Turbine Pilot

Fractional Flying

December 1, 1999

A fast way into a new bizjet's cockpit

With 223 business jets in its active fleet and another 400 on order, NetJets is flying high. NetJets is the fractional ownership arm of Columbus, Ohio-based Executive Jet Aviation (EJA). In the NetJets program, customers buy ownership shares in airplanes ranging from Citation S/IIs to Gulfstream IVSPs. These shares - they can be as small as a one-eighth ownership - entitle owners to a predetermined number of hours' worth of use over a year. In addition to the cost of the share, fractional owners pay monthly management and other fixed fees. It's a great arrangement for those who need the flexibility and convenience that a private jet can offer, but can't afford to buy one of their own.

NetJets, along with Bombardier's FlexJet, Raytheon Travel Air, Cleveland-based Flight Options, and other smaller fractionals, has soared in popularity over the past couple of years. NetJets now has more than 750 pilots on staff, and these pilots make more than 145,000 flights per year and rack up about 188,000 flight hours in a year's time. Approximately 350 flights a month go to overseas destinations. On average, each pilot flies 75 hours a month, according to NetJets - in some of the newest, most powerful business jets available.

A day in the life

NetJet pilots and aircraft travel all over the world. A NetJets pilot's day begins with a telephone call: It's a Columbus-based dispatcher telling him or her of the assigned flight(s) of the day. Weather information is either faxed to the pilot or called up in the airplane via a datalinked Automated Flight Information Service (AFIS) provider. NetJets has eight staff meteorologists in Columbus, plus dispatchers and many other personnel who are tasked with scheduling and making flight arrangements particular to each individual flight. However, if a pilot thinks that the weather is too risky, he can call off the flight and there's no penalty. NetJets operates under FAR Part 91, but the company trains and flies using Part 135 rules. It uses a dual-release dispatching scheme whereby pilots double-check a dispatcher's weight-and-balance and weather information.

Flight crews are limited to a 14-hour duty day and no more than 10 flying hours a day. Then it's time for a 10-hour rest period, during which time no one from Columbus will call.

There's no typical flight for NetJets pilots. One day it could be several short hops, the next a transcontinental trip. The main thing is to check in when the trip is over, so that dispatchers in Columbus know where the airplane is located. This way, they can decide how to position it for the nearest upcoming customer. Of course, dispatchers can watch the flight's progress on flight-tracking software, as well.

Pilots are assigned to specific airplane types and they stick with a type until they upgrade to bigger, faster jets. Training is done through FlightSafety International, the world-renowned pilot training establishment.

NetJets pilots generally fly 17 days per month and work from one of four crew bases. These are Columbus, Ohio; Las Vegas, Nevada; Orlando, Florida; and Hartford, Connecticut. There's talk of adding more bases in other cities. Schedules can be arranged around a seven-days-on, seven-days-off routine that can be set up at least 60 days in advance. Under the seven-on, seven-off scheme, some pilots know their schedules for an entire year. There's also a 21-day flexible schedule.

Extra flying days beyond the 17-day mark are compensated at a time-and-one-half overtime rate. And get this: If you get home after midnight on the seventeenth day, you're paid an extra $1,000.

The fast track

NetJets pilots usually upgrade to captain status after only eight to 10 months of service. In the matter of a couple of years or so, it's entirely possible for a pilot to find himself the captain of a Citation X, Hawker 800XP, or Falcon 2000. On average, NetJets takes delivery of one new jet every six days, so as the fleet grows, so do opportunities.

This is great news for pilots wanting to build turbine time and prepare for an airline career. But aspirants should know that there's competition. For example, retired airline captains want-ing to stay in the left seat are applying for slots at NetJets in hopes of driving one of its G-IVs, Falcon 2000s, or Boeing Business Jets (24 are on order).

It used to be that new hires had to pay for their type ratings before NetJets would let them in the right seat. No more. As of November 1, 1999, NetJets picks up the cost of an initial type rating, plus any other type ratings thereafter - as long as the pilot has spent 24 months in a previously typed airplane.

First-year pilots average $41,000 per year in pay and, as is customary, the first year is spent in a probationary status. A captain with four years' time in service earns a base pay of about $58,000, but this can reach around $76,000 with overtime and extra days. The captain of a BBJ? NetJets says that they could make as much as $120,000 per year.

Getting on board

The company hires between 35 and 40 new pilots each month. Four groups of interviewers travel to various locales around the United States, where they interview candidates prescreened by FlightSafety. There's a background check, a simulator evaluation of flying skills ("with no tricks," said a NetJets official. "They usually just fly an ILS or do a holding pattern, those kinds of instrument work, but no emergencies"), and psychological and aptitude tests. Usually, 14 to 16 candidates are interviewed at each site.

To make the grade, prospective NetJets pilots have to have a special blend of pilot and people skills. "There's a challenge to finding good pilots who are also good service providers," said Charles Lynch, NetJets' director of marketing. "They have to deal with maintenance and FBO types and have to please our owners…they have to know that if they drop the ball, they have to get it [catch the error] before the owner notices."

"We key in almost as much on customer service potential as we do on pilot abilities," said Pryor Timmons, a NetJets instructor pilot and interview team leader. "Because if we can't provide customer service, we're out of business."

"Our pilots have to have humor and creativity," said another official. "So we pose things to them like, 'Your passenger/owner is a Pepsi distributor, but there's only Coca-Cola aboard, and it's midnight in a small town, and the 7-11 is closed. What'll you do?'" The best answers included: feeding every bit of change you can find into the FBO's Pepsi machine, and if that doesn't work, state that this flight is part of a marketing taste test of soft-drink products.

"We don't want attitude or ego," said Lynch.

Chuck Davis, a NetJets safety advisor and interviewer, listed some other career-killing interview blunders: a too-casual demeanor; no tie and/or sloppy clothes; a "what can you do for me" attitude; too much ego ("We had a guy in here who used the word I in every sentence, and we need team players," he said); and a sense that "the guy wants to go up front and close the door." For the latter types, Davis said, "We just give them America West's phone number."

Time and experience

To get in the door, pilots need at least 2,500 hours' total time, 500 hours of multiengine time, 250 hours of actual or simulated instrument time, an airline transport pilot certificate, and a first class medical certificate.

Elaborating further, Davis said NetJets would like to see some charter and freight experience, adding jokingly, "We'd like to see them scared to hell in someone else's equipment first."

Kidding aside, a career as a pilot in a fractional ownership firm offers the kinds of advantages that simply weren't available a few short years ago. For the highly motivated, it can mean a left seat in a large, intercontinental business jet in minimal time. All it takes is aptitude, competent pilot skills, an awareness of the importance of pleasing owners/customers/passengers, and a willingness to endure the occasional hardships that all working pilots must learn to bear.

Links to related Web sites can be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9912.shtml). E-mail the author at [email protected].