Five Tips for Hiring Great Contract Pilots

At a time demand for flying is skyrocketing, how can you find and hire the best contract pilots to cover staff shortages in your flight department? Andre Fodor shares tips…

Andre Fodor  |  14th January 2022
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    Andre Fodor
    Andre Fodor

    With a focused approach on global excellence and creativity, Andre Fodor has managed flight operations...

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    Contract pilot shaking hands with private jet passenger

    A recent call caused me to think about the need to ensure we have a good pool of contract pilots to draw from in the event of staff absences within the flight department. The following five tips are the sum of my musings, offering advice on how to attract, and communicate with outsourced cover.

    Despite promising my family some quality time, very early in the morning on New Year’s Day my phone rang. At first I ignored it, but the caller was persistent. Finally, I answered. It was a man I’d met during my last recurrent training.

    Very apologetically, he told me that his team had dropped their principal and family at a Caribbean island two weeks before, taking airline flights home for the holidays. During the break one of the pilots had fallen ill and was unable to fly. They were due to make a return trip in two days’ time, and the caller wondered if I could take an airline to the island with him, and fly the principal back.

    My first thought was to decline. Uninterrupted holidays at home are rare for anyone in our line of business. But then I imagined myself facing the same situation, keen to provide great service to the principal. I accepted the assignment.

    As I traveled to the Caribbean, I pondered how I had covered holes in our schedule before. After all, it’s inevitable that people need time off for medical reasons, which has a big impact, especially on a small flight department. As good Flight Department Managers, we should be sensitive to our team members, accommodating them within reason.

    With the current demand for private aircraft soaring, finding available cover has become a challenge, however. 

    With full-time piloting jobs readily available, the relatively few pilots who focused exclusively on contract flying are now accepting salaried positions which provide stability, benefits, and longevity.

    Who could blame them? The high cost of training to keep current for the sake of contract work can be prohibitively expensive, especially for Large Jets.

    I recently met a contract pilot who self-funds his training. His annual recurrent costs are $38,000, plus hotels and airlines. Even by applying his daily charge of $1,700, he must work nearly thirty days per annum just to cover his training costs.

    Tips for Hiring a Contract Pilot

    #1: Try before you Buy: Personally, I like to know a contract pilot before engaging them for an actual flight. So, I’m happy to invite and pay for a good prospect – somebody with a flexible or predictable schedule, with good experience, and a friendly demeanor – to fly in via the airlines and spend a day with our team.

    In the grand scheme of things, this is a small expense that will provide good insights into who will be interfacing with our passengers, should we hire them.

    If they prove to be a good fit with our operation, their visit gives us the chance to discuss our basic Standard Operating Procedures, duty assignments, and to work together during an emergency procedures drill before they actually fly with us.

    #2 Obtain Documentation in Advance: As I build my rolodex of contract pilots, I ask them to send me the documentation needed for insurance and international travel requirements.

    Copies of passports, licenses, medical certificate, and other miscellaneous documents are uploaded to our database and we fill all paperwork necessary for our contractors to be paid punctually.

    #3 Be Quick to Pay: Speaking of pay, I always like to make sure that our contract pilots have as few out-of-pocket expenses possible. We purchase airline tickets using our corporate credit card, pay all hotels and meals, and, ideally, invoices should be settled nearly immediately upon the conclusion of the assignment.

    There is nothing better for a contract pilot than to know that a client pays fast.

    It is important to be specific about how and what your Flight Department will pay. In our case - and I believe this should be an industry-wide standard – when booking work days with a contractor, there is a commitment to provide payment, even if the trip is canceled or shortened.

    In the event of a cancelation, negotiate a retainer to be paid. And when coverage is needed for a full week of non-booked trips, negotiate a guarantee for the pilot’s availability and standby time.

    Be prepared to pay from the moment the contract pilot starts working on behalf of your flight department until the moment they walk back through their front door. Resist the temptation to be overly thrifty if you are expecting excellent service in return.

    #4 Specify your Expectations: Give the contract pilot every opportunity to deliver great service by clearly explaining your expectations. We know what excellent corporate pilots do in a perfect world: They fly with proficiency, but also carry and load bags, stock the catering, clean and service the cabin and toilets, and carry out many other small tasks that, added together, deliver outstanding service.

    To hire a contract pilot to just show up and sit in the cockpit will fail to deliver excellence to the passengers, and will most likely cause frustration.

    We must also be sensitive to the fact that a contract pilot will be unaware of our modus operandi, having only been partially indoctrinated in our operations, and they will not know everyone’s peculiarities.

    Their hearing is unlikely to be tuned to your aircraft’s call-sign, so radio answers may be ‘spotty’, initially. And regardless of your thorough briefings and explanations, they may not know all the call-outs and detailed procedures specific to your operation.

    Doubtless, an experienced contract pilot has a ‘chameleonic’ ability to adapt, and will build up to your expectations quickly, however. But, do your part to help, slowing down and clearly explaining your expectations, or what the contract pilot can do to make the flight run smoothly.

    #5 Where to Look for Good Contract Pilots: You may be wondering about the best source for contract pilots. Social media plays a huge role in this. Job boards are also a great place to locate contract crew.

    Beyond personal and social networks and word-of-mouth, however, charter and fractional pilots know their pre-set monthly schedules, and may be able to commit ahead of time, if permitted by their employer.

    In Summary

    Ultimately, an experienced contract pilot may bring new techniques to the table, which can be a benefit to  your flight department, helping you think outside the box.

    During my New Year trip to the Caribbean, the passengers arrived with a substantial number of heavy suitcases, which I doubted would fit the cargo hold. My colleague showed me a novel way of back-filling the cargo, which, in ten years of flying the same aircraft model, I had never seen.

    I now have a new technique that will yield better service to my own principal.

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