Who’s going to fly your plane? That’s the question aviation industry executives have been pondering for a while as they seek to prepare for an increasing shortage of qualified pilots.
For Southwest Airlines, which operates up to 4,000 flights per day, and Jet Linx Aviation, a major operator of private jets, the belief is a three-way partnership with CAE will be the answer. The latter bills itself “the largest civil aviation training network” with 2,000 instructors, over 50 locations and more than 250 flight simulators.
The program, named Destination 225°, which on a compass rose points in a southwesterly direction, is designed to provide a flow of new pilots from CAE to Jet Linx, who can then move to Southwest. It will also enable Southwest pilots, both those who reach the mandatory retirement age for commercial airlines of 65, and others who want a lifestyle change, to fly for Jet Linx.
The goal is to provide pilots a defined path representing a career lifecycle from entry into the aviation industry to opportunities for pilots to elevate and extend their careers based on their lifestyle preferences.
“Destination 225° will serve as a solution to help attract future pilots to the industry by offering them a single career path from three trusted industry partners. It’s a great step towards helping address the future pilot supply pipeline,” says Jamie Walker, president and CEO of Jet Linx.
The company currently employs about 250 pilots but will need 500 by 2023 based on its expansion plans. Walker says the shortage is already hitting smaller “mom and pop” operators who can’t match the benefits of larger players. For Jet Linx pilots who want to fly for the airlines, they will now have a preferred route.
Business aviation, which includes Part 91 flying (the FAA series of rules governing private aircraft flown for their owners), Part 91K (covering fractional operators such as NetJets and Flexjet), and Part 135 (the rules for charter operators) has long been a destination for laid off or retiring commercial Part 121 airline pilots, as well as a starting point to build flight hours before getting a job with an airline.
Walker says while about 30% of the pilots who leave Jet Linx are headed that way, so being able to provide a potential pathway to a major airline will be attractive in recruiting. At the same time, he notes business aviation attracts those who want variety.
“One day you are flying to New York, the next you are going into Aspen, then San Diego. It’s not the same trips over and over again.” He estimates that about 70% are same-day roundtrips, “So there are a lot more nights in your own bed.”
Last year, Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airlines Association, told The Wall Street Journal, “There are simply too few pilots to operate all of today’s routes and with the coming wave of retirements, the situation will reach crisis levels soon.”
With 800,000 new pilots needed in the next 20 years, last month Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg told CNBC the lack of a sufficient pipeline represents for the industry “one of the biggest challenges we have.”
A lost decade that started with the economic downturn preceding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and lasting through the Great Recession, helped scuttle the appeal of a career in the cockpit, driving the current shortage.
Airline bankruptcies meant more work and fewer benefits, including a seemingly constant narrative of airline executives asking front line employees to accept lower wages in order to be competitive in a price-focused industry.
For those considering becoming a professional pilot, there is often a six-figure commitment to training, while at the same time industry executives articulate a vision where one day planes would be controlled from the ground eliminating the need for pilots in the traditional sense.
Combine that with the growth of global travel, a vast increase in commercial airline fleets based in the Middle East and Asia, and more retirements than expected, and it’s not clear that there is a ready solution that will satisfy everyone’s needs.
Owners of private jets are increasingly in bidding wars to make sure they have ready and qualified flight deck crews.
During Corporate Jet Investor’s annual conference in Miami last year, Jonah Adler, an executive vice president with Jet Edge, which manages mainly long-range private jets for uber-wealthy owners, told attendees recent pay packages for a Global Express captain had cracked the $300,000 level.
At the same event, Dan Drohan, CEO of Solairus Aviation, a management company and charter operator, gave evidence of how the tables have turned. For example, a captain who wants to spend holidays at home with his family will enquire about how old the owner’s children are and where they typically go on school holidays. Instead of jumping at the prospect of a lucrative paycheck, said pilot might turn flying down a billionaire with young kids for another owner whose travel pattern is tilted to weekday business trips. “(The pilots) interview us,” he said.
For Jet Linx, which has been growing rapidly, the new partnership will help cement future pipeline of future pilots. Already with a fleet of 115 private jets it manages for owners, it has been expanding its footprint of bases in the past decade.
Branching out from its Omaha headquarters, its locations, which provide private VIP terminals for aircraft owners and members of its jet card program, have reached New York, Boston, Washington D.C. on the East Coast and major cities such as Detroit, Dallas, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Chicago in the Midwest. It plans to open locations in California, having pushed as far west as Denver and Scottsdale, and has said it will also add South Florida to its network.
Management companies like Jet Linx are expected to be able to source qualified cockpit crews as part of their contracts overseeing an aircraft for its owner. CAE already has training joint ventures with Emirates, Japan Airlines, China Eastern, Singapore Airlines and Iberia. It also has alliances with Bombardier, Dassault Falcon and Embraer Executive Jets to provide training for the private jets they manufacture.
The Jet Linx – Southwest deal isn’t the first between an operator of private jets and a traditional airline, although it seems to be the first that includes a flight school.
As might be expected, Delta Private Jets and Delta Air Lines have a pathway for pilots who want to move between the two. DPJ provides outreach to retiring pilots at Delta at their crew bases with full time or part-time pilot opportunities to allow retired airline pilots to continue flying with a flexible lifestyle. If DPJ pilots meet the requirements to apply for a pilot position with Delta Air Lines, there is an agreement with Delta to guarantee a review of their applications.
JetSuite, which counts JetBlue as an investor, has a cooperation agreement covering JetSuiteX (JSX), its division which operates scheduled shuttle flights between private terminals along the west coast.
“JetSuiteX partners with JetBlue on their Pilot Gateway Program, which affords selected, qualified participants access to certain, available First Officer slots on our Embraer 135 aircraft,” said Kevin Horan, vice president of corporate soul, adding, “Pilots participating in this program spend at least two years with JSX before flowing back to JetBlue, where they fill a pilot role. This is a great opportunity for pilots with lower time who are seeking a fast-track to the major airlines. On the other end, there’s been an uptick in retiree recruitment as well. They are joining both JSX and JetSuite and not only filling first officer roles, but quickly upgrading to captain positions.”
JetSuite’s pitch to pilots doesn’t end with career opportunities. “We are fully committed to the well-being of our flight team and we seek to implement innovative wellness initiatives for them. We have projects and partnerships with leading wellness brands under development that underscore our commitment to the health and longevity of these talented, hardworking pilots” said Stephanie Chung, president of JetSuite.