Big salaries, signing bonuses, and a strong recruiting presence at aviation colleges have more new pilots than ever flocking to the major airlines, while private business aviation faces a challenging new reality.
Hiring at the major airlines is on track to outpace last year’s record pilot hiring, with almost 10,000 pilots hired by the major airlines year to date. According to Chief Advisor and Executive Editor at Future and Active Pilot Advisors (FAPA) Timothy Genc, the industry is on pace to hit 13,400 pilots hired by year-end. Genc added that the industry is still shy of being able to staff all of the aircraft currently parked.
Companies are still competing to attract talent with 19.7 percent more companies advertising their open positions and total jobs posted up 16.7 percent compared to 2022. Incentives are still at an all-time high and JSfirm.com is confirming relocation and sign-on bonuses up to $175,000 for pilots.
Ultra -low-cost carriers (ULC) have seen a decrease in hiring and training, according to FAPA. A memo from Spirit Airlines, which plans to merge with JetBlue, announced the company was suspending all hiring and new pilot and flight attendant training because of a disappointing third quarter and the expected grounding of dozens of Airbus aircraft over the next year for inspections of geared turbofan engines made by Pratt & Whitney.
FAPA also noted that Spirit Airlines is talking about offering voluntary leave for cabin crewmembers.
For some pilots, corporate aviation gig work is the answer. Owen Leipelt, a corporate pilot, enjoys the experience he gains getting to fly various types of aircraft to locations all over the world and recommends pilots interested in corporate aviation attend networking events like the National Business Aviation Association Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition to learn more about available career opportunities.
“Corporate aviation is all about networking,” Leipelt said. “Saying yes to every opportunity and putting yourself out there. It can be as lucrative as you make it with some incredible experiences you cannot get at the airlines! If you are looking to build time for the airlines, it can also be a great steppingstone gaining valuable experience outside the traffic pattern and up in the flight levels.”
Leipelt is not alone viewing business aviation as a "steppingstone”, and that has increased the pressure on fractional-ownership operator NetJets, amplifying the challenge of attracting and retaining pilot talent. Private and business aviation was once widely viewed as a career to keep until retirement, but that dynamic has shifted.
“Private and business aviation never used to be an entry-level jet job, but that’s exactly what it is right now because there aren’t as many pilots and the biggest thing that they can do to compete with that airline lifestyle is quality of life,” Genc said. “But for the person that absolutely wants to go to the majors or wants to go the jet route who does not want to be a flight instructor, some of these private and business aviation or cargo carriers are really attractive to them.”
Genc added that private and business operators need to be more proactive about attracting talent, like approaching colleges to recruit and showcasing why corporate flight departments and fractional ownership operations are a great place to work.
Director of Graduate Services at California Aeronautical University Raschel Grant said that only about 6 percent of the school's graduates over the past five years have taken jobs in business aviation. "The majority of our graduates are working for the airlines,” Grant said.
“I think we’re seeing so little movement towards business aviation because corporate opportunities are underrepresented,” Grant continued. “We’d love to be able to better promote these opportunities on campus and provide our students clear pathways to all sectors of aviation."
According to Sheryl Barden, president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, many charter companies are hiring lower-time pilots than they used to. Where business aviation jobs traditionally required 3,000 hours and an airline transport pilot certificate, “… now we’re looking at perhaps bringing people in younger. Not as a solution to the pilot shortage but more as a well-rounding for the flight department, keeping the flight department multi-generational. "Bringing in newer low-time pilots, according to Barden, means more work to make sure the newer pilot is successful—something that NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots (NJASAP), the union representing NetJets pilots, says NetJets, the largest fractional private business carrier, is struggling with.
Clare Carey, a pilot at NetJets and member of the union negotiating committee, said, “A huge problem that we’re facing right now is while they [NetJets] have chosen to lower the minimums in order to recruit, they have not updated their training footprint to better prepare these young aviators with low time for the high paced dynamic environment that is working for NetJets. And then on top of that, these low time pilots come here with the plan to earn their time and move on…”
NetJets provided a written statement in response to questions: “In the U.S., NetJets has hired more than 600 aviators this year alone. With plans to welcome additional pilots through the end of 2023, NetJets is on track to reach its established pilot hiring goal. Aviators who join NetJets remain with NetJets, with over 90 [percent] staying year after year and often referring their peers.”
Another trend in business aviation Barden mentioned is in pilot retention. Some companies are implementing retention initiatives like higher pay; retention bonuses; and long-term incentives like stock grants, equity, restricted stop options, and more.
NBAA‘s new compensation survey reported a 12-percent increase in pay for pilots and a 7.22-percent increase in overall business aviation positions from 2022 to 2023; pay for aviation managers who do not fly and senior flight attendants decreased. The survey also found “the average captain received long-term retention bonuses of around $27,000 per year.”
The NJASAP Negotiating Committee published a bargaining update to its membership in October that reported a negotiation breakdown. NJASAP President Pedro Leroux told AOPA in an email, “Obviously, NJASAP is exceedingly frustrated by the company’s refusal to make competitive adjustments like market-rate wages and quality of life to the current collective bargaining agreement. To assume a position that does absolutely nothing to position the Fractional to retain experienced aviators amid the most competitive environment for pilot labor in a generation—and whilst attempting to support a growth plan that would double the size of the fleet—is mystifying. Plainly stated, we view the company’s head-in-the-sand posture as a strategic mistake that compromises the brand’s continued status as the global leader in private air transportation.”
With salary negotiations at NetJets stalled, NJASAP told AOPA in an interview that the company has seen attrition rates nearly double, from around 4 percent to over 7 percent this year. NetJets did not directly address pilot retention rates in its written statement.
”With an unmatched scale and operations excellence, NetJets, a Berkshire Hathaway company, has resolute financial strength and stability," the company said. "NetJets is uniquely able to sustain ongoing responsible growth that supports its team members and elevates the travel experience of its customers.”
Conversely, Kenn Ricci, principal of Directional Aviation Capital, the parent company of fractional carrier Flexjet, told Robb Report, “It cost us $30 million to raise our pilots’ salaries. We’ll have to do that regularly to stay competitive in the marketplace.”