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Business jet pilots salaries face competition from legacy airlines

Anastasia Dagaeva
December 1, 2017

Business jet operators, already offering double digit raises to attract pilots, could face a labor shortfall in North America as they compete with US airlines for talent, Reuters reports.

Competition is fueled up by airlines, which generally offer higher salaries and better benefits and are taking delivery of new aircraft at a fast pace, aviation consultant Rolland Vincent says. 

Boeing and Airbus left the recent Dubai Air Show 2017 with around 700 orders for narrow-body and wide-body commercial jets, potentially adding to already strong backlogs.

The Boeing 2016 Pilot Outlook indicates that North American companies will need to hire 112,000 pilots between now and 2035. The need for pilots is even greater internationally; this is especially true in the Asia-Pacific region, where the need is anticipated to be at least 248,000 pilots for the same time period. Some projections indicate that the US airline industry will have a shortage of as many as 35,000 pilots until 2031.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects 7.2 billion passengers to travel in 2035, a near doubling of the 3.8 billion air travelers in 2016. “People want to fly. Demand for air travel over the next two decades is set to double. Enabling people and nations to trade, explore, and share the benefits of innovation and economic prosperity makes our world a better place,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.  

US legacy airlines are recruiting employees to fly new aircraft and replace retiring staff, with American Airlines expected to hire 900 mainline pilots in 2018, up from just over 500 in 2017, said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots’ Association (APA). “It’s really a buyers’ market and the buyer is the pilot now,” Tajer said in a interview. “If you don’t pay pilots the market rate you’re going to lose them.”

By contrast, in Europe corporate jet operators did not lose many pilots this year to commercial aviation because the airline market saw a sufficient supply of pilots after Air Berlin and Britain’s Monarch Airlines ceased operations. According to the 2017 pilot salary survey from the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), a captain flying a mid-sized corporate jet like the Challenger 350 made about $130,000 on average. In 2017, an American Airlines captain flying the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 narrow-body earned just over $268,000, according to an APA compensation document.

Corporate pilots’ salaries rose 20% this year on an annual basis, said manager of Jet Aviation Don Haloburdo. He expects the higher salaries to slightly increase operating costs for business jet companies, but that could be absorbed. He does not think they would hurt sales since owners’ largest expense, fuel, is relatively low, yet.

Although business jet sales are flat, Haloburdo expects demand for corporate pilots and maintenance technicians to pick up after 2018 as airlines boost recruiting efforts and popular new planes enter the market from Bombardier, Dassault and Gulfstream. “When Bombardier starts delivering the Global 7000 in significant numbers, Gulfstream starts delivering their G500 and G600 in significant numbers, that’s where our industry is going to have a very significant challenge finding qualified crew members,” he said.

Dassault Aviation chairman and CEO Eric Trappier revealed that his company plans to launch another Falcon business jet soon. “We want to be in a position to launch a new Falcon jet at the end of 2017,” he wrote in the 2016 annual report’s introduction. Some industry professionals think, the company is going to launch the Falcon 9X. 

So, for those considering a piloting career, the situation is looking better. The problem for the industry, though, is the lag time. Somebody just learning to fly is years away from meeting any airline’s hiring criteria. So while the mechanisms are falling into place to curtail a full-blown crisis, the shortage is going to be with us for a while. And North American business jet operators are at risk already.

Photos: Dassault Aviation