Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Life as a Fractional Pilot

If you have paid attention to the aviation industry over the last few years, you have heard about the rise of the fractional aviation companies. As the airline world hemorrhaged money, the fractionals gained market share and grew in numbers of pilots, aircraft, and revenues. Today, many misconceptions remain about what fractional companies do and what fractional flying is like.

For pilots, one benefit of fractional companies is that fractional growth has continued, even while the airlines downsized in the years following the September 11 attacks. Today, only one fractional company, Flight Options, is reducing the size of its fleet. Most other companies are actively taking deliveries of aircraft. Fractional hiring has driven much of the commercial pilot job market over the past five years.

Fractional companies can best be described as time-share companies that deal in corporate jets rather than real estate. The concept is simple: When a client buys a share (fraction) of a jet, they become entitled to a specific number of flight hours in their jet. In addition to their purchase price, the owner also pays a monthly maintenance fee that covers items such as insurance and crew, and an hourly fee that includes fuel.

Buying a share of an airplane, rather than the whole thing, allows an owner to share costs with other people, just as a flying club allows private and recreational pilots to reduce their costs for a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee. The concept of sharing costs makes private jet ownership more affordable for more people.

Shareowners prefer flying their own airplanes to the airlines for many reasons. They can avoid the hassle of government security checkpoints and long lines. Private jets allow travel on the owners schedule rather than an airline schedule, making it possible to travel out of town for a meeting and then back with minimum lost time. Many owners also travel to small airports that are not served by the airlines. Airline service is limited at best to airports such as Houma, Louisiana, Findlay, Ohio, or Key Largo, Florida.

The stability of the fractionals is a big reason that these companies find it easy to attract pilots. Most fractionals have large companies as their backers. Net Jets is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, which also owns Flight Safety International. Citation Shares is owned by Textron, owner of Cessna, and Tag Aviation. Bombardier, the manufacturer of the Challenger and Lear Jet, owns Flex Jet. Avantair is partnered with Piaggio Aero, manufacturer of the turboprop Piaggio Avanti. Flight Options is a subsidiary of Raytheon, which builds the Beechcraft and Hawker corporate jet lines.

Even manufacturers of smaller aircraft are getting into the fractional business. Alpha Flying operates Plane Sense, a fractional operator of Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops.
Additionally, many pilots find the fractional work rules and quality of life to be superior to that of the traditional airlines. Fractional pilots are typically paid a salary instead of an hourly wage like their airline peers. Fractional pilots typically earn significantly more money than equivalent pilots, particularly those in the regional airlines. Per diem, a daily allowance for expenses while traveling, is also paid at a higher rate for fractional pilots.

Fractional pilots also have more days off than most airline pilots. Most fractional companies use a "seven-on, seven-off" schedule. Pilots are on duty for seven days in a row, then get seven days off. This means that the fractional pilot will get at least fourteen days off each month. Airline contracts typically call for a minimum of 8-10 days off. To get fourteen days off, an airline pilot would have to be very senior in his aircraft and seat.

Additionally, airline pilots have to bid for their schedules each month. This can make it hard to schedule very far in advance, especially if you are junior. The fractional seven-day schedule can be projected far into the future.

A fringe benefit that is not available to airline crews is participation in hotel and airline points programs. Fractional pilots get to keep their airline miles, and they get plenty since they normally are fly as passengers on the airlines to and from their aircraft at the beginning and end of each workweek. Fractional pilots typically pay for their hotel rooms with a credit card and are reimbursed by the company. Therefore, they also get to keep their hotel reward points, as well as any points that their credit card company offers.

Even with these benefits, many pilots are unsure of what the fractional lifestyle entails. It is a very different world from airline flying and most of unsure of what to expect when they make the transition.

Even from the interview, you will notice that fractional companies are different from the airlines. Fractional companies are much more interested in customer service skills than are the airlines. This is because most fractional aircraft do not carry a flight attendant. Therefore, the flight crews are the employees with the most direct contact with the fractional owners. In addition to the normal questions about your flight experience, you are likely to be asked about your customer service background and what you would do if you had an unhappy owner in your aircraft.

Training is not as long as airline training. Indoctrination (Indoc) takes about a week. At Indoc, new hires learn about the company culture, operations rules, and procedures. This week you learn about everything from filling out expense reports to inflating the emergency life raft.
Aircraft training is typically done through a company such as Flight Safety International or CAE Simuflight. Most companies give First Officers, as well as Captains, a type rating in their aircraft. In the airlines, an FO would not normally get a PIC type rating. A type-rating course in a corporate jet typically takes about two weeks, although some aircraft, such as the Citation Sovereign, take longer. Unlike airline ground schools, you can expect to go straight through the course with few, if any, days off. You will probably even have some days with sessions scheduled in both the simulator and the classroom.

After completing initial training, a new hire will go through Initial Operating Experience, or IOE. IOE is actually flying the airplane on the line with a company Check Airman. IOE is typically two tours, or workweeks. While simulator training is good, any jet pilot can tell you that you learn only the basics in the sim. The real learning occurs flying the airplane in the real world under real flight conditions.

Fractional flying is much different than airline flying. A large part of airline flying is to and from central hubs. You see the same airports over and over. Often, you repeat the same three or four day trip every week for a month. In contrast, fractional flying constantly offers something new. I fly into at least one new airport every tour. While we often fly into small reliever airports, I have flown into nearly every major airline airport in the country in my fractional jet.

Fractional pilots also see airports that few, if any, airline pilots ever see. Teterboro, New Jersey is general aviation's answer to La Guardia. Both Teterboro and La Guardia are very high-density traffic airports with complex approach and arrival procedures. Teterboro is the GA gateway to New York City and easily one of the most demanding airports from which I have ever operated. Teterboro is a place that every fractional pilot gets to know well.

Challenging in a different way are the Colorado airports, Aspen and Eagle. These are mountain airports with one way in and out. There is high terrain on all sides and the Rocky Mountain weather can change rapidly.

Fractional airplanes have no real base. They simply float from one airport to another. When one crew goes home, they leave the airplane and another arrives to pick up the plane. Therefore, a fractional tour normally begins with a trip to an airline airport. The company buys the pilot a ticket to wherever their airplane happens to be. Rarely, you might be driven to a local airport if your airplane happens to be nearby.

Since fractionals are not scheduled airlines, there is no typical day. Even if you think you know is happening, your schedule for the day might change if there is a pop-up trip, or if another airplane breaks. The company has notified me via the satellite phone while in flight to change my destination on several occasions.

The crew normally starts the workday with preflight duties. As at most airlines, the FO is responsible for the preflight checks, as well as obtaining the ATIS and clearance. At my company, the captain files the flight plans (since we don't have true dispatchers), checks the weather and NOTAMS, pays for the fuel and FBO fees, and obtains the flight release and paperwork from the company. Additionally, the FO has the very important "PIC" duties of stocking the airplane with papers, ice, and coffee.

Our first flight today is a "position leg," which means that we will not have passengers on board. We will be departing from Fulton County airport on the west side of Atlanta and will pick up our passengers to Orlando Executive airport in Florida. We depart FTY in late afternoon in order to arrive at ORL an hour before our "live leg" with passengers. We even leave a little early because thunderstorms are forecast in the Orlando area. Over half of all fractional flights are position legs with no passengers aboard.

The flight to Orlando takes 1.7 hours. The thunderstorms cost us time, so it's a good thing we left early.

We arrive in Orlando on schedule and start to refuel the airplane. The FO gets local newspapers while the captain orders and pays for the fuel, then calls our dispatcher to get a release for the next leg. The FO also gets the new ATIS and clearance to Tallahassee, Florida. It's a good thing that we are early because our passenger arrives early. The FO loads the passenger's bags while the captain gets the flight release.

Bags loaded, the FO steps into the cockpit to conduct the safety briefing, a flight attendant duty on all but the smallest airliners. At the same time, the captain is starting the engines. When the FO steps into the cockpit, both pilots complete the after start checklist and the FO calls for the taxi clearance.

Like the airlines, fractional pilots take turns flying. Since the captain flew the first leg of the day, the FO flies now. Unlike airliners, which have tillers for ground steering, the Cessna Citation Bravo we are flying is steered with rudder pedals on the ground. Therefore, after completing the taxi checklist, the FO can take control of the airplane and continue the taxi to the runway. Since First Officers do not taxi in the airline world, you might go years without controlling an airplane on the ground.

After waiting a few minutes for our IFR release, we are airborne and on our way to Tallahassee. This flight is planned at 0.9 hours. Since the thunderstorms are mostly east of our route, we will probably be close to an on-time arrival.

As we get the Tallahassee ATIS, we find that the field is IFR due to smoke from forest fires. We set up for the ILS and conduct our approach briefing. In addition to normal items, the captain, the non-flying pilot, calls the FBO with our fuel order and checks on the passenger's ground transportation, a chauffer driven SUV. With visibility at 2 miles in smoke, the approach is uneventful and we land in Tallahassee. The captain completes the after landing checklist while the FO taxies to the FBO.

Upon reaching the FBO, the FO hops up and opens the door. He then runs around to the baggage compartment and offloads the bags. The chauffer drives the SUV up to the airplane and the bags are transferred. The passenger shakes hands with the crew and rides away as the fuel truck pulls up. While the airplane is fueled, the FO restocks the galley with snacks, cleans the passenger cabin, and dumps the trash. The captain pays for the gas and gives the FBO both pilots fuel reward program information.

Our next and last leg of the day is another position leg. This time we are going to Teterboro to position for a flight tomorrow morning. This leg is scheduled at just over two hours. It's our last leg and we are flying for ourselves, so we gas up, get the release, and go.

By the time we get to Teterboro and secure the airplane, it is getting late. We grab a ride in the FBO van to the hotel. Our minimum rest is longer than the minimum airline rest, so we have time to eat and get a good night's sleep. The captain gets a fax from the company with tomorrow's tentative schedule and starts the flight planning after dinner.

Fractional flying is not for everyone, but for those who choose this career path, life is definitely better than at the regional airlines. Company stability, better pay, more days off, and more challenging work are only a few of the reasons that the fractionals are forcing airlines to become more competitive for pilots. While no one knows what the future holds, it is a safe bet that more and more passengers, tired of bad airline service, inconvenient schedules, and long TSA screening lines, will choose to buy a share of their own private aircraft and join other jet-setting fractional owners.


D Baker said...

Just to clarify:

Flight Options is not reducing its fleet.

The company finished the process of culling older aircraft this past summer, and has recently announced it's close to a deal on a substantial aircraft order.

tdwnds1 said...

Upate....FlightOptions Reduced its fleet and staff. Funny how things can change so drasitcally in 1 and 1/2 years.

WillFlyForFood said...

Life for pilots at AvantAir just got more challenging with the implementation of a 14/14 day schedule mandated for new hires and possible forced for existing pilots if there aren't enough volunteers for the new schedule.