- 08 Jul 2022
- Mario Pierobon
- Flight Departments
At a time of labor shortages and diminished service, what is a Flight Department Manager to do to uphold operational excellence? Andre Fodor shares some thoughts and strategies from his own flight operation…Back to Articles
In June, I had the opportunity to attend the Farnborough Airshow. It’s been several years since I last had the chance to attend a major aviation event. Able to crew an airplane on the way to the show, I enjoyed the benefits and flexibility of private travel. The return journey was a different story, though.
The thought of flying on an airline service back home was a cause for anxiety. While I find it easy to transition from pilot into passenger mode, enduring the lower levels of comfort aboard an airliner, the reason for the anxiety was the endless lines that undoubtedly awaited at check-in and security before I could board my flight.
It’s a fact of life today that all industries are suffering from severe labor shortages. Aviation is no exception. We’re operating in a high-demand environment and must learn to cope with the associated challenges.
Staffing Shortages Forcing Plan B
As an example, Jax Center, one of the major Air Traffic Control centers in the US which controls the transition of aircraft from the South quadrant towards the North-East and WATRS airspace, has become clogged by staffing shortages. Traffic is being delayed, particularly during the summer weather and storm season.
The proverbial ‘multi-layered upside-down cake’ airspace, managed by multiple controllers, has flattened as fewer people cope with large swathes of vertical and horizontal real estate. To maintain safety, ATC has no choice but to reduce the number of objects on its screens by accepting less aircraft into the airspace.
Not expecting a short-term solution, our flight department, as well as fractional and charter operators we know, adapt by planning for departure delays. We’re buffering time between trip legs and adding extra fuel for trips within impacted region.
Meanwhile, in the South of France, a combination of understaffing and huge demand has left fuelers overworked and frustrated. Some went on strike during the critical summer months, leaving aircraft waiting in fueling cues and missing valuable departure slots.
As a work-around, ground handlers have warned operators to tanker whenever possible, and attempt to fuel the aircraft days ahead of departure.
Dispatchers, meanwhile, have been getting last-minute calls saying they can no longer fly or park at airports for the lack of available staff to process the airplanes. The norm has become to always have a ‘Plan B’ up your sleeve.
Heading home from Farnborough Airshow, despite arriving at Heathrow five hours before my flight, I nearly missed it. Though I’d checked-in online and there were visibly plenty of available X-Ray machines, only four were fully staffed during that peak time.
Heighten Attention and Proactivity
Indeed, at the Business Aviation ramps, we have also experienced delays for ramp services and a lower level of customer service at the FBO counters. There have been times our aircraft hasn’t been towed to the departure ramp in a timely manner, and our passengers have been left waiting at the FBO for the reduced staff to move bags and people to the waiting aircraft.
Of course, it takes time to hire, perform the required background checks, and train ramp staff. We’re left with no choice but to be prepared to fill these shortfalls in service and be proactive in our preparation.
Whether it’s arriving earlier at the FBO, being thorough in our communication with passengers, heightening our attention to detail so our airplanes aren’t damaged by hurried or inexperienced hands, the key words are ‘attention’ and ‘proactivity’.
Today, aircraft maintenance facilities are already filled with squawks, AOGs and inspections of new and pre-owned aircraft. The influx of new business aircraft owners has exacerbated a drain of experienced talent within the service centers. Today, MRO facilities find themselves thin on experience and tasks are taking longer to complete as a result.
There’s no short-term solution, and, again, we have no choice but build in longer downtimes for maintenance. By facing the realities and factoring it in as a part of our schedules, we can be proactive in backing up those longer downtimes with supplemental lift.
Thinking Outside the Box
We’ve discussed the shortage of pilots before. The airlines have started sponsoring qualified pilots for immigration. While that process is slow and complex, it shows the eagerness of companies to find labor beyond the traditional paths, including starting ab-initio programs to train their future cockpit crew.
Meanwhile, Business Aviation continues to bleed talent, which is moving into the airline industry. If we are to retain crew with the experience and qualifications to safely operate complex corporate aircraft, we need to start thinking like the ‘big guys’.
Some changes are already happening. Corporate pilots are starting to find commutable jobs, where major uprooting is no longer necessary. And flight operations are becoming better at forecasting aircraft utilization, hiring more staff to enable a rotating schedule where round-the-clock staffing is needed.
Today’s pilots are more empowered to negotiate their professional contracts, including severance pay and multi-year guarantees of salary, and benefits in the event the flight operation ends. Frankly, some of these benefits have been a long time coming.
Crew retention, and the formation of new, well-trained corporate pilots is critical to maintaining an unblemished safety record. As managers we need to practice stewardship towards great working conditions which are fair and reasonable.
My approach to dealing with high demand times is simple: Engage and develop a strong, cohesive team. Select the best talent and empower people to be protective and invested in the operation’s success.
As part of your talent retention strategy, develop personal growth plans that include professional and personal achievements. And stay sharp, planning for the unpredictability of our support network – whether relating to parts availability or the shortcomings of airspace and airports during these challenging, but exciting times.
As Flight Department Managers, we’re responsible for thinking outside the box, and developing flexible alternatives that can still deliver excellence and a strong business plan. That’s what I call effective management!
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