Involuntary Separation: Flight Department Shutdown!
- Erika Armstrong
Pilots learn early in their career how to handle engine shutdowns, but there is no checklist for when your flight department shuts down. It’s rare to see a pilot begin and end their career with one company, especially in Business Aviation, so the odds are that you will have either an unexpected change, or you will have to thoughtfully look for another flight department to find the right fit.
One Closes, Another Opens
Business aviation will always be sensitive to economic conditions. When the economy’s standard roller coaster ride spends too much time on the downhill side, flight departments are often the first expense on the chopping block. Even though flight departments can be more cost effective, if it’s publicly traded or there are board members involved, it’s often appearances that matter. No matter what the economic conditions are, there will always be companies simultaneously thriving and failing. When one flight department shuts down, another will be opening.
As of October 1, 2019, of the 220,000 aircraft registered in the U.S., there were 11,257 aircraft registered to Part 135 operators. Part 91 corporate flight departments are harder to count but with 99,880 commercial pilots in the U.S., there’s a good chance that you or someone you know has or will work for a flight department that either “restructures” or shuts down.
Ask a thousand pilots how to handle a layoff and you’ll get a thousand unique answers. Generally, how you handle the layoff is based on how much notice you have before the layoff. One of the best examples I can give is my own.
I had been flying (and working all positions in the office) for a Part 135 operator for six years. Captain on Citation 500 series and King Airs (90, 100, 200) flying air ambulance, hazmat cargo, and on-demand charter/passenger operations. Because we all flew air ambulance and night cargo runs in between charter flights, the schedule was chaotic and often dangerous. 0200 wakeup calls were the norm in the middle of a Minnesota blizzard.
I got a call out of the blue from a newer competitor at another nearby airport. They had their aircraft on a 135 certificate but were also trying out fractional ownership. They needed a captain on their Citation CE500 and First Officer on their Falcon 20. Both aircraft were old, but the pay was okay, and the schedule looked fantastic. The bonus was that I didn’t have to work in the office. Easy, straight forward schedule, and I wouldn’t have to hop between seven different aircraft models, just two. I wasn’t looking, but it felt like this might be the reason to change jobs.
They sent me to sim training on the Falcon (training contract required) and I was current on the Citation, so I was ready to go.
During the first few months I flew one or two trips per week. I thought I’d found the perfect flight department! At first, I loved getting paid to just sit and wait for the next flight. But then seven days would go by without a trip. Then, “the call”. Could I come in and clean the aircraft? Inside and out? Oh, and the lobby and lobby restrooms need cleaning. I said sure, no problem.
Then another “call” the next week. Could I come in and help with the phones, scheduling, and paperwork. Sure, I was more than willing, but I knew what was happening. The few flights I had in between office duties included dealing with maintenance issues and MELs that had been written up numerous times but signed off as “could not duplicate” when in fact, the issues were obvious and continuous. They were short two mechanics and the one they had just earned his A & P, but he also had a low salary. One of the owners dropped out of the deal and the other owners could hardly handle the expenses already. I could feel negative energy and desperation on the management level which trickled down to the other pilots, and once that first domino falls, the rest follow.
Less than a year at this new job and I knew the department was doomed. They were competing with other flight departments that had newer, faster equipment, a much better marketing budget, and owners who’d been in Business Aviation for a lot longer than this new startup flight department. I could see the writing on the wall, so I decided to be proactive and brushed the cobwebs off my resume.
At this point in my career, I had a network. I knew people and it’s the most important job security tool you can have. I started asking around and I got an offer just a few weeks after sending out resumes. I was offered a Citation 550 captain slot for a Part 135 at KMSP (they had seven airplanes but were adamant that pilots only fly one type). Just one airplane! Woohoo. I jumped at the chance. Because they flew International, I had just completed long sim training and “in the pool” survival training when I got one of those “calls”.
When I heard the voice of the flight department manager, I grabbed pen and paper because I thought I was getting assigned my first trip details. Instead, I heard, “Erika? I cannot tell you how sorry I am about this. You might want to take a deep breath. The owners just got a fantastic offer on their Citation and have decided to sell it. It’s going to Florida and the buyer already has a crew ready to go…”
Okay, where are the hidden cameras, this has got to be a joke? I hadn’t even flown one trip and I was getting laid off!
I had left on good terms with all my previous employers, but I would not go back. Instead, I sent my resume to the airlines. I sent one in to Northwest Airlines (now Delta) and they pulled my resume to see if I’d be interested in flying their Part 121 supplemental aircraft (B727-200s) at Champion Air? Umm, yes!
I had not intended on leaving business aviation and I don’t think I would have if not for the long string of uncertainty, but looking back I’m thankful that I was forced to try it. I made captain by the time I was thirty-years old. The irony is that Northwest folded into Delta in 2008 and everyone in the Champion Air division was laid off. I came back to the Business Aviation world and this is where I’ll stay.
Signs of Doom
Every situation is unique, but the thread of concern, stress, and uncertainty binds the situations together. Often, pilots will see signs of hardship in the flight department:
- Maintenance and write-ups being deferred and not repaired.
- Pilots asked to do other jobs. Nothing wrong with helping, but when they aren’t filling positions because they’re using you, be wary.
- Downsizing of support staff.
- Less utilization of the aircraft.
- Plans for upgrades of items like avionics, interiors, paint jobs are postponed.
- Part 91 aircraft being moved to a Part 135 certificate.
- Change of executive leadership.
- If pilots think that department is closing, morale turns negative.
- External factors – company buyout or mergers. Company loses contracts.
- Merging companies that already have a flight department.
The Future Depends on the Past
Ask any Business Aviation pilot how they got their job and you’ll hear fascinating stories about being in the right place at the right time, or vice versa. Melissa Washburn had been with one flight department for 19 years flying King Airs (C90B, 350s) and Phenom 300s. “I had an inkling for over a year, but we kept hanging on to hope. Leading up to the layoff, morale was going downhill. When you’ve been transporting the same executives in your airplanes for almost two decades, they become like family.”
When asked about the days after the layoff, Melissa says, “Where you live affects how you look for another job. The options I had were limited and I seriously entertained the airlines, which would’ve allowed me to stay where I was. After much thought, I decided my heart was never with the airlines and I just couldn’t change those feelings, so I continued down the path of corporate. I didn’t want to move; however, I believe I was in a rut long before this corporate meltdown and was too stubborn to leave and try something new. The powers that be forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to move 4.5 hours away from my home and husband to find work and it took a year and a half to find. From the time I applied, to getting through m type rating, it was a four-month process. Nothing happens fast with any large company. This has been a huge exercise in patience!”
If you think you might be in line for the chopping block, here are some things to remember:
- Never burn a bridge. While the idea of quitting in some glorious way sounds appropriate, the aviation industry is a small world and reputations are remembered. It’s not worth it.
- The First Officer you have today might be the Chief Pilot you interview with in the future.
- Many Business Aviation jobs are attained through word of mouth. Keep your network healthy and attend those pilot geek gatherings. Go to NBAA meetings. You don’t realize how important they are until you remember you met a few Directors of Operations and Chief Pilots at aviation gatherings.
- Hire an aviation resume pro. Aviation is unique in what hiring managers look for on a resume, so seek out some professionals who specialize in pilot resumes.
- Be flexible. Take what you can get to keep you flying, current, and employed. You don’t have to look at it as your forever job, just a job to fly you to your dream job.
- Reach out. You’ll be surprised how many other pilots will help you if you ask for help. Get yourself on LinkedIn and start connecting with other pilots in your area.
- Don’t be reactive, be proactive. If you have an inkling that the department might shut down, embrace the idea and be ready. Your peers might think you’re a traitor, but they’ll be coming to you for help if it happens.
The most important thing to remember is that opportunities happen all the time in aviation, even in times of crisis. Getting through an emergency is what pilots do.
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If you want to share your opinion with Erika, she can be reached at Erika@aircrewacademy.com.
 www.faa.gov>licenses_certificates. 10/9/19.