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Plane Talk

People: The “Right Stuff” of Business Aviation

Posted on: September 29th, 2012 by Pete Agur


“Our aircraft services allow us to extend our offices and our hours in ways that no other travel mode can.  And the people that provide those services are tremendously important to me and our company.  First and foremost, they are caretakers of our passengers’ safety.  Second, they are our representatives wherever they go and in whatever they do.  For those two reasons alone it is imperative that they be supremely competent in everything they do,” declared the CEO of a fast track Fortune 500 firm.


Competence is critical.  The NTSB’s records show that 70% of business aircraft accidents are caused by human error.  People are the weakest link in the safety chain.  Therefore, it truly is imperative that you hire, develop and keep the very best aviation professionals possible.


Performance Hierarchy

The London-based president of a global investment banking group is very clear about his expectations, “I want five things from our flight staff.  The first three are Safety, Safety and Safety.  The fourth is to serve us in a manner that is in keeping with the culture of our company and its business.  And finally, I will treasure every nickel they save making those things happen.”


His priorities of performance are clear and correct;

  1. Safety,
  2. Service, and then
  3. Efficiency.


Safety should never be compromised for service or cost savings.  Yet, it happens.  One executive recently rationalized his persistent pressure on his pilots to perform by saying, “Our crews are not suicidal.”  He could be dead right.  Never the less, numerous accidents have been attributed to crews pushing the limits in an effort to please the boss.  It is a matter of life and death that top management be very clear about the importance of “safety first” and that the department’s manager and members be empowered to say “no” when it is necessary.


Service is a uniquely challenging aspect of an aviation department’s deliverables.  “There are people who have the desire to give care and comfort to other people.  They have what I call a ‘Service Heart’.  Others don’t,” says Tom Davis, President of Michigan-based Triax Partners, a consulting firm to business aviation.  The ultimate question is, “Do you want your aviation department staff to simply be wrench turners and airplane drivers or are they to be your company’s ambassadors?”  Once the service hearts are in place it is important for them to perform to the style and custom that is comfortable for the company and its passengers.


Efficiency, or cost management, is tenuous territory.  The fixed costs of business aviation (capital, hangar, insurance, staff, etc.) are about three-fourths of the annual budget.  That budget can be as little as $750,000 for a turboprop or small jet or over $25 million for the mega-departments.  In any case, with only 25% of the monies within the department’s control, an aggressive cost cutting effort may yield only 10% of that 25%, or a net 2.5% of the entire budget.  For a turboprop or a small jet that is less than $20,000 per year.


With those kinds of cost management limitations it is easy to understand why some executives could mistakenly direct their efficiency efforts towards the staff side of the department.  By cutting headcount and skimping on training costs it might look like it is possible to save as much as $100,000 per year per pilot.  However, those savings could cause a reduction in safety.  Well rested crews, consistent teamwork and world class training are key safety links.  Short cuts raise your risks.


You should also strive for aviation department staff stability.  Unwanted turnover is treacherous to safety and service.  The costs of hiring and training new pilots or technicians are estimated to be about $100,000 per person.


Key Players

Speaking of people, there are three or four key players in the structure of your aviation department;

  • The executive to whom the aviation department reports,
  • The department manager,
  • The manager of maintenance and,
  • The lead flight attendant (for large cabin aircraft).


A senior executive is often the most effective reporting point for the aviation department.  We do not usually recommend reporting to the President or CEO.  It helps to have a point of appeal for difficult decisions.  Also, busy top executives rarely have the necessary time to deal with the administrative and managerial issues that are part of business aviation.


On the other hand, some companies bury the reporting point with a mid-level manager.  But mid-level managers often have a difficult time dealing with the career-opportunity decisions that can affect top executives.  The other landmine for mid-managers is it is typical for key passengers and flight crew members to develop strong relationships.  This creates fertile grounds for back channel communications that can be devastating to a department’s relationship with its boss.  The problem is much less pronounced if the reporting executive is a peer among the passengers.


Most aviation managers get their jobs by being good pilots or technicians who are in the right place at the right time.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of them have not been properly prepared to move into the chair of departmental responsibility.  This is understandable since most pilots and mechanics seek their chosen fields because they do not want to sit behind a desk.  Additionally, very little in the normal course of a pilot’s or technician’s career growth includes preparation for organizational leadership.  The result is that fewer than one-in-ten of these folks have the aptitude, knowledge and experience necessary to effectively run the business of an aviation department.  However, there is hope on the horizon.


“In the past there has been no industry-wide structure for aviation professionals and their employers to be assured that key people were properly prepared for the high responsibilities of managing the aviation department,” pointed a past National Business Aviation Association president.


“The NBAA has created a roadmap of sorts, for the development of aviation professionals; pilots, maintenance technicians, flight attendants and schedulers/dispatchers.  The Professional Development Program (PDP) is designed and structured to culminate in the accumulation of the needed skills, knowledge and experience for the participant to be recognized as a Certified Aviation Manager.  It is still important for the right person to be in the right place at the right time.  But now there is an effective way for those prospective managers to have the right preparation,” she concluded.


The next extremely important member of your aviation department is the maintenance manager.  This is likely the only position in the department that can be financially self supporting.  Not only can a good mechanic assure that the aircraft is in safe working order, he or she can save you tens of thousands of dollars, or more.  For instance, the normal maintenance days down that an aircraft requires is about 25-30 working days per year.  Some years it will be less (especially when the aircraft is young) and others more.  But a good technician can not only compress that schedule but also minimize its impact on the passengers’ trips.  This will reduce the lost opportunity of aircraft non-availability.  It will also reduce the need for expensive charter flights.  And a diligent maintenance manager can assure that any outsourced maintenance is of agreed upon quality, duration and cost, or better.


The best maintenance technicians keep terrific records.  When it comes time to sell your aircraft, its physical condition as well as the status of the maintenance logs will greatly influence the price you get.  Good aircraft condition and great books can make the difference of literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of your aircraft’s resale value.  The net effect is a great technician can more than pay for him or herself.


On the other hand, many passengers have a hard time understanding the full benefits of having a flight attendant on board.  But, If you have a large cabin aircraft (a Falcon 2000, Challenger or Gulfstream, etc.) your crew is not complete without a flight attendant.  A Pittsburgh-area executive is very clear about why a flight attendant is on all the company’s Challenger flights.  “It is amazing what value a well-trained flight attendant can add to a trip.  Certainly we are capable of serving our own meals and beverages.  But that is not the point.  The point is, with a flight attendant we have an extra set of trained hands and eyes that add to the quality and safety of the trip.”


His view is not shared by all top executives.  Many people are very uncomfortable with the cultural image of excess that having a flight attendant may project.  Others are concerned about the flight attendant’s interruption of their privacy and productivity.  And some may secretly be concerned about the whispered tales of inappropriate relations between a very few passengers and their flight attendants.


But, if you truly place a priority on safety none of these arguments hold water.  Yes, the likelihood of an aircraft accident is miniscule.  Even so, there are numerous opportunities for a flight attendant to provide safety assistance.  Consider how many hours your aircraft is in the air and how many passengers you carry.  The likelihood that a guest could have a heart event or choke during a trip is a serious concern.  Would any and all of your other passengers be able to help the victim?  If the victim was traveling alone, would the cockpit crew notice a problem in the cabin and be able to render timely aid?  Probably not.


By contrast, is the aircraft safe from your passengers?  During a recent conversation between the Chairman and CFO of a west coast Fortune 100 Company, the CFO challenged the value of having a flight attendant on board as a precaution against passenger-induced aircraft emergencies until the Chairman sheepishly admitted to having started a fire in their airplane’s microwave oven.  The bottom line is that a flight attendant is a safety crew member first and a service provider second.  If you are truly serious about assuring the highest levels of safety, a flight attendant is a required crew member on large cabin aircraft.  Even so, each frequent passenger should be required to attend a one-half day cabin safety course once each year.  A flight attendant can make the safety difference.  Maybe the trend of renaming them Cabins Safety Attendants should be promoted more vigorously.



So how much should you expect to pay these aviation professionals?  The following table is a snapshot based on various industry resources.  Much more complete information can be provided upon request.


Typical Second Quartile Annual Base Salaries


Turboprop/Small Jet         Mid-Sized Jet                    Large Jet

Manager – Flying




Line Captain




Maintenance Manager




Lead Flight Attendant





In closing, your aircraft services can allow you and your organization to extend your offices and your hours in ways that no other travel mode can.  These crucial results can be achieved with a minimum of hassle if you do have the right people doing the right things the right ways.

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