How Many Firefighters Do You Need If Your House Is on Fire?

By Don Henderson | VanAllen

We are routinely asked, “How many pilots should we have?”  “Do we have too many technicians?”  We answer these questions with one critical question: What are you trying to accomplish?

Business leaders tend to focus on FTE (full-time equivalent employees) count because in most businesses, FTE drives expense.  In a service industry, FTE expense may be 80% or more of all the expenses.  In business aviation, capital costs, fuel and maintenance may be as much as 75% of the expense, which means FTE expenses are less than 15%.  Focusing on 15% of the expense and impacting the utility of the aviation assets is like having a firehouse filled with 3 fire trucks and only two fire fighters on duty when your house is on fire.   There is a balance between fiscal prudence and operational capability.  Balanced staffing levels are defined by the intersection of four questions:

Are we staffing the Aviation Team for operational capability, or to function as a business unit?


Consider the level of business acumen that needs to be applied to a department that may operate in excess of $200 million in assets, have a direct impact on internal and external brand, as well as functioning as a tool of senior leadership strategy.  Should the Aviation Team be proactive

or reactionary?  Traditionally, the Aviation Leader has been a pilot- the leader’s flying duties are often impinged on their ability to engage the Aviation Team and the larger business entity.  If the Aviation Leader also functions as a scheduler or maintenance professional, the same question needs to be addressed; how much of their bandwidth needs to be dedicated to their technical skills vs. leading the Aviation Team?  If the Aviation Team is to operate as a business unit, then business practices of purchasing, accounting, training, and risk management will require other team members to dedicate their time to non-aviation duties.  We rarely find Aviation Team members who do not hold an ancillary responsibility.  When Aviation Teams are staffed for just operational capability, the ancillary duties often fall through the cracks because it is always more important to fly an aircraft from than to do a risk review of the last 12 months of hazard reports.  Critical non-flying duties may be overlooked if the department is not staffed as a business unit.

Do our staffing levels account for Best Practices fatigue management?


Healthy Aviation Leaders define a model “full-time pilot” or “full-time technician” schedule that accounts for maximum duty days, rest periods, consecutive work days, recovery periods, and other demands on an employee’s bandwidth.  They monitor overall department workload against a standard and adjust staffing levels to achieve their fatigue management targets.  How many maximum duty days is a “full time workload”?   What is the expectation for office duty? Professional development?  Each of these days needs to be accounted for when calculating the full capacity of an Aviation Professional.


A critical element of fatigue management is establishing a predictable quality of life for employees.  If you fail to staff adequately to provide predictable time off, employees will leave, and their departure will aggravate the quality of life issue for the remaining employees.  Many departments are providing hard time off in addition to corporate personal time off (vacation).  These hard days may be allocated under a seniority or other methods.   



Do we want to staff to maximize aviation asset availability or adjust utilization to meet a specific FTE model?


In other words, do you want to be limited by assets or by people?  Organizations may also choose to move between these two options based on the cultural or business needs.   Rarely, do we see organizations staff to operate aircraft at all times as Aviation Teams don’t need to be ‘firehouses” in the absolute definition of availability.  We recommend having a specific conversation with your own aircraft users that defines availability expectations and then staff to those expectations.  This “availability standard” should be reviewed periodically as business needs change.   A comparison of the holding costs of the assets vs. the cost of FTE should also be part of the evaluation.  The demands of an international operator wrapping large cabin aircraft around the world are fundamentally different than a domestic operator that primarily operates within 500 miles of their headquarters.



Are we willing to use contract pilots, technicians or schedulers?


Using “on-call employees” or “independent contractors” may have significant hidden risks, but also may provide elastic capacity for fluctuating demands.  The philosophical choice to use elastic capacity should be evaluated prior to building a staffing model that relies on independent contractors.  IS-BAO registered operators or those choosing to operate a World Class operation may struggle with the risks associated with a fungible workforce.  Additionally, individuals available in the marketplace under the current skills shortage may be an unrealistic expectation.


In today’s employment market where Aviation Professionals are in demand, missing the FTE calculation could significantly impact your ability to retain talent.   Investing significant capital in a new aircraft without sourcing the operation with the right people wastes the capital.  When you engage the Aviation Team or Management Company in a healthy definition of expectation and standards, you will realize the balance between utility and fiscal prudence.

To learn more, contact us today.

© 2020 The VanAllen Group, Inc.

All Rights Reserved