meant to be-here, there, and everywhere. "Our brand of flying is addictive," Jim Peters, NetJets chief pilot, said. "It's definitely not point A to point B; it's a fun type of flying. It's not always La Guardia to Miami to Dallas to La Guardia to Miami. It's exciting and varied. There are all different types of challenges in the flying. We have some of the best pilots flying and the challenges keep them sharp."

A case in point: it's still dark at 0500 on a Monday morning when the NetJets crew of a Cessna Citation V Ultra reports to the airport at Charlotte, North Carolina, to begin their four-day tour of duty. The pilots have had their duty schedule for two months but had no idea exactly where they would fly until they got their schedule last evening. The day's itinerary shows them hopscotching the East Coast, either carrying different owners on each leg or repositioning the airplane for others who own shares in the airplane.

"The pilots we attract are professionals and they like the challenge of not flying a set schedule, they like that every day is different-different passengers, different destinations. They like to be problem solvers," said Bill Schultz, COO for CitationShares. Tim Gabriel, vice president of operations for Flexjet says, "Our pilots get to fly for six very interesting days never knowing where they'll be the next night. In six days they might get to see the U.S. and the world. They could have a -20? Canadian night and the next evening be 90? in the Bahamas. They're never bored."

Although fractional pilots do not know until the last minute where they are taking their airplanes, they do know their schedules well in advance. They know as much as a year in advance which days they'll have to work-not necessarily where they'll be flying-and can easily make family and personal plans around their duty days. In many traditional corporate flight departments, on the other hand, pilots typically carry a beeper and are often on call for last-minute schedule changes.

The duty schedules at the fractionals range from simple six-on/four-off, eight-on/seven-off, or seven-on/seven-off schedules to NetJets' system that offers pilots three types of quarterly schedules on which they can bid by seniority. In addition to a seven-on/seven-off schedule, NetJets pilots can bid on a 17-day schedule under which they would fly three or more tours that would total 17 days in a 30-day period, with none of the tours exceeding six days. The third option available to NetJets pilots is a 21-day flexible "volunteer" schedule under which the pilots carry a pager and are available on a standby basis for 21 days in a 30-day period. "Since the on-call schedule allows us to fill peaks and valleys in the schedule, the pilots who choose the on-call schedule are compensated for their flexibility with additional pay," Peters explained.

Flexjet's pilots flying Challengers get their basic schedule almost three months ahead of time; they don't know where they'll be flying, just when. "Each duty day when they shut down they're given a preliminary idea of the trips that are scheduled for the following day," explained Gabriel. "The schedule is optimized over the night and the next morning they get the schedule, but it's still subject to change."

For the moment, Challenger pilots fly a six-on/four-off duty schedule with no preference given for seniority, while Flexjet's Lear pilots, on the other hand, can bid three months out on a monthly schedule. But that's going to change when Flexjet finishes installing the Preferential Bid System, a software program that will allow pilots of all its fleets to bid on their schedules online. "The system will crunch their wish lists and satisfy 85 percent of the pilots' choices," Gabriel promised.

Another advantage that pilots with most of the fractionals enjoy is the freedom to choose where they want to live. Flight Options' crews are allowed to live anywhere in the lower 48 states, provided that they live near an airport that is serviced by at least three different airlines and that has a minimum of six outbound flights per day. Travel Air simply requires that its pilots live within one-and-a-half hours of a major airline airport (one commuter hop is allowed to get to the major hub).

Pilots flying for NetJets can choose to live near any one of 25 "gateway" airports. Pilots are required to be within three hours or 100 miles of their gateway airport by midnight of their first day of duty. Flexjet lets its pilots live anywhere they want, but they have to check in the night before their duty tour at one of three gateways: Dallas, Newark and West Palm/Fort Lauderdale. The gateway airports are connected with maintenance centers and new gateways are expected to eventually be opened on the West Coast and in Denver. CitationShares currently has two "domiciles" for its pilots, Orlando, Florida, and New York (Westchester Country Airport). "As our business continues to grow over the next five years we will evaluate the need for additional pilot domiciles," Schultz said. "Eventually, we hope to be able to eliminate the need to have domiciles at all."

The success of fractional ownership programs has contributed to the pilot hiring spree that's hastened the upward mobility of the professional pilot cadre. Many pilots on their career course to the left seat of an airliner are pausing-and even getting off the ladder-to fly with a fractional. Pilots clicking on the "career opportunities" or "employment" icons on the websites of several of the fractional operators can put their hat in the ring by e-mailing their r?sum? or filling in an employment application online. But although the fractionals are hiring many pilots, they have a lot to choose from and their minimum requirements for consideration are just that-only minimums.

The minimums range from Flight Options' requirement for 1,500 hours total time, 300 multiengine hours and 100 hours turbine time with a first class medical and the written for the ATP out of the way to the 3,500 hours total time, 1,500 hours multiengine time, 2,000 hours as pilot in command, 500 hours turbine time, 250 hours jet time, an ATP and first class medical required for pilots wanting to sign on with CitationShares in a captain's slot; requirements for second in command positions are proportionately less.

While Flight Options requirements seem less stringent, Eric Gerhard, the company's pilot recruiter said, "Competitive candidates usually possess at least 2,000 hours total and significant multiengine experience." There is no typical profile of the 380 pilots who fly Flight Options' 90 pre-owned airplanes. "We have a mix of military, retired airline, corporate, and freight pilots. Our average pilot possesses approximately 5,000 hours of total time and 3,000 hours of turbine experience." According to Gerhard, Flight Options is currently hiring approximately 10 pilots per month.

CitationShares hasn't had any recruiting problems. "We're having no problem getting people," Schultz said. "We've got a steady supply of about 2,500 r?sum?s that we're rotating through." NetJets, whose requirements fall in the middle of the range (2,500 hours total time, 500 hours multiengine time, 250 hours of instrument time and an ATP certificate), received about 8,000 r?sum?s last year and hired some 500 pilots. According to Peters, "Pilots come from just about every facet of aviation." Last year's hiring pace is expected to continue, Peters said.

The new airplanes, reasonable pay, advanced scheduling and varied routes make piloting for a fractional an appealing prospect. One trend at NetJets illustrates this; some pilots have left EJA to go to the majors but have returned to fractional flying. Dan Lucey, NetJets assistant chief pilot, remarked, "When you consider they were pretty high on the seniority list when they left and came back at the bottom, there's obviously something about our brand of flying that they find very, very attractive."