Greener grass on the other side of the airport


Erika Armstrong, director of instructional design at Advanced Aircrew Academy, explores the issues surrounding business aviation pilot retention

You’ve thought about it.

You’ve looked across the airport and seen the hustle and bustle of all those shiny airliners at the gate and you wonder what their day might be like.

You’ve also looked across the ramp at the other flight crews and wondered if their flight coordinator just told them they must stay at the airport for a few more hours at the end of their seven-days-on to see if they can fill the empty leg back… since your flight coordinator just did.

You’ve got the hours, type ratings and experience. As those categories grow in your logbook, so does your power to move to a different flight department or start eyeing the majors. The grass always looks greener from the other side of the airport.

You thought the solution would be difficult?

The irony of pilot retention is that each individual pilot solution is so simple. Each pilot has their own solution.

Too often, larger business aviation flight departments (both Part 91 and 135) stack their management top heavy with a team of high-salary business managers (non-pilots) who claim they will find the solution when in fact, if the company had just given the pilots crew meals on long days or early morning departures (even at home base), the atmosphere would be less hostile. You can buy a lot of pilot happiness with an ‘Aviation Consultant’ salary.

There is a tone to a flight department and managers need to listen. You can cover it with louder music, but the off-key notes will eventually ruin the opera. Is there a common disgruntlement? Are pilots fighting flight coordination? Maintenance? Management decisions? Have they reached that passive aggressive attitude when the pilots throw up their hands and say, “Fine, I’m just here to fly the plane. You figure out the rest”. We all know that being a business aviation pilot means that to complete the mission, you must work outside your job description. It’s part of the job description.

In complex business environments, it’s management’s responsibility to make the arduous effort to ask each pilot what they can do to make their job gratifying, from the very beginning.

Flight departments must be as transparent as the airlines. If you’re going to fly a pilot 22 days/month, that’s fine, there is a pilot out there who wants to do that. But the person who wants to do that is probably building hours to move on! Be logical in what you’re asking to do because you might just get it. Even if you have them sign a training contract, at the end, they’re on their way and you start over again. Maybe that’s how you want to set up your business model. There is a method to make it all work, but you must understand the correlation between the two and rebalance the budget.

The ‘anonymous’ pilot surveys that arrive in pilot’s email inboxes say they are anonymous. Yeah, right. You’re not going to get your answers there. As uncomfortable as it might be, the best solution is to grab a couple of flight crews at a time, buy them lunch when they’re in for recurrent training, and ask them point blank what you can do to make their flying life better.

The pilot herd speaks louder since most pilots are introverts at heart and are uncomfortable looking the boss in the eye and complaining. But, get a few pilots together and have a thoughtful conversation that feeds off the idea of others, and you now have a productive conversation. You might just find that the simple luxury of having a rental car, even if it’s just a 24-hour stay, makes your pilots smile. If they demand something unreasonable, give them the P & L statement and ask them to balance it.

Fluid dynamics = happy pilots

Think of pilot happiness like fluid dynamics. The solution to a fluid dynamics problem involves calculations of:

Various properties = Experience of the pilot

Flow velocity = How fast can they reach the hanging carrot. Is it time for captain upgrade or switch to heavier iron?

Pressure = Work/life balance scale. Are you working them too hard? Are they sitting around wondering if they still have a job?

Temperature = How does your flight department feel? What is the temperature to others outside your company? Are you posting jobs and no one is applying?

Emphasis on the fluid. It is constantly flowing to the path of least resistance. When the pressure is too much and sustained for too long, the flood gate will open and it’s hard to herd pilots back into the corral once they start running.

Give an inch, take a mile

Ah yes, the prima donna pilot. Give them everything they ask for and they still snarl, snap, and drool. It’s never enough. Often, they spread their self-importance to the rest of the flight department and the next thing you know, you have a rabid flight department. With the shortage of qualified pilots, you may think you need to retain this person, but ‘protagonist pilots’ with an inflated view of their own importance will infect the herd.

Unfortunately, these pilots can be hard to filter in the hiring phase. Often, they do have a lot of experience, and are often excellent stick and rudder pilots, but they failed out of ‘Captain Charm School’. They teach their co-pilots to do the same. Newbies can’t help but be influenced by their captain mentors, and they might just think that’s how it’s done. They teach their new pilots to have an ‘us versus them’ attitude. Everything is a battle. Someone must lose.

Protagonist pilots directly affect safety, which is the dichotomy. The industry needs pilots with a variety of experience and great, raw pilot skills. Those who can use automation but won’t bat an eye to turn it off. But in a crew environment, emotional intelligence can be even more important than experience.

Peripheral vision

There are connections to company happiness and safety that you would never think to see.

The lowest paid people in most flight departments are mostly seen in your peripheral vision. It’s those young, minimum wage happy customer service representatives and flight coordinators that can bring your business to its knees.

People in these roles are sometimes pilot wannabes so can’t imagine why you’re ticked off that you’re being asked to add one more day to your trip. Most people have no idea what goes on in the day of a business aviation pilot, they can’t know, so you need to teach them the default behavior. Respect.

Pilots are a stubborn bunch. Get a rude, disrespectful flight coordinator working in the company and you’ll see pilots dig in with their heels and make every flight an unenjoyable experience for their passengers by default. Have a mechanic that rolls their eyes as they write ‘could not duplicate’? You’ll see lots of grounding items being written up.

Pilots, it goes both ways. You need to give that respect back whether you like it or not. Mechanics can work magic, but it took them years to learn the potion. They can communicate with your mechanical steed and understand what it needs when no one else can. Customer service and flight coordination is intricate, stressful and demanding (plus, they sit in an office for eight hours a day!). Software like FOS has layers and variables on par with String theory – it’s amazing that the majority of flights go perfectly. Yes, you’re always going to have an occasional screwed up eApis, catering order, passenger request issue, just like the variables in your job.

The point of the ‘aviation village’ and all the people in your peripheral vision is that when each person is doing their job, the inevitable variables are pounded down like whack-a-mole and everyone enjoys the challenge because you all win the game in the end (hint: bonus checks?).

The major issue

According to the NBAA, 43% of pilots leave business aviation for the airlines.

For many pilots, their intention has always been to be an airline pilot, so being in business aviation is just a means to the end. These pilots fill a valuable niche, so use them wisely. Poaching between flight departments can also happen because operators are losing people to the airlines. The vortex into the airlines pulls in sequential weakness. If one is pulled into the majors, it leaves an empty space which can pull a pilot from your department to the void; not necessarily because it’s any better, it’s just there. Don’t give them a reason to let go of the hold they have on your flight department. Give them a reason to hold on for at least another training cycle.

Greener grass is actually artificial turf

Unfortunately, disillusion with the aviation industry can still be found at the majors.

For too many years, pilots have literally sacrificed everything they have to be a pilot, only to find that the glamorous life at the majors was only an illusion. Yes, the paycheck is bigger, but who cares if you have been merged into a giant pilot list looking at 12-years before you can upgrade. Commuting now adds six travel days per month to what was once a cushy schedule. Crew scheduling is worse than your worst flight coordinator at the charter company you were at and maintenance issues have made you a systems expert and MEL guru.

The most unexpected variable is that the dynamic of ‘flying’ an airplane changes. At the majors, you will be flying the same routes, to the same airports, to the same airport hotels, and what it means to be a pilot will be different. It can become a grind. What saves most pilots is the comradery, shared experience and professionalism of the industry (and the comfort of a nice paycheck).

In business aviation, the core spirit of aviation adventure shines a little brighter. You will often be exploring small towns and airports that an airliner just flies over. Your world is thousands of airports as opposed to the mostly major airports in the capital of each state. You will have to depend on your own abilities more often because to complete the mission, you must be creative while staying safe. The direct contact with the airplane, the passengers, and the destination is more intimate. During layovers, you actually spend time in a town, not just time inside of the crew bus, hotel room, and crew bus again.


No matter where you are or what you’re flying, make an effort to change your perspective enough to enjoy every second of it. These experiences will become a part of you and each challenge will make you a better pilot after you overcome it. There will come a time when you are no longer allowed to fly and all you’ll have are those lofty memories. The memories that will stand out are those that either challenged you or made you laugh, so do both.


About the author
From the front desk of an FBO to the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything aviation has to offer. She has 30 years of aviation experience as a Red Cross, air ambulance, cargo, corporate, charter on-demand and commercial airline captain. She is an aviation professor at MSU Denver, director of instructional design at Advanced Aircrew Academy and author of A Chick in the Cockpit. You can reach her at

This article was originally published here.

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