The Pilot Shortage Part II: How to Boost Employee Retention

The Pilot Shortage Part II: How to Boost Employee Retention

Last week we talked about the pilot shortage, examining the history and some of the suggested causes, particularly getting into why pilots are leaving business aviation for commercial, based on a study done by the NBAA’s Business Aviation Management Committee.

In the same article, the top 4 cited reasons for pilots leaving business aviation for commercial airlines were the following:

  1. Predictability of Schedule

  2. Compensation

  3. Retirement Benefits

  4. Job Stability

We’ll take a look at some of the suggested solutions to these issues, and then explore our take on how these issues can and should be resolved by improving employee retention, with a focus on our specialty, optimization.

Typical Solutions for Employee Retention

There are various suggestions that usually come up when talking about employee retention in general, and we mentioned some of them in our article examining just how costly employee turnover can be (spoiler: it’s high).

In that same article, we mentioned the principles Jack Altman suggests for reducing employee turnover, which are “growth, impact, and care”, revolving around having conversations with employees about goals, increasing responsibility, and giving them the opportunities to learn new skills.  Having a clear mission and purpose behind the company will make this easier as well.

Employee Retention in Aviation

Similar principles are suggested when general aviation, and business aviation, are examined.  The NBAA’s suggested tips from a recent article are:

  • ask what your employees want (ie. engage them in their development),

  • establish flight and duty guidelines for your company,

  • maintain scheduling and dispatch flexibility so loads are shared,

  • build a network of contract staff,

  • offer longevity rewards, and

  • provide loss-of-license coverage.

Sheryl Barden blogged about retaining top talent and suggested that lack of growth opportunities played a large role, though secondary to compensation.

More interestingly, however, she mentions that she found company culture was the highest factor in employee loyalty, and one-on-one meetings were the best solution to engaging talent. Regular team events and meetings were important for employee retention too.

In a follow-up post, she suggested that getting employees to participate in industry committees, trade organizations, and continuing education is also important.  Essentially: encourage your employees to engage in the company and the industry.

So clearly, much of keeping employees is about getting them engaged with the company, having clear, open conversations about how they want to contribute and grow long term, and then working to give them those opportunities.

But what about the other reasons listed for leaving for commercial aviation?  Namely, predictability of schedule, compensation and retirement benefits - how can business aviation operators provide these?

Optimization & Predictability for Employee Retention

Ultimately, being able to provide compensation and retirement benefits come down to one thing: the company having funds for those things.  And to do that, the company must be sufficiently profitable, probably more than they are now. That doesn’t happen easily, but from our perspective, accomplishing that goes hand-in-hand with predictability of schedule, or if you prefer, “work-life balance”, and optimization technology.

Pilots and crew wanting predictable schedules is easy enough to understand.  They all want to see their families, and they’d like to be able to plan things in advance.  They also don’t want to get the short end of the stick too often, spending 15 nights away from home while their coworkers were away 5, for example.

But scheduling in private aviation is tough - schedules can often be unpredictable, and simply finding a schedule that works can be difficult, let alone making sure loads are balanced week to week and month to month.

Technology can solve some of these problems, and bring some predictability to operations.  On the crew scheduling side, building compliant schedules can be automated, under constraints of both legal and organizational operating rules.  What this means in practice is that if you want to introduce 8 days off per month instead of 7, you can make sure that rule is obeyed, while still knowing you’re developing an optimal schedule.  Or, even better, you can run simulations to examine the cost of implementing an 8-day policy ahead of time, or figure out exactly how many more staff you need to fulfill that requirement.

Similarly, introducing some standardization and automation to your scheduling process can help you adhere to overall load balancing throughout your staff.  Rules can be included in the scheduling system to make sure that even if there are load imbalances during short time periods (say, a month), they balance out over time (per quarter, per year).  The rules behind such a system can also be transparent, so that pilots know they will receive a fair schedule over time. A secondary benefit is that when rules are standardized and public, it becomes much more difficult to complain about scheduling decisions.

In the most advanced applications of scheduling systems, historical schedules can be examined for patterns, and taken into account for future schedules, which allows much more robust crew schedules to be built farther in advance.  Ultimately, this means more advance notice and predictability, and fewer last-minute changes, even if you don’t know the exact trip bookings until hours before.

Typically, once a system is up and running, you’ll also require fewer FTEs on the scheduling side for a given size of operation (or, alternatively, your current team will be able to handle more growth).

On the tail side, picking tails for a given itinerary is where the main opportunity lies.  Maximum flexibility on this side is always preferable, so having clients book a particular class of jet (rather than a specific tail) is always going to yield more efficient solutions.  It’s a very difficult problem to solve, and solve quickly, but if you can introduce technology to provide that capability, huge cost savings are possible.

These cost savings are the result of a few factors, but most obvious is the reduction in deadhead hours required, the cost of which adds up quickly.  Having a system in place that can suggest which tail to use for a given flight (which, if it’s solving the overall fleet problem, it would do) also reduces the time, and money, typically required to schedule and book that flight.

For all aircraft, but particularly heavy jets, optimizing your resources on the maintenance side, and incorporating those considerations as you plan your schedule, can also yield significant savings.


So, to recap:

  1. Crew scheduling optimization systems can provide standardized, transparent schedules that are more robust and ultimately improve schedule predictability and work-life balance (as well as the associated costs), and;

  2. Fleet routing optimization can reduce deadhead, improve maintenance and resource efficiency, and reduce the time required to build schedules.

Together, implementation of such systems can:

  • Improve schedule predictability and;

  • Reduce costs significantly.

At the end of the day, that means you can put the extra money towards compensation and benefits packages to help you retain top talent and employees, while offering schedules that rival commercial airlines in predictability.