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Furloughs in the airline industry are forcing pilots to find new work in other aspects of aviation, including flying privately-owned aircraft.
Private aviation is in the midst of an expansion that’s seeing aircraft operators invest in more planes to bring in a new market of first-time private flyers who are abandoning first class thanks to the pandemic. A fleet of new planes requires more pilots to fly them and as the airlines contract during the downturn, private firms are looking to hire former airline pilots with plenty of experience.
It may seem like an easy transition since flying a plane is the same whether it be for an airliner or private charter company, but the workload and lifestyle couldn’t be any more different. Instead of flying a plane full of passengers, a private aviation pilot caters solely to the wealthy and powerful, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s a challenging job that requires a pilot to go above and beyond, at times, according to Sean Scialfa, a 31-year airline pilot who has spent time on both sides of the industry. Unlike the airlines, private aircraft pilots deal with problems head-on and face to face instead of from behind a locked cockpit door and through a public announcement system.
Here’s how flying private aircraft is different than flying for the airlines.
Pilots on this side of the industry are very much the face of the operation and frequently interact with guests, which is why private aviation CEOs look for pilots with personality and a customer-service oriented attitude. It’s not a job where pilots can show up a few minutes before boarding and not speak to a passenger the entire flight.
When an airline pilot shows up at the airport, the expectation is not to greet passengers in the gate area before a flight, scan their tickets, and load their bags for them. All that is done by the army of support staff that airlines employ to service any given flight.
But those tasks are routinely performed by a private aircraft pilot who typically arrives at the airport about an hour before their flight to prep the aircraft, which can include getting it fueled, stocked, catered, and cleaned. Once the passengers arrive at the plane, it’s the pilot’s responsibility to cross-check their identification with the manifest, load their bags, and even give the safety briefing if there is no cabin attendant for that flight.
Access to the cockpit on a commercial airliner became highly restricted after September 11, 2001. Cockpit doors were reinforced and locked to prevent any undue entry and only opened if the crew needed to use the restroom or receive their meals with no passenger access to the flight deck on most flights.
On the private side, however, the cockpit doors are normally left open. Passengers can see everything that’s going on and come visit during the flight. Some private aircraft don’t even have cockpit doors with most light and propeller aircraft, namely, having open environments and little to no boundaries between the passenger cabin and cockpit.
The problem isn’t the threat of a hijacking with these aircraft but passengers having direct contact with pilots can lead to stressful or pressure-filled situations that could make pilots behave differently. For example, if an aircraft was late to arrive at an airport that is dangerous to access at night, Scialfa said, being pressured by passengers could lead to the pilot to make a fatal mistake by giving in instead of making the safe choice.
The wealthy often go to extremes when they travel and often visit exclusive and exciting locales that may make a pilot’s life seem like one long vacation in between flights. Holiday weekends in the winter, for example, can see pilots flying to Aspen, Colorado; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; or Sun Valley, Idaho, then off to Europe or South America for weeks at a time in the summer.
But that lifestyle also means being away from home for long stretches, more so than at the airlines. Pilots working for a charter operation can be on-call or on the road for weeks at a time. Airlines trips are typically only a few days, with periods of time off in between, but private aircraft pilots often have a certain number of weeks on-call followed by hard days off.
According to Scialfa, pilots that can’t keep up with that lifestyle will often ask themselves: “Is this better than working in Home Depot, or is it not?”
Private aircraft pilots often have to live within a certain radius of their home airport since flights can pop-up at a moment’s notice, especially with on-demand charter flights. Some companies require pilots to live less than 90 minutes from the airport to be able to pick up what is known as an “ASAP” trip while some will allow commutes upwards of three hours.
Airline pilots don’t need to live near the airports out of which they’re based and will fly in and out around their work schedule. A New York City-based American Airlines pilot can live in Los Angeles, for example, and commute the day before the first flight of his trip and back as soon as he lands back in New York since pilots are given flight benefits on nearly any commercial airline.
“With the airlines, you know, you’re not going to be gone for more than four to six days,” said Scialfa. “And then, depending on where you live, you drive home or you jump in an airplane and commute to Ohio or wherever you may live.”
Private aircraft pilots are often required to arrive at the airport at least an hour before every flight to allow enough time to prepare for passenger arrival. During this time, the pilot will order fuel for the plane, perform pre-flight procedures, file the flight plan, check the route weather, stage the catering order if one was placed, and await passenger arrival, according to Scialfa.
Once the aircraft has arrived, the pilot has to stick around the button up the plane by checking the cabin for any issues, removing any trash, inspecting the exterior, and sometimes placing coverings on the engines and important gauges. If the plane is leaving early the next morning for a flight, the pilot will often stick around to see it fueled and ready to go for the early departure.
Airline pilots often show up a few minutes before boarding and perform all of the pre-flight checks while passengers are getting on the plane. But wealthy passengers expect to depart as soon as they arrive so that isn’t an option on a private aircraft.
Private aircraft operators are often family-like environments where all the pilots know each other and can fly in pairs based on experience. The same two pilots can be paired together for months at a time, especially if both assigned to the same owner, so there’s less variety when it comes to the cockpit and it’s important to
That also applies to the passengers with repeat-business very common in the private aviation world, especially with the owner of the aircraft. Pilots have to maintain relationships with passengers they fly as it will directly influence whether they fly with that company or flight crew again.
Private aircraft often have more flexibility in getting passengers from point A to B than airliners do thanks to the unscheduled nature of the business. If bad weather delays all flights into New York, for example, a pilot can file a flight plan for Boston and then request a diversion in mid-air since it’s less likely to be turned down or directly ask passengers if they want to leave earlier to beat the storm.
And not all aircraft need to follow flight plans, with smaller aircraft often operating under visual flight rules restrictions that allow them to fly more direct routes and avoid certain types of delays. It’s often done with shorter flights since visual flight rules can only be used under 18,000 feet.
Pilots can also depart under those rules to avoid ground delays with instrument flight plans and then request clearance to pick up a normal flight plan once they depart.
To paraphrase the famous saying, private aircraft pilots follow the calendar of the elites. That means more trips over the holidays and especially long holiday weekends when the kids are off from school or when the office is closed.
The Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday periods, as well as the Fourth of July, are peak travel times. Some companies will allow pilots to fly home between flights but it’s at the discretion of the company.
The longest workday for a private aircraft pilot is 14 hours and passengers will often seek to make the most of that timeframe. Early morning flights and late-night returns are very common and can occur back to back with only as little as 10 hours of rest in between.
Private aviation executives are predicting more day trips for business travelers as they seek to reduce exposure while on the road.
Pilots coming from the airlines may be taken aback by the informal nature of private flying, according to Scialfa, especially when it comes to executing procedures. Airlines have a more regimented training program while the private side may not be as stringent, with multiple ways to accomplish a task in the latter compared to only one way in the former, according to Scialfa.
“It’s hard for an airline guy to go, ‘what do you mean there’s three different ways to do that?'” Scialfa said.
Having more experienced airline pilots transitioning to the private side will undoubtedly make the industry safer, Scialfa said, but there will be a learning curve for regimented pilots.
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