Editor’s Note: Advanced Aircrew Academy (AAA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) are collaborating on how best to gather the needs of business aviation, address the pilot shortage, and find innovative ways to provide solutions. Since each category of operations impacts the other, we will analyze the challenges of each category of operations. We began with FAR Part 91 Business Aviation Operations with Empty Cockpits: Corporate Flight Departments. This article addresses Part 135 Charter.
It is a rite of passage for many pilots; FAR Part 135 "on demand" charter which may include air ambulance flying. Pilots pass through this intense, demanding aviation sector gaining valuable hours and experience, and then many pilots take their freshly inked, swollen logbooks and hard earned knowledge to the airlines. Charter companies cringe when they hear that airlines are doing significant hiring again because they know their training budgets will be thrown out the window.
Compounding the issue is the decreasing number of resumés for each opening and a dwindling qualified pilot population, but ultimately, after listening to feedback from the industry, there are still plenty of pilots to go around. For now. The industry's concern is the trend. Each generation has been compounded by decline. There are approximately 242,000 less (at least certified private) pilots now than in 1980. It's been a constant decline but looking at the numbers by percentage, of those pilots, there are more pilots making a profession of it by obtaining their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.
As with everything else in life, money creates the pivot point for both the pilot and the industry. It drives both sides to choose a specific path. After years of watching training dollars go to the next operator or airline, charter companies are now finding new ways of convincing pilots to stay…or even come back from the airline world.
It is the heavy financial burden of most pilots to earn their initial ratings (private through CFI), while also earning a college degree, but it has been the financial burden of charter departments to take those pilots and train them to a higher level of aviation skills and knowledge. Turbine airplanes, type ratings, and full motion simulations are expensive, so after years of watching pilots come in with enthusiasm and leave with distain—along with the flight department’s training budget—charter companies have chosen two circular paths which have made it harder for pilots to leave. They have either created a web of keeping pilots trapped or an environment in which pilots want to stay.
The use of training contracts to help retain pilots are either loved or hated, depending on which side of the cockpit door you’re sitting on. You can't blame any company for wanting a return on investment for a $37,000 Falcon 900EX type rating. It is logical on both sides to request and sign a training contract. It's an aviation marriage with a prenuptial agreement. You agree to a certain time frame of employment in return for an expensive type rating. If you quit, that's fine, but you must pay off the remaining portion of the contract. For the pilot, they are given a type rating which adds to their permanent overall career value and for the company, they are given a highly-trained employee who is an added safety value and who also has a financial incentive to stay. More specifically, they have a financial burden if they quit.
The gray area comes into the recurrent training contracts. Here is where pilots shift positions and draw the line. Stephanie Conte, a GIV, SK76 contract pilot in New York explains. "I've signed several training contracts for different companies. I think there is a bit of logic behind having them in place to protect the owners or company from 'type‑rating collectors', but recently I've seen these training contracts for recurrent and I find this absurd. If companies insist on pilots signing for recurrent training, the pilots are essentially always under contract and can never leave without paying some sort of training bill. The company needs "current" pilots; therefore, training should be considered an operating expense of the company. I don't see the justification for recurrent training events."
The second method, the idea of creating an environment where pilots want to stay, is what will change the industry. We've heard from dozens of operators who are now using this philosophy, and they are still finding ways to do it economically. The result is a deep impact on the perception of what it means to be a pilot, which changes the mindset of the aviation industry as a whole. This trend towards a holistic approach to hiring and training pilots creates an atmosphere of mutual respect which results in a work life where pilots want to spend an entire career. The pride of this profession is what needs to be representative for the next generation of pilots, so our industry I searching for methods of accomplishing it.
With the 1500-hour rule implementation, it has significantly increased the gap between those who want to be pilots and those who will actually attain a pilot position. The focus in recent years has changed to quantity, not necessarily quality. Legislative decisions are often knee-jerk reactions to an aviation accident without a thorough investigation of the true cause of an accident. At a time when the industry was focusing on quality of hours, the laws changed, which simply demand more hours. The thought behind it is that with more hours in the cockpit comes valuable experience, and the industry is hoping that’s true without losing potentially great pilots due to the span of hours required.
Many in the industry believe that warming a pilot seat to only build hours doesn't necessarily make someone a better pilot. Craig Miller, CEO/President of Sky Partners, CA, one of the most acclaimed luxury private air carriers in the country, has seen the changes over the years. Craig explains, "Learning to fly is incredibly expensive. The military used to be the primary conduit for pilots. This is no longer the reality today. We have to think differently going forward if we want our industry to always have the pilot resources we need, and the quality of pilot we want. Young pilots should not feel that their only way to a good career is to just keep building hours. They often build those hours as an instructor or flying right seat with the regionals for years. Those are just hours and, perhaps, not the true measurement of the quality of pilot.
"At my company, we are looking for a very specific type of individual who possesses strong service-centric attributes, emotional maturity (not just age), and is grounded on what it means to be a charter pilot in an operation this is focused on delivering a truly remarkable experience for the client, not just flying a plane from point A to point B. We are very deliberate at hiring the person, not the qualification. Making that happen is not easy. It requires a very lengthy and enhanced interview process. Pilot retention is a function of fit. The position should be the right fit for the candidate, and the pilot candidate should be the right fit for the company. We need to change our thinking dramatically about how this happens. We need to stop doing what we have always done in the past and embrace a new model for training and hiring our future. There should be a joint task force that is focused on nothing but this issue. It should bring all the stakeholders, including the airlines, to legitimately access the problem, do some honest and authentic reflections, assimilate new and fresh ideas, engage in some abstract conceptualizing and create some experimental pilot (excuse the pun) programs. Right now, we are only talking about the problem."
The reason charter companies exist is because there are successful companies that can afford luxury charter. They're successful because they know how to manage their money properly, so charter and flight departments are expected to do the same. There is always a struggle to train pilots to the highest level of the profession while simultaneously keeping the pilot happy and the training budget within its limits. One method that flight departments are embracing is the innovation of using online curriculums to keep their pilots current so they don't have to pull pilots in for ground training during their days off. Advanced Aircrew Academy has responded to the industry's needs by sitting down with individual flight departments, reviewing their Operating Specification/General Operating Manuals for them, and building modules and curriculums to comply with their specific FAA Part 135 training requirements. Pilots can access the ground training at their leisure and even while sitting in an FBO waiting for their passengers to show up. The cost is minimal and it puts the pilots back in control of their own schedule, which is hard to do in the Part 135 "on demand" world. It's another innovative way of providing a higher level of pilot training for a minimal price.
As aviation flies towards the future focused on new technology and invention, we often forget we are accelerating out of the reach for many of our next generation pilots. The numbers speak for themselves. As each generation moves through their aviation careers and the global economy expands, bringing with it jobs that didn't exist a few years ago and providing more options to the next generation, it's important for our industry to not just patch the short-term issues, but to bolster the health of the entire industry. From the ag-plane to the A380 pilot, the industry needs to show the next generation how truly amazing it is to be a pilot.