Business Aviation for Military Pilots (Part II): How's it going 5 Years Later?
Updated: Jun 10
Five years ago I made one of the biggest transitions of my life since leaving the piney flats of LA (lower Alabama) for the mountains of Colorado after high school. With my Air Force career concluding, I scrambled to wrap-up an airline transport rating and submit applications. I never planned on flying after the Air Force, but as I waited on the corner of unemployment and poor man's lane, commercial aviation starting looking pretty good. It was during my search for a path to steady, heady part 121 cheddar that a random drive in my new hometown threw me a changeup. You can read about that here. I ended up in the world of private aviation (part 135) where I have since remained. "So how's that work'in out for ya?," you might ask. Well, pull up a chair friend and I'll bring you up to speed.
I took a bit of liberty in my first article and boiled down relevant factors one might consider in private aviation into two categories: pay & quality of life. Unlike the airline industry, there is little public information on either of those because there are many small companies/aviation departments and they are quite literally privately owned. They aren't required to disclose financials and a host of other information that large, publicly traded companies do. Additionally, many companies require pilots to sign non-disclosure agreements when it comes to salary.
So how do pay and the raises you hope for (expect?) differ from what you'd see at a part 121 carrier? Airline pilot unions play newly ratified contracts at other airlines against their own company to ladder up pay & quality of life improvements. Imagine that playing out within a company andyou can see why non-disclosures are common in private aviation. Salaries are negotiated by the management company before they onboard a jet for a new client. The company then hires pilots in the context of the overall budget (maintenance, fuel, trip costs, crew salaries, etc.) for the airplane taking into account what the mix of owner and charter flying will look like. Some companies and flight departments operate solely with company personnel or the owner on board and therefore exclusively fly part 91. In that case all costs are borne by the aircraft owner (company or individual). Part 135 companies offer owners the ability to offset a portion of expense by bringing in charter revenue. But there's a funny phrase tossed around in private aviation. No matter how much you charter the jet out, in the end it's simply a tax-loss, time machine. It saves a lot of time for the owner by maximizing convenience and they'll write off the losses they take against personal or business profits. That context is important because it helps illuminate constraints that bound pay and benefits.
The source of revenue plays a big part in the difference between private aviation and the airlines. Pay raises negotiated at airlines as a share of company revenue from millions of passengers (or boxes) often fall on a single company or owner in private aviation. If that owner is Jeff Bezos or a profitable company there's a good chance they'll spring for the extra pay you think you have earned and deserve if they think they're getting good value. If you fly for an individual or company struggling to keep altitude during a recession you shouldn't expect a pay bump. In fact, you might begin looking for plan B employment since you could be in a tax-free, time machine of your own, with more time on your hands than you care for and no taxable income. Aside from NetJets, private aviation is not unionized. Most small companies don't have a pilots' contract to renegotiate every few years. At my company salaries are reviewed in a one-on-one meeting with your supervisor each year in conjunction with (but separate from) an annual performance appraisal. I think that's pretty common, but like all things business aviation, considerable variation exists. But enough beating around the bush, let's jump into the details. Michael Scott can set the tone for our discussion of salary and benefits.
Getting a good grip on what you'll make at the airlines is pretty straightforward. You can mosey over to Airline Pilot Central to find pay tables, fleet mix, and pilot hiring/retiring numbers for most airlines. On the private side there's generally a market price for pilots that depends on aircraft type, pilot experience, and location. There's no locality pay per se, but the NY, LA, & South Florida markets can easily pay 20 percent more for the same pilot in order to compete for and retain pilots in an expensive area. That being said, business aviation managers rely on a number of tools to assess the market. One is the annual National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA) salary survey. This yearly survey results in a table of low, medium, and high salary ranges based on aircraft and position (Captain, First Officer, Maintenance Manager, etc.). That survey is locked down tight behind a paywall and available to NBAA members that pay a handsome ransom only. More easily available survey results are shared annually by Professional Pilot magazine. I haven't seen the 2022 NBAA survey results, but the Professional Pilot magazine results seem to be on the management friendly side of the ledger. Based on my company and few others I have knowledge of, average salaries are generally higher. But that's just one input. Informally, managers gather information just like we do, seeking scuttlebutt from new hires and people leaving the company for positions with other outfits. So 5 years in, where does Captain pay on a large cabin private jet land as compared to say,...Delta?
The Delta pay scale above is from Airline Pilot Central. I can only speak to my situation, experience, and friends network in the Bombardier Global Express, a large cabin, long range jet. Gulfstream (G650, G700, G800) and Dassault (Falcon 8X, 10X) produce similar aircraft and aside from Airbus and Boeing Business Jets represent the top of the pay scales. I can say with confidence that most experienced Captains in these type jets at the 5 year mark find themselves somewhere on the year 5 Delta Captain pay scale. The biggest determinants of where they fall on that spectrum are experience, amount of flying required, specific aircraft (Global 7500 & Gulfstream G800 are tops), and locality. I fly out of a small city on the central coast of California. Pilots flying out of NYC, LA, or South Florida likely bring home more money. As I've shared in other articles, in private aviation pilot positions are salaried, not paid by the flight hour. It doesn't matter if you fly 5 hours in a month or 80, aside from per diem you'll get the same base pay. The only exception to the salaried amount is if you contract for additional flying. When you contract outside your company (you can do that) or inside your company (off assigned account) on days off you are paid a flat day rate by the company or contracting account. Day rates are market driven and vary based on the type of aircraft (bigger = higher rate) and what you want to accept (it's negotiable), but it'll just be a flat dollar amount for a 24-hour period. It doesn't matter if you fly 30 minutes or 11 hours, if you are contracting you'll get paid for each day if you fly or travel in conjunction with that flight anytime during a 24-hour period. Reimbursement for for hotel/travel/dining expenses flows separately from the day rate, so aside from taxes, you'll pocket your full day rate pay. Another thing to note about salaries and seniority is that they are fluid across companies; meaning that I could leave company A having worked there for 5 years and company B will likely meet or exceed my pay from day 1 if it's a like aircraft type and locality. Indeed that's generally how salaries slowly ratchet higher. It's common for pilots (especially young, mobile ones) to hop around laddering up on salary as they gain experience and move from small to medium to large cabin aircraft. There is also an airline effect that lifts pay. As airline salaries climb and syphon off experienced pilots, private aviation salaries generally climb in trail in order to compete for labor. So if you were wondering, I'm not an airline guy, but I have plenty of friends who are and I'm always rooting for those new setting the industry standard contracts to be approved because eventually some portion of those gains lift salaries in private aviation as a competition mechanism.
The other large component of pay includes financial benefits such as medical, 401K match, pensions, etc. In my opinion, this is the great differentiator. Knowledge outside my company is very limited in this space and there's considerable variation across private aviation, but it's tough to match or beat the benefits offered at the Majors. My company offers good health insurance (I still use Tricare for Life), a 401K program with match, company stock, cell phone reimbursement, and a few other things, but if you stack my benefits against those of a Major airline I'd get outrun faster than a Beagle at a Greyhound track. That's not to say I have poor benefits; I'm quite happy with them. But in the race to build the biggest pile of money before retirement, airlines are a better bet with many offering double digit company 401K matches. There are even still a few that offer profit sharing and/or a company pension, although I'm not sure how many and I don't think that's the norm.
Quality of Life (QoL)
In private aviation I compared QoL to a three-legged stool supporting you and your family. The three legs consist of: user demand, # of pilots/aircraft, and scheduling construct. Any of these legs being shorter or longer than the others can throw QoL out of balance and your ass into the clink with the family. If you want the full description of each aspect you can refer back to my previous piece. My experience 5 years in:
User Demand: When I started the job I floated around our Global fleet to gain experience and complete Captain upgrade. That took about 7 months. During that period I filled any available seat on a company Global. After that I settled onto an account that flies about 300 hours a year. Outside of that I fly about 50 contract hours (15-20 days) a year inside/outside our company. 350 hours a year comes out to about 30 a month. I've flown as few as 0 and as many as 70ish hours in a month. Aside from contracting day rate pay and hourly per diem, my monthly pay is fixed. Of my flying, about 100 hours is charter. Last year we picked up a lot of NetJets overflow work as a contractor when their demand exceeded capacity. I'd grab 5-7 hours a day with 2-3 legs.
# Pilots/Aircraft: My account originally started with 2 Captains and 1 First Officer. Now we're a 2 pilot account; Captain and First Officer. This involves more planning on my part to make sure I can cover trips when one of us is in training or on vacation. But 2 pilots with our workload seems to work fine for the most part. We pick up pretty big chunks of hours on international and transcontinental trips. Fewer legs make the load feel lighter to me. We rarely grind; picking up NetJets charter trips for 2-3 days in a row is the exception. In a perfect world I'd love another Captain so I could schedule bigger chunks of time off, but that comes at great expense and will likely never happen unless we program to for a significantly higher annual flying hour plan. 2 pilots plus occasional contract help is the right number for my account.
Scheduling Construct: When I started flying with the company I had a much shorter leash. I needed to be able to be at the airport within 90-mins unless I coordinated otherwise with dispatch. Once I was assigned a specific account that loosened a bit. I still coordinate time very far away with dispatch; an airline flight is a pretty good yardstick. But if my aircraft is not scheduled to fly I can make shorter trips work as long as I have pop-up ASAP requests covered with another Captain. We have 5 "hard days off" each month that I can drop over events I want to protect, but in all honesty, I'll shift them around planned flying unless it's something I really need to make. And in that case I'll schedule paid time off and coordinate with my account and company. The bottomline is that on a 2 pilot account in private aviation, when the account needs to fly you do everything you can to make sure you are flying. There is no such thing as a free pilot. If we use a contract pilot to fly when me or my partner is not available then he or she gets paid a day rate that expenses to the owner.
At this point you're probably thinking, "OK, that's useful info, but do you like it and would you pick the same path again." That's a very reasonable question and one I'll answer, but first I'll draw your attention back to the idea of best fit I've written about before. What may be the perfect job for you is an awful job for me. A job and schedule I love might make you nauseous. With that in mind, I'll share 3 things I have enjoyed the most and 3 things that I like least about my job as compared to other paths. And let me reiterate, I can only speak to my specific company and situation. Private aviation positions have virtually no homogeneity. To gain a 40,000 foot perspective you need some other data points if you are considering this aviation career path.
Pacing & rate of work. I've already mentioned that I fly about 350 hours per year. But a more important measure for QoL is nights away from home. I average about 7-8 per month. I've had some with 20+ and others at 0. But the legs flown to nights away ratio is to my liking. I really enjoy exploring locations where I have layovers and a min crew rest is the exception for me rather than the rule. I'll usually get to stay in a location for a couple of nights minimum. For Europe and other international trips that can stretch to over a week. Some pilots (and their families) prefer to be at home more and do short trips grinding out 3-5 legs a day. That's not me; I hate grinding and don't mind the idle time sitting with the jet.
So for me, extra layover days between active legs sparks joy.
Travel layovers. I love the places I get to visit. I'm a hobby photographer and history buff, so the extra time we spend in locations allows me to explore, capture some images, and soak it in. Tahiti, Hawaii, Tokyo, Helsinki, Berlin, NYC, Rio, Paris, St. Martin...these are some of the places I've spent time on extended layovers. When my sons are out of the nest my wife will probably join me a bit more when it's compatible with her schedule. This is one of my favorite aspects of the job.
Community. Working for a small company allowed me to develop friendships with coworkers. I'm friends with maintainers, the detail crew, line service, and other pilots. I see them around town. We get together for events and do things together. It's what I always had as part of Air Force culture and it's something I still value. I don't feel like I just have a job; I feel like I'm part of a community.
Unpredictability of schedule. Even though I'm assigned to an account, it's tough to plan very far in advance. I can schedule a big vacation and 1-2 other big events a year. But I have sold or eaten the cost of concert and sports tickets on more than one occasion. It just goes with the territory when you are on a 2 pilot account. I'll schedule paid time off for can't miss events but usually concerts and sports events don't make the cut; there are too many of them to work around. If you want to consistently volunteer to coach or make planned events week in and week out you need a solid back-up plan to cover you if a trip pops up. Your ability to predict upcoming flying is really at he mercy of your client/company and their planning horizon. If you have an owner with an unpredictable schedule, then you too will have an unpredictable schedule. Unless you are on an account with at least 3 pilots this is probably the biggest drawback vs. airline flying. But if you get a third pilot (2nd Captain) things become much more manageable. Bonus Feature unlocked...holiday scorecard! Thanksgiving: worked 4 of 5 years; Christmas: home 5 of 5 years; New Years: worked 4 of 5 years.
Loss of Medical Insurance & more robust benefits. I don't know that the state of the industry is, but if I want loss of medical insurance then I have to pick it up on my dime and it's pretty pricey. My company provides disability insurance; but no path to company subsidized insurance for long term income replacement near the salary I make today. As I've stated before, it would be nice to have a more robust 401K match as well, but the economies of scale just aren't there for a small company to provide that.
Unpredictability in the Industry. Just like the airlines, private aviation companies surf the economy. When things are going well and we're in a period of economic expansion there's more than enough work to go around. Every company is hiring and salaries are climbing. But in a period of economic recession things can turn on a dime. Perhaps your owner decides to sell their aircraft. That means you'll be looking for a new ride. My company has done an amazing job of bridging pilots to new accounts when things change unexpectedly. That's not the case with all companies; especially if they manage only a few accounts. But the reality is that employment in private aviation can be subject not only to the macroeconomics of the country's economy, but also the microeconomics of your owners budget. You always need to have a contingency plan for what to do if the bell tolls for you.
Would I choose this path again? The answer is yes. Life accelerates as you get older and to paraphrase Nick Saban, time is running through the hourglass like shit through a tin horn. But like most things in life, it's people and experiences that bring you happiness, not money.
You could pay me a million dollars a year and if I didn't enjoy those around me it wouldn't be enough to keep me happy. And I think that's where I'll settle this series; right where I started. If you are headed to the aviation industry pick an [insert one: airline, airframe, commute location, flying schedule, hometown, company culture, etc.] that maximizes happiness for you and the family. Lay the options out clearly and try to chairfly what the daily, monthly, and yearly lifestyle and budget looks like. What's right for you is not necessarily right for everyone else and vice versa. Don't live someone else's dream job, pick your own or it could quickly become a nightmare. What I hope you've come away with today is a better understanding of the dynamics of business aviation. It's a path that's not clearly marked or nor well illuminated. Maybe my little headlamp has shed some light that affords you a brief look. No matter what path you are leaning towards though, make space in your schedule to contemplate it in great detail so you'll take the first steps in good faith and a good idea of what awaits. Happy to answer questions and good luck with the transition; there's a lot of fun on the other side of the DD214 waiting!