Flight Departments: Planning Ahead in Unpredictable Times

With all of the unknowns clouding the coming year, how can flight department managers plan for the future? This is no time for deferring decisions relating to future operations, as Andre Fodor’s examples highlight…

Andre Fodor  |  16th November 2020
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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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A Gulfstream business jet lands at a remote regional US airport

As the end of a wholly unpredictable year approaches, I am faced with the challenging task of trying to forecast and plan for 2021. Typically, a new Flight Department budget looks ahead to identify possible cost increases. That’s harder to anticipate during times such as these.

Our budget will impact critical decisions regarding fleet expansion, fiscal taxation, and ultimately, aircraft usage. For some who are making the same forecasts, their decisions could impact the viability of their entire flight department.

In my consultancy role, I have been peppered with questions regarding acquisitions, management and maintenance. Everyone seems to be seeking guidance during this period of intense uncertainty.

It is important to accept and adapt to changes in this industry, seeking to embrace the challenges head-on. It is certainly possible to transform encumbrance into advantage, adventure and growth.

As one mentor taught me, aviation is a business of motion – those who can’t move and change with it may have to jump off the ship. Our industry is neither for the faint-hearted or the settled spirit.

Be Proactive About the Year Ahead

As I look towards 2021, I see both opportunities and hurdles. Forward-planning and savvy thinking will be the key to a flight department’s survival. This is certainly not the time to sit idly by, leaving the big decisions to be resolved later. Allow me to illustrate from my own recent experiences…

Just recently, I received a call from my base FBO manager who wanted to discuss the renewal of our hangar contract. This was nothing unusual – it is the right time of year when we expect such conversations to begin. What did catch my attention was the number of cc’d email addresses attached to the message. Clearly there was great interest.

At the meeting, there were several people present in addition to the manager who typically works with me on the annual renewal. Within 30 seconds, I could tell they were looking to offset losses with hangar rental increases (in our case, a 30% increase).

It doesn’t require a crystal ball to foresee other increases ahead, with insurance almost certainly next in line (I’ve been forewarned to expect at least a 20% correction in addition to last year’s steep insurance hike). 

The reality is, at a time like this there’s no sensitivity to market preservation when people are focused on survival.

As another example of the need for advanced planning: I usually schedule pilot recurrent training two years in advance. This time I spent several weeks trying to find out who the account manager and the training scheduler were. With the coronavirus, there had been many furloughs and staff consolidations, and some positions remained ‘void’ of ownership.

When I finally found someone to answer the phone, they had changed roles within two weeks of my first contact. This was naturally a cause for anxiety. Aircraft cannot fly without proficient and current crew aboard.

Here's why you should plan ahead for business aircraft usage in 2021

When you call a training facility asking for an account manager and the switchboard tells you that they don’t know who this person is, alarm bells start ringing. Beware: Challenges are everywhere. Be proactive in handling your operational needs.

Finally, as one of our aircraft approaches its five-year mark and its first major inspection, we have been obtaining quotes and scheduling for the past eight months, ensuring we have a slot reserved and that all work is clearly documented and in the hands of the leadership at the service center.

Originally, the estimated time for completion was 28 days, with a few extra added as a cushion. Recently we received a revised estimate extending the work to 45 days, since furloughs had reduced staffing, with fewer hands available to work on the aircraft.

The message is clear: If you’re late with scheduling your upcoming maintenance there is a strong chance your aircraft will be grounded while you wait for space and personnel to become available to work on your airplane.

Plan ahead, and look for maintenance locations that lower demand. You may be able to negotiate incentives (such as lower shop rates, fuel credits, hotels and meals for you to fly your aircraft further to their facility).

Stay alert. There have been disruptions everywhere, and people might not be as sharp and focused as usual. When attending a maintenance center, look out for hangar mishaps and be sure that your airplane is well protected from static incidents that can damage and diminish value.

What are the Positives?

Charter inquiries and quotes have increased. Most charter and fractional flying is non-business, currently. When business flying ticks upward, expect to see further growth in these segments.

New aircraft sales have slowed, but inquiries and interest are both high. My hope is that once the pandemic eases and the fall-out from the US Presidential election is over, the industry will rebound faster. For those who can afford private flight, the airlines will continue to lose appeal due to health fears, service shrinkage, and fewer direct flights.

In Summary

Hopefully, the preceding paragraphs have highlighted that this is no time to ‘wait and see’. Now is the time for planning, diligence and preparation. A crucial part of your job is to keep the principal informed and educated, helping them accept the “new normal” of our industry for 2021.

That requires your radar to be tuned in to how the current challenges will impact the availability and cost of the services they need. Beneath this thick foam of disruption there’s still a workforce of highly competent professionals. We have all suffered disruptions but we remain ready and willing to deliver excellent service.

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Read More About: Operating Costs | Flight Planning | Aircraft Ownership

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