The DNA of an Aviation Leader

By Don Henderson | VanAllen

A critical factor when determining whether your aviation team will add value to the larger organization is the quality of your aviation team leader.  Aviation teams led by an individual who lacks focus on the strategic mission of your company often create issues for the executive to whom aviation reports.  Simply promoting the “next senior pilot in line” into the director of aviation role may not be the healthiest option.


Competition for strong aviation leaders has increased significantly over the last 18 months.  In response to this competition, we have seen a significant increase in Director of Aviation compensation. Similar to other aviation positions, the high rate of compensation change is invalidating the traditional aviation surveys.  Larger public companies are struggling with the concept that these leaders’ compensation packages are approaching that of C-Suite executives.  We have recently observed aviation leader total compensation exceeding $400,000 to $500,000 per year.   According to, the average total compensation for a CFO is $516,469. Aviation leaders that are commanding this level of compensation have four common characteristics:

  • Strong business acumen skills.  They are perceived and communicate as business leaders, not aviation professionals.  Often, they have MBA’s from non-aviation-oriented universities.


  • Proven leadership within larger public companies.


  • High emotional intelligence.


  • Disciplined communication skills.


We have also observed a healthy shift in the pedigree of aviation leaders.  We are seeing individuals with backgrounds in scheduling or maintenance rise to the top aviation leadership position.  Often, these individuals bring strong team skills that pilots lack.  The Director of Aviation was traditionally promoted from the Chief Pilot position. However, sometimes the very thing that makes great pilots, makes poor aviation leaders.  Consider the skill sets of each aviation discipline:

Regardless of the aviation leader background, we recommend setting the new aviation leader up for success by providing professional development, an executive coach, as well as strong human resource and finance partners. 


We expect the competition for leadership talent to increase over the next 24 to 48 months.  Whether your aircraft team is internal or outsourced, the success of the operation hinges on the quality of the local leadership.  We suggest that aircraft owners consider the following when selecting their aviation team leader:


  • Focus on communication skills and business acumen rather than technical background.


  • Consider having a third-party assessment of the potential leader’s knowledge and skills.


  • Provide professional development for the leader; internal or outsourced.


  • Use a 360 process to monitor the effectiveness of the aviation leader.



Turnover is expensive in aviation.  Healthy aviation team leadership is critical to retaining talent in competitive times.

Contact VanAllen today to learn more. 

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