About a year ago I was leaving San Luis Obispo, CA on my way back to Edwards AFB, CA. I had just toured a home we were considering a lease on and I was burning a path the 3.5 hours back home. As I blazed past the San Luis County Airport a logo on a hangar caught my eye briefly: ACI Jet. I was a transitioning military pilot preparing to put applications in with about any company hauling packages or people, and I made a mental note to Google the company when I got home. But like most of my mental notes, it disappeared into the fog of hop dust, college football trivia, and random bits of information that crowd out more useful things in my brain. Life continued to move quickly and about a month later I joined the ranks of properly FAA licensed airmen with an ATP certificate and B-737 type rating courtesy of the good folks at Crew Pilot Training. Despite my good intentions, I never got around to checking out the private aviation company in my new hometown.
Like many of my peers, I networked with buddies that were transitioning, paid for my airline tech and interview prep courses, and published my airline applications as soon as all the details were in order. For me, pursuing a job at a regional or major airline was really all I had ever considered. It was what most of my friends where doing, and it seemed like it would satisfy most of our family needs. Between Facebook groups for pilot networking and great websites like Airline Pilot Central, most of the resources for making an informed decision about which company is the best fit for your family is there (pay, domiciles, benefits, etc.). But a funny thing happened along my path to an entry level Boeing or Airbus at a junior domicile; two brain cells flew in formation for a split second. There was an unlikely firing across the synapse and I actually remembered to check in on that local company.
I think it was a Glassdoor ad that cued me. The company (ACI Jet) was seeking a first officer for the Bombardier Global Express. I did a little web searching and quickly realized that with business aviation, information about salary, benefits, seniority and the like is much harder to come by. The National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA) publishes compensation survey results from its members annually, but there seems to be considerable debate as to how closely these figures track reality. Even if accurate, they are presented as a range, with figures for low, average, and high salaries broken out by aircraft type. Aside from NetJets, Flexjet and a few other large fractional ownership companies, you'll have to do some sleuthing and speak with the Chief Pilot or Human Resources Department to nail down details for each company. Luckily for me, ACI Jet was having a career fair at their FBO in Santa Ana, CA. I braved the afternoon Los Angeles traffic to speak with the Chief Pilot and drove away with a ballpark on the salary range I could expect, typical crew schedule, vacation days, and average applicant requirements. If my new career was a house, this meeting confirmed that the company met all the foundational requirements: I liked the location, the pay met my family's needs, and the schedule I could expect worked for us.
But what about the actual flying? My entire career was spent flying in an environment that was much closer to an airline operation. When I started as a 2nd Lieutenant we still accomplished some of the mission planning and filed flight plans, but as technology progressed it became much more common to have planning and other tasks taken care of by dispatchers. The Captain was still responsible for all aspects of the mission, but it was more a matter of executing a good plan placed before you. Maintenance was also very easy. I arrived at an aircraft fueled and ready to go. On return from a mission I entered discrepancies, flight time accumulated, and wished the crew chief good luck as he or she bedded the aircraft down. What was it like in the world of business aviation. As it turns out, there are plenty of folks that can give you a glimpse into the day-to-day rhythm of private aviation. There are many video bloggers out there now, but a few that I found helpful for providing depth and texture are Captain Moonbeam, Dewey Davenport, and Corporate Pilot Life. I didn't know it when I started viewing the videos, but between them, they also provide a glimpse of the diversity of flying within corporate aviation.
Here's the most important piece of information I can pass along to transitioning military pilots considering a career in private aviation. Each company is a snowflake. Companies can be of roughly the same size, flying the same equipment into the same locations and have completely different pay scales, schedules, and pilot morale. The only way to know what your pay, schedule, and quality of life will look like is to pick a specific company and investigate. I thought long and hard about some of the questions you should answer before diving in. Some of these are questions I was smart enough to consider before I joined ACI Jet. The others are things I discovered in my first 6 months on the job. I put them into two overarching categories: Pay & Quality of Life.
Let's jump straight to the question that I often get asked first if someone is considering busines aviation. What does it pay? I've said this earlier, but I'll say it again (because it's true) -- there is no standard (nor published) pay for most business aviation companies. NetJets and Flexjet are notable exceptions. They are giants in the industry and offer what appear to be, from an outside perspective, very predicable pay scales and timelines for advancement. In order to get a grip on what you could expect to earn in the world of business aviation you are going to have to identify a few possible companies and do some research. If you can get your hands on a copy of the NBAA Annual Compensation Survey results (published each fall) that should give you a rough order of magnitude, but there are jobs out there that are likely a standard deviation on either side of those NBAA numbers. There are plenty of companies where you can beat majors pay straight out of the gate. There are others were you won't. I'd recommend getting an NBAA Compensation Survey table and comparing it to the company you are interested in and the type of aircraft they fly.
Despite that opacity, I'll share an opinion backed up by exactly <zero> statistical analysis. If your goal is to build the biggest pile of money you can before you retire, major airlines provide the better path. You can beat some of the majors for the first few years (5 - 10 years) of the pay scale, but between total compensation (401K match, company profit sharing, etc.) and annual pay increases, most majors are able to provide more total compensation over the long term. One thing that helps even the playing field in the short term is the ability (in some cases) to upgrade to Captain earlier in business aviation. But over time, the numbers on the pay scale combined with total compensation factors put majors over the top for stuffing the most money into your retirement plan.
One other important pay note: most private aviation jobs are salaried, not an hourly rate. It doesn't matter if you fly 1 hour a month or 80...aside from per diem, your pay will be the same each month.
Quality of Life (QoL)
So if majors pay is generally going to be better in the long run, why consider private aviation? This is where I think the most variation enters the equation. What is going to bring the greatest amount of "net happiness" to your family's day-to-day existence? Do you want the maximum control over your schedule (so you can plan for family events)? Do you mind commuting to get to your domicile? How many legs a day do you want to fly? Do you want to fly international? Do you want to get to know guys and work in a more "squadron like" atmosphere? Do you want a chance to "sit" at locations for a few days and explore when you fly? If you haven't taken the time to chair fly your possibilities,....I encourage you to do so. You should think about life in the greatest possible detail for you and your family.
Once you have identified some business aviation companies you are interested in, here's a useful tool for considering how their operations and structure will play into your quality of life. I have oversimplified, but it's a useful model for discussion.
If you have identified a private aviation company that you are interested in, this model attempts to boil down QoL from a scheduling perspective to a basic level. With majors I think it's pretty straightforward; you bid for the schedule you would like...then you get what's closest to your desires based on seniority. With private aviation, many more things complicate the equation. First off, how many aircraft does the company operate? In some cases, it could be a corporate flight department with one aircraft. If that's the case, how many pilots do they have hired/assigned against that aircraft? If it's only 2.....guess how many days off you might get? I suspect if the owner is traveling...you will be flying. What if they have 3 pilots...probably a few more days off. 4 pilots assigned against 1 aircraft? Now we are talking a higher quality of life because you are going to be able to schedule some family events/holidays off and the client is still going to be able to have pilots to execute to meet their needs. There are some mitigating factors...like use of contract pilots, but at a very high level...more pilot/aircraft equals a higher QoL.
What's the user demand? Framing the question like that helps cut through Part 91 vs. Part 135 arguments. You can Google Part 91 and Part 135 to get a detailed explanation of those types of flying, but in short, Part 91 involves flying on behalf of a specific owner (be it a person or corporation) while Part 135 involves "on demand" charter. If you are flying on behalf of a specific owner or corporation, then demand tends to become more predictable in *some* cases. That owner could tend to fly a little (few days per month) or a lot (21 days a month), but you generally have a calendar with visibility on upcoming trips. If the company you are considering does mostly Part 135 (charter) operations,...then your next unscheduled trip could be *surprise* tomorrow....if the dispatch operation books a trip. But, to go back to the stool analogy...if there are 4 pilots,....your company may have a scheduling construct that puts certain pilots on call for periods while giving others "hard days off." That brings us to the final leg of the stool.
What's the scheduling construct? Big companies like NetJets and Flexjet offer set schedules. Their demand is much more even flow and predicable from a volume perspective. They offer pilots set schedules with X number of days worked followed by X number of days off. Most other private aviation companies do not have that level of flexibility. With my company, I have 10 vacation days a year and the ability to schedule 5 "hard days off" each month. That means I can designate 5 days where I'm not in an "on call" type status with a 1.5 hour leash to the airport. This works for me because the other legs of the stool (# of pilots/aircraft & user demand) hold up well and are predictable. I have a great QoL because we crew with sufficient pilots/aircraft and our users are generally pretty predictable.
I think these are the big QoL issues that set the conditions for you to consider other factors. I recommend you consider pay and scheduling QoL factor first,...because they are most obvious. But you should also also endeavor to chair fly your potential careers/companies in the greatest detail possible. In my opinion, this helps put Pay and QoL in proper perspective. All the money in the world isn't going to make you happy if you are miserable when you are working. Here are some questions to help guide your chair flying on non schedule related QoL factors:
- How many "must make" family events do I have a year?
- How important is having a set schedule month-to-month?
- Where do you want to live? Is your immediate family close? Will they visit? How easy is it for them to get to you?
- Do you mind commuting to your domicile?
- Do you want to fly international?
- Do you mind "grinding"? That is, does 4-5 legs a day bother you? Or do you want to do 1-2 legs a day?
- What is your optimum trip length? 3-4 days? Do you want to spend a few nights in the same location?
- Do you want to fly with the same few guys everyday, or do you want to fly with a company where you might not fly with the same guy for a year or two?
- What about where you could potentially live.... is it expensive? What's rent/ownership costs? Does your family like the area? What will they do when you are away flying?
This obviously isn't an all inclusive list. You should block out a few weeks to try and consider what your life will look like in the greatest possible detail, but these are the flavor of questions you should be asking.
I've only been flying for ACI Jet for about 6 months now, but it's been a wonderful ride. I could have been equally happy at Southwest, United, Delta, FedEx, or many other companies, but I live 1 mile away from where my flights originate and terminate. I don't have to commute to LA, Oakland or San Francisco to start my trips and we love the local area. I get to fly to international destinations (Tokyo, London, Rio, etc.) and spend time there on multi-day layovers where I can pursue my passions (traveling & photography). My company has a small "squadron like" environment where people get to know each other and work/play hard together. We also fly with incredible cabin servers that provide an unparalleled level of service to our customers while hooking us up with great meals in the cockpit! I'm sharing this because there are similar opportunities available all over the United States. If there's a specific location that are you want to live, you should check out business aviation opportunities in that area. It's been a wonderful choice for my family because it was the right fit! I encourage you to take a look at opportunities located where you want to plant a flag. It's definitely the "road less traveled" for separating/retiring military pilots, but it just might be the best path for you! If you have any questions about transitioning to business aviation feel free to shoot me a note in the comments section or just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Separation or retirement can be a scary time...happy to help relieve some of that stress and help you find your best fit.